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Are You Sending Mixed Messages?


If this question were asked of your children, ages 14-19, what do you think their answer would be?

What do you believe your mother and father most expect of you, personal achievement – excellence in school or sports, or that you are kind and you care for others?  (you can pick only one)

In a national survey of 10,000 middle and high school students conducted by Harvard University, 80% of students said their parents value success over character.  (

Not my kids! I’ll bet your first reaction was like mine. “Not my kids!  I’m sure they would think doing good and being good is more important to Susan and me than hard work and achievement!”

Our children are 10-25 years out of school, so I guess I’ll never know.  But if you have children or grandchildren in this age group, please consider these insightful observations and recommendations by the surveyors. (The Christian comments and suggestions are mine.) 1. There is a reality gap. Students observed that there is a gap is between what parents say their top priorities are, and the real messages they convey by their behavior day to day.  Said many students, “my parents nag me about grades all the time, but never about being more kind or generous, except to my brothers or sisters.”

So, is that true in your life?  Do your children know their multiplication tables, but couldn’t recite the fruits of the spirit or the 10 Commandments?

2. Children and youth need ongoing opportunities to practice caring and helpfulness.  Doing volunteer work with your children in your church or community, not only demonstrates what you value, but shows them how to be kind and generous.

Here is a personal observation; doing weekly, year-round activities and ministry does more to develop godly character than one-off activities like serving the homeless on Thanksgiving or doing a river clean up.  If we wanted academic success for our children we wouldn’t, hire a tutor for one day or an evening.  As I said in The 10 Second Rule, “Christian character is shaped less by your big dramatic decisions than by the cumulative impact of thousands of small acts of simple obedience.”  Look for sustainable serving opportunities for your children.

3. Your children are listening to what you talk about the most. If they overhear parents talk to your friends most about who has what, or who has achieved what, they’ll get the point.  You admire winners.  On the other hand if your primary comments are about people you admire, centered on their character and virtues, they’ll figure out very quickly, that character counts most to you.

4. Praise character more often than achievement.  When your son or daughter comes home from a sports event they’ve been playing in, what’s your first question?  “What was the score?”  As a grandparent I’ve had to retrain myself to consciously not ask that question.  Instead, consider asking;

  1. Did you have a good time?

  2. How do you feel you did?

  3. Who’s the kid on the team you admire the most?

  4. What do you like most about your coach?

  5. Oh, by the way, what was the score?

5. Choose sports coaches who value character formation over winning.  Our daughters all had the same tennis coach in high school.  Every year he told the team “I’d love for us to win, but if we have a good time, practice hard and play our best, with integrity, we will have already won!”  It frustrated some parents in this Christian school that their coach didn’t have enough ambition to push winning.  But, Susan and I were happy to have this coach teach our daughters that winning isn’t everything.

Summary:  I’m guessing that most of us were raised by parents who valued success.  We picked it up every day.  It wasn’t wrong – but it was out of balance.  For that to change in your children’s lives, it will require you to be very intentional about retraining yourself to praise character over achievements.  Beg God for wisdom to do better.

“To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”  Teddy Roosevelt

How following Jesus works in real life.

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