First, Character

A modern proverb that we hear frequently is “Don’t compare your kids to other kids.”  It truly is an important piece of advice because every child is different, and each develops at a different pace.  Homeschooling, however, makes following that advice extra difficult, I think.  Since our kids aren’t in a school where all the kids of a particular age are being presented the same material at the same time, we homeschooling parents wonder at times, “Am I teaching what he should be learning right now?”  “Do I have him on track with others his age?”  We homeschooling parents aren’t trying to make a better than/less than judgement call, but just evaluating our own academic plan for our children, compared with what other children are learning.

Of course, in our current society, academics are ranked as Top Priority.  It seems like kids now are learning material a year or two earlier than I did in school.  Even at the kindergarten level, I remember all year learning about the Letter People – focusing on one letter each week.  Mrs. Blakeman’s kindergarten class with the inflatable Letter People hanging from the ceiling is a cherished memory of mine!  But now it seems as though children are expected to know all of the letters by the time they start kindergarten – kindergarten is now time to learn how to read.  (Please correct me if I’m wrong on that.)

The funny thing about that to me is that children are pushed to higher levels of academics at earlier ages, and yet character development is barely in the picture.  Personal responsibility, hard work, perseverance…those seem to have been thrown out the window.  I’ve heard stories of parents contacting their child’s college professors because the work is too hard.  A friend of mine who is a college professor was telling me recently that his students don’t know how to read for comprehension – they can only scan for specific information to answer a specific question.

Last summer as we were preparing for Drama Queen to begin piano lessons, her teacher gave me some assigned reading so I could learn about the Suzuki method.  One quote (from Shinichi Suzuki’s book, Nutured By Love) stood out to me:  “First character, then ability.”  If I remember correctly, it was the motto of his childhood school, and it had a big impact on him.  It really spoke to me as well – to the point that I made it our school motto.

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We love academics around here, we really do.  Drama Queen has made huge improvement in her reading skills over the past few weeks, which is very fun and exciting.  Plus, she is practically giddy over learning any math I put in front of her.  Mr. Bang, meanwhile, isn’t all that interested in his own work, but eats up anything I do with Drama Queen.  When I give her math challenges just in normal day-to-day situations, he almost always spits out the (correct) answer before she even has a chance.  In addition, my little first grade girly-girl has gotten herself interested in some of the major American wars, so at her request, we’re spending this semester focusing on one war a month:  Revolutionary, Civil, WWI and WWII.  Academics are fun; we love learning new things!

However, I regularly emphasize to my children that academics are not the number one priority.  Your character is what really determines what your quality of life will be and what impact you will have on others.  Because of this, I don’t want to leave character development to chance; I want it to be an integral part of the learning that happens in our home.  Last spring at the Great Homeschool Convention (which is much better than its cheesy name implies), I went to a session with Sonya Shafer of Simply Charlotte Mason, focusing on character development.  Her recommendation was to spend a few months really focusing on developing one character trait, which is the approach we are taking.

There are a few different things we do to help develop the trait we’re focusing on.  For one thing, I bought Shafer’s book, Laying Down the Rails, which is a great parent resource to understand what are appropriate expectations within a particular character trait.  I see that she also has one now for children that includes stories and activities and such to help motivate children to develop each character trait.  I don’t have that one yet, but I am certainly intrigued.  (If you have it, what do you think?)

I also bought a We Choose Virtues kit with fun posters to display as we focus on a particular trait.  With each new one we focus on, I hang the larger poster in the upstairs hallway, between their bedrooms.  We keep the smaller cards in the dining room and frequently use lunch time to review them.

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I read lots of stories to them, stories which highlight that particular character trait.  My favorite sources are the Bible and The Book of Virtues, but of course, there are many other good sources.  Two others that we use frequently are My ABC Bible Verses and A Child’s Book of Character Building.

There was one other idea that I received back in February when I was visiting my former church in Virginia.  This idea was sent home with all the parents as a way to continue what the kids were learning at church, and I loved it!  Six months later, I have finally made my adapted version for my family.

Character flowers

We’re using these face flowers as a way to encourage us to watch for the current character trait in each other.  Each morning, the flowers start out flat on the table.  As one of us sees another family demonstrating the focus-area character trait, we get to put that person’s flower in the pot.  During dinner, we are able to share how we saw family members demonstrating that trait.  For instance, right now we’re focusing on one trait a week, reviewing the three we emphasized last year.  This week our character trait is obedience.  When Mr. Bang put his dishes away after breakfast without being reminded, he was showing obedience, so his flower went in the pot.  When Drama Queen put her clean clothes in her dresser as soon as I told her to, Ethan saw that she was demonstrating obedience, so he put her flower in the pot.  Now, obedience is a little different from honesty or self-control or others, because you have to be showing obedience to someone in authority over you.  As Christians, The Brain and I believe that our obedience is to our Lord, so we had the kids brainstorm with us what it looks like when we are being obedient to God.  They are able to watch for those things (disciplining in a calm manner instead of yelling, teaching them diligently, working hard to provide for the family, etc.) to be able to put our flowers in the pot.

