As our students begin to return to school after months away due to the disruption of COVID-19 plus summer vacation, many educators and families are concerned about how can students have a successful return to the classroom, whether physical or virtual. Specifically, they wonder how teachers will handle behavioral issues that may arise, given the lack of structure students likely experienced and the normal challenges of returning to the classroom environment and routines after an extended hiatus. We can answer this question best by answering another one—when it comes to students, are we seeking to build character, or are we just looking for compliance?
One of the most famous stories ever told is the story of two brothers. It’s most commonly known as The Prodigal Son—though my favorite name for it is The Running Father. It’s the story of a lost son which can be found in a collection of stories in Luke 15, where Jesus discusses the subject of lost things. In this story, it’s not just the one son that was lost—there were two sons and they were both lost. The youngest, often referred to as the prodigal, leaves home and no doubt makes some poor choices (understatement). By the end of the story, he has returned home a little more self-aware, humble, and ready to serve—which is the birthplace of character.
Character isn’t something that comes to us at birth, it’s something that comes to us through practice. It requires the practice of making decisions and choosing to make ones that benefit both ourselves and those around us. Character is the ability to choose well, no matter the pressure we’re under, and no matter the “unmet need” we might perceive. It knows how to lead in difficult times. Character knows what a healthy choice looks like, and it knows this from experiencing the impact of free will. It is of course possible to learn from others’ mistakes, to find wisdom in the testimony of others’ choices. In the story of Luke, there was no doubt a healthier path available to the younger son. Nevertheless, we all need the freedom to practice our ability to choose—and it can be messy.
At first glance, the older brother seemed to have exemplary character, appearing to be the proverbial son, always present, even working in the fields when the younger son returns. Later in the story, during his brother’s homecoming celebration, we get a window into his heart. He becomes angry, describes his work as slavery, and calls his younger brother “your son” (not “my brother”). In this moment, his motives were exposed. What we thought was character, was actually compliance.
Compliance Versus Character
Compliance is the cheap counterfeit of character. It can often look like character, but it’s actually fear—which is the absence of love. Character is built in love and in partnership with the person of love. Compliance is built in the path of least resistance. Compliance can be a good thing, especially in a classroom, but it always falls short of character.
Sometimes we think we’re building character, but what happens when we leave the room? Do children still make the same choice? Compliance is rooted in the fear of man, whereas character comes from the fear of God. Compliance fears stepping out of line, while character faces the fear of stepping out. Compliance doesn’t require self-awareness, yet character is the overflow of healthy identity. For at the heart of character is the belief that oneself is powerful and kind.
The Pathway to Character
If we want to build character in the children within our schools, we have to reduce fear in our classrooms. Often, it can be there without our awareness. How do we manage our boundaries and expectations? Is intimidation or punishment a tool we find ourselves reaching for?
Although fear might produce compliance, this isn’t even the first step toward character—it’s a step in the wrong direction. Character requires practice and practice requires the ability to make good and bad decisions. That means as the key culture-setters of our classrooms and schools, we need to find a way of maintaining order while honoring a child that chooses poorly. And that’s because children shouldn’t fear you when they have chosen poorly, but rather perhaps they fear a consequence of what they’ve chosen.
What would happen if the father in the story didn’t let the younger son choose? After all, it is an outlandish thing for a father to do—to let a son choose poorly. But perhaps that’s like God; when God created the world, he created two trees. He was the One that created the option to choose. Not only that, He put the poor choice in the middle of the garden. He didn’t even hide it. He asked Adam and Eve to not choose that tree; however, He didn’t anxiously hover by them ready to create a diversion if they got close to eating it. He didn’t rush in and stop them. He put the tree in the garden and gave them the freedom to choose. And choose they did.
God is incredibly secure. He can handle our decisions. He can handle our outrage against Him as we experience the negative consequences of what we may have chosen. He knows that, should we choose it, pain and practice are what build character. He stretches out his hands in kindness over and over, just like the father of the story who runs toward the son. It’s his kindness in the midst of our pain that leads us to change our minds. Would the younger son, were he to be given the money another time, make the same mistake twice? His choices hurt him and upon feeling the impact of that hurt he returned home, he repented, and changed his mind. As British psychologist Edward de Bono said, “If you never change your mind, why have one?” How do we get kids to change their mind? Part of the answer has to be to let them practice.
Implications for Our Schools
So how do we create a school where children get to grow in character? Dare we really remove punishment? It can sound a little scary, as sometimes it feels like it’s the only tool we’ve got. Although punishment and consequence can feel like the same thing to the child/perpetrator, they come from a different heart posture in us. Empathy is possible with consequence, but it often leaves the room with punishment. Although it might take a little longer, especially at the start of the year, it creates a culture which begins to create its own momentum. It whispers, “We build powerful people here.” Punishment has to do with control, but control is a mirage; we can’t control people, not even children. On a good day we can only control one person: ourselves. The one and only tool alongside love is consequence. There’s nothing that educates like a negative consequence, especially when we’re alongside someone who believes in us.
This leaves children free to choose and choosing is the most sacred thing we can do. Before Adam ate the fruit, he chose. Before we pray, we choose to move toward God. Before denying forgiveness from someone, we choose to move away from God. Before we speak or move or ponder, we choose. Choices build momentum and the name we give to that momentum is character. The best thing we can do for the children in our school is to point toward a healthy choice, allow them to make their own decisions, and honor them regardless. And if they choose poorly, let them feel the impact. We don’t want to swoop in and save them from their consequences while they grow in understanding. When they’ve felt enough pain to change their mind and they’re humble enough to admit that a U-turn is the best way forward, be sure to run toward them.
The father in the story shows us the most incredible image of what it means to parent well. He allows the poor choice and he’s there to redeem us at the point of return. He is always kind, not easily angered, and he keeps no record of wrongs. He always hopes, always perseveres. He shows us what it looks like to build character, which looks a lot like love.
NOTE: This post was originally published in September 2020 and reposted in August 2022.
About the Author
Dave Hill is the founder of HeartSmart, which has been quickly adopted by over 400 elementary schools around the world to help create a healthy school climate. It equips teachers with a fun tool that enables children to grow in character and emotional health, while developing a compassionate internal dialogue. Prior to this, Dave worked as a children’s pastor for over a decade, trained teachers in growth mindset, and produced children’s television content. Originally from the United Kingdom, He now lives in Northern California with his wife, Jules, and two daughters. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.