Building Our Children’s Character

I love hiking in New England, especially in the fall.  Enormous sugar maples, towering pines, granite cliffs, sandy beaches, and scenic vistas dot the entire region.  I love the quixotic rock walls that crisscross nearly every landscape, plunging off even into the deepest woods.  When we first moved to the region, I must admit that I was baffled as to why anyone would labor so hard to build a rock wall in the middle of the woods.  It didn’t take long and only a few snickers for a New England native to point out to this Midwestern foreigner that the rock walls had been built after old growth forests had been cleared for farmland by the first generation of European settlers, but before new growth forests had reclaimed the land when subsequent generations of farmers had packed up their wagons and rolled westward to the less rocky Ohio River Valley and beyond.

Looking at the woods with this new knowledge, I could see that many of the mature trees were completely bent around the rock walls, something that could only happen if the walls pre-dated the saplings.  Hiking along with the family one day, daydreaming about the lifespan of the rock walls, and it occurred to me that parenting or building our children’s character is in many ways like building a rock wall.  There are three steps to both processes:

  1. Step one is to pick the rocks out of the field.  Early settlers labored intensely to pick the rocks out of their fields by hand.  These rocks could only be good if they were on the sides of the fields, not in the middle.  In parenting terms these rocks represent the characteristic traits we handpick to teach our children.  Examples of character traits are obedience, truthfulness, faithfulness, resourcefulness, generosity, and diligence, and every family will consciously or unconsciously emphasis those traits they consider to be most important.
  2. Step two is to stack the rocks in a line, making a recognizable boundary.  In farming, rock walls were established to mark land boundaries and to contain farm animals.  In parenting terms, rock walls symbolize the collection of rules we establish in our home in order to teach the handpicked character traits of step one.  Family rules include things like bedtimes, household chores, eating habits, allowance, church attendance, and writing thank — you notes.  If we picture our children as livestock (an image to which some may object and with which others may heartily agree), we can easily see that family rules that are well thought out and consistently applied are like rocks arranged in a wall.  They are useful and loving boundaries, which can safely contain growing children.
  3. Step three is to maintain the established rock wall.  In farming this means regular trips around the perimeter of one’s property to repair any breaches in the walls.  In parenting terms, this means deciding on the methods of discipline we will use to enforce the family rules we established in step two.  Methods of discipline include deciding how to communicate family rules, how to motivate our kids to follow them, and what to do if the rules are broken.  Specific examples include things like time-outs, spankings, and posting charts of a child’s responsibilities. Regularly reinforcing family rules and establishing routine consequences for any breaches helps to keep the entire system of discipline intact and working smoothly.

Like rocks scattered haphazardly throughout farm fields, sometimes-taught character traits or sometimes-enforced rules are not helpful in the cultivation and growth of our children’s character.  Like building a rock wall, parenting as I’ve described it here initially involves a lot of backbreaking, mind-bending, time-consuming labor, but the results are lasting.  When I hike through the New England woods, I praise God for the omnipresent rock walls.  Steadfast, silent reminders of an era gone by, they encourage me to choose well, to assemble in an orderly fashion, and to apply consistently the character traits I want fixed in my children long after I am gone from their daily lives.

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