The Brain and I took some time at the beginning of this school year to list our highest goals for our children.  Academics, of course, were in the list, but at the very top was that they grow into adults of strong character.  The thing about character development is that all children are constantly learning the level of character that is expected of them.  We want to be intentional about our children’s character development so that positive character traits become just a natural part of who they are.  Charlotte Mason made a great statement about that:

“Every day, every hour, the parents are either passively or actively forming those habits in their children upon which, more than upon anything else, future character and conduct depend.”

What do you do to develop strong character habits in your children?   Are there any relevant children’s books that you recommend?


Birthday Celebration, Montessori Style

Last week was a very exciting week in our house:  BIRTHDAY WEEK!!  We make a big deal about birthdays around here.  It actually started just because Drama Queen’s birthday is one day before my birthday, so we naturally did several special things together during the week of our birthdays.  Now we’ve made it a tradition that whenever we have a birthday in the family, we do something special every day that week.

I’ll share all our fun experiences from this Birthday Week shortly, but first let me describe the “Montessori Style” part of it.  Montessori Primary (ages 3-6) classrooms have a really unique way of celebrating a student’s birthday, and I love it!  Every Montessori Primary classroom has a large ellipse taped or painted on the floor, which is used for a few different things.  One of those is the birthday celebration.  The children sit behind the ellipse for the celebration.  A lit candle is placed in the middle to represent the sun, and the birthday child, holding a small globe, walks along the ellipse.  For each “lap” around the ellipse, the teacher describes what new skills the child developed during each year of his life.  It’s a really neat visual representation of how the earth travels around the sun one time each year.

I’ve wanted to do this as part of my own children’s birthday celebrations, but I always get stressed and overwhelmed and don’t get that part organized.  This year, I did.  Since none of the children at Mr. BANG’s party have been part of a Montessori class or experienced this type of birthday celebration (including my own) I wasn’t sure how it would go, or how Mr. BANG would handle it, but I really felt like it went well!

Before the party, I had used blue packing tape to make a circle on our living room floor.  At the appropriate point in the party, I gathered all the children over to the circle and guided them to sit behind the line.  (It took a bit of effort to help the younger ones understand that they weren’t supposed to be on the line!)  I was also behind the line, and I had Mr. BANG stand in front of me on the line.  The Brain lit the candle in the middle as I stated that the candle represented the sun.  I handed Mr. BANG the globe and very briefly explained that the globe was a model of the earth and that the earth goes around the sun each year.

I told the group that three years ago, something very exciting happened to Mr. BANG’s Mommy and Daddy.  I told about a new baby being born, and how excited Mommy, Daddy, and Big Sis were.  I shared the full name that Mommy and Daddy gave the baby boy.

At this point I prompted Mr. BANG to start slowly walking around the circle.  He took me very literally at first – he was walking so slowly, you could hardly tell he was moving!  As I sped him up slightly, I told about his first year:  learning to lift his head, roll over, and smile; loving to sleep against Mommy or Daddy, etc.  I had put together a collection of photos for each year, so I showed that as I spoke.  When Mr. BANG made it back to me, I said, “And then he was one.”  We continued the same process for the next two years.  When I said, “And now he is three,” we all sang “Happy Birthday” to him.  He was awesome with walking along the circle – he walked slowly and meticulously placed each foot along the way – but when we sang, he just crumpled against me!  It was pitifully sweet!  The Brain commented later that it was probably the loud sound that he was reacting to.  (Loud sounds from others are much different than loud sounds from himself, of course!)


All in all, I was very pleased with how his Montessori birthday celebration went.  The other children seemed really engaged and were listening and watching intently, and Mr. BANG seemed to feel very special by it.

Now, as for the rest of the week prior to the party, here are the special activities we did…


We went to a nearby bouncy house that we’ve been to just one time before.  Of course, both children had a wonderful time running and bouncing.  Drama Queen made friends with another four-year-old girl, so they created a long-lasting game where Mr. BANG was the bear trying to catch them.  For probably half the time we were there, he literally was running around the place (and climbing and sliding and all that) waