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The real key to helping kids build character

Child Climbing Ladder
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It actually has nothing to do with making them do unpleasant tasks.

I don’t know about y’all, but I grew up hearing that lots of things “built character.” Sweeping built character. Playing outside when it was hot built character. Getting cast as a boy in a play again built character.

I wasn’t even sure what “character” was, but knowing I was building so much of it was not a great comfort in my formative years. I swore, at the tender age of 11, that I wouldn’t repeat that line with my children.

Like most solemn vows I took in childhood, that one didn’t last long. My children have been reluctantly “building character” for years now. But it wasn’t until recently that I saw what it looks like when a child actually builds character — and, spoiler alert: it requires intentional parental input. (Throwing a sponge their way doesn’t count.)

Parents magazine recently featured one of those “5 Ways to help your kid build character” posts, and I recognized my husband and son all over this entry for teaching confidence:

Provide children with age-appropriate challenges and let them work through frustration to meet them, whether they’re attempting the climbing wall at the park or learning how to tie their shoes. Stand by but resist the urge to step in uninvited or voice your own frustrations or fears. Supporting kids while they check off their accomplishments builds their confidence to tackle bigger ones.

Our oldest son, Liam, has always been timid, even fearful. He was never a climber, a runner, an athlete — really, anything physical intimidated him. He did worksheets for fun, built Legos nonstop, and spent afternoons reorganizing his Pokemon cards.

I say did because now he climbs the literal walls for fun. Inspired by Liam’s interest in American Ninja Warrior, my husband began spotting him while he hesitantly tried to imitate some obstacles from the show. The very first time, I got nervous about Liam slipping and falling and said as much — and was promptly banned from the climbing process.

See, my fear infected Liam, who began to hesitate. Then he said, “Dad, I’m going to fall. I’ll hit my head. I’m scared.”

So my husband helped him come down, then encouraged him to try again (after kicking me out of the room). This time, Liam climbed all the way up to the ceiling.

Soon he was climbing by himself, with no fear. My husband had to put painters’ tape on the walls to limit how high he could climb, but no one thought to put tape on the trees. I began finding this kid, who had never climbed a tree in his life, up trees everywhere we went.

He climbs everything now, all the time. Instead of swinging or sliding at the park, he works on his fingertip and grip strength and climbs the rock wall using only his arms. He has literally transformed from a child afraid of the world to a little daredevil — all because his father believed in him.

Watching my son not just build but transform his character like this has been amazing. Watching the quiet, steady way my husband has instilled confidence in our son has been miraculous. For the first time, I understand that building character in a child doesn’t mean making them deal with unpleasant tasks — it means having faith in your kids and investing your time and energy in teaching them to have faith in themselves.

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