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Teaching Teens Character

One of the most important things we parents can do is to teach our kids to make good choices.  But good choices can be counter-intuitive.  So, how can they be taught  when the immediate rewards are usually on the side of making bad choices?

Many parents fall into the trap of thinking that good character will happen by default or that someone else will teach it to their kids.  They may enroll their kids in a Christian school, take them to church, and encourage participation in the youth group.  They may seemingly do “all the right things” yet still find their children lacking in character as they become more independent.

What is going wrong?  Perhaps they should look more at their own actions than their teen’s, because as the old saying goes, “More things are caught than taught.”  So much of what we teach our children when it comes to character development—good or bad—is modeled rather than spoken.  Integrity, honor, grace, sensitivity, wisdom, work ethic and more—the things that make up good character—do not happen by accident nor are they taught from textbooks.  They are the end result of seeing good character in their parents, day in and day out.

Our kids watch us to see if we keep our promises to them and to others.  They see us when our guard is down, when we’re in public and private.  They know whether we show grace or vengeance to those who hurt us.  They hear what we say about others and how we resolve our own conflicts.  They see our work ethic “up close and personal.” And they watch to see where we turn when life gets us down.

If you have some work to do in regard to modeling good character, let me share with you some ways to intentionally work on it with your teenager.

Clearly identify a set of beliefs and values for your home.

The first step is to have a clear picture in mind of your own family values, and share that picture with your kids.  I know one family that actually painted their family values on the wall over the staircase.  Every person who walked into that house could quickly and clearly see what they were all about; character issues like honesty, integrity, care for others, dependence on God and respect. And of course, the kids can see them every time they go up and down the stairs.  Developing a list — keep it to no more than ten items — and then making it so it is seen as many times each day as possible will remind your kids what’s really important in regard to their character.

Intentionally model your own decisions.

When character issues come up, gather the kids around to help you decide, pointing to the values your family is living by.  Being practical about sharing your own decisions will help your teens make similar decisions in the future.  For instance, suppose you were shopping and you discover later that the checkout clerk gave you too much change in return.  Ask your kids what they think you should do with the windfall, pointing to honesty and integrity as important values of your family.  Hopefully they will all agree that the right thing to do is to return the overage.  If not, you know you have some work to do.  Yes, it will likely cost you more in gas money to return to the store than the few cents to be returned, but the lesson your kids will learn can be priceless.

Ask for forgiveness when you blow it.

At one time in my life I was shocked by the number of parents who never apologize to their children for anything; today I almost expect it.  Modeling how to apologize may be the single most important lesson you teach your teenager.  When you blow it, and you will, they already know it. So by failing apologize and take responsibility for your bad choice in front of your teen, you teach them that you really don’t believe or live up to your own standards.  I said earlier that bad character can be “caught” as easily as good character, but I think that bad character on a parent’s part can be a stronger lesson.  It can write a permanent scar on a child’s future character if the parent fails to owns up to their error and ask forgiveness for modeling a bad decision.

Don’t over-shelter.

All of us want to protect our kids.  That’s a good and important impulse, but it can be carried too far.  By the time your children are teenagers, they need to have experienced situations that required them to stand up on their own two feet.  Of course I’m not suggesting you throw them to the wolves.  But they must learn, and nothing strengthens character like adversity.  The flight simulator can only take a future pilot so far.  Sooner or later they need to take off for real, with a trained pilot at their side; and eventually they will be prepared to take their first solo flight.

Help them choose ahead of time — role-play.

In the heat of the moment, when temptation is strong, it’s hard to do what’s right.  The Bible says that Daniel “purposed in his heart” not to do wrong before he was put to the test.  Much of the disconnect between what good kids are taught at home and at church and how they act can be traced to the fact that they never practiced the decision they would make in certain situations.  So, encourage your kids to settle their moral decisions ahead of time.  Do this by role-playing certain situations they may run into. For instance, suppose your teen is offered pot.  What will they say?  How will they save face with their friends, while also not giving in? When a teenager is cornered by their friends without thinking through a response in advance, they are more likely to make wrong decisions. So work through possible scenarios with your teens as to how they could properly respond to various temptations.

Remind them that failure isn’t final.

If failure were final, no one would ever learn to walk, or ride a bike, or drive a car.  We want our kids to always make the right choice, but they won’t.  So it’s vitally important to teach your children that when they fall, they can ask forgiveness, get back up and do right going forward. No one is perfect, and neither will they be.  Some teens, with their short outlook on life, become convinced they can never recover from what they have done.  They may think what they’ve done is unforgivable, or that their life is ruined; they may even consider suicide.

Poor choices can leave scars, but they don’t have to be life-defining unless we allow them to be. So, encourage your teen that each new day can be a fresh new start.  Teach them to leave their burdens and failures at the cross, for God came to Earth to offer such way out and to lift them back up, no matter how many times they fall.

In summary, let’s be intentional about teaching teenagers character, and focus on that rather than correcting non-character-related issues.  Talk to your teen about the importance of doing right even if no one else does — even when the media glorifies wrong choices. The world we remember growing up — one that taught good character — is gone. Today, bad character is more popular, more glorified, and more rewarding (for the moment).  So sitting back and thinking your teen will learn good character on their own or from others isn’t realistic.  It must be taught and modeled by you.

We talked about this issue in-depth on our radio program a week ago titled “Teens Making Good Choices.”  To listen online look for the program dated June 18, 2011 at

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit, or to read other articles by Mark, visit

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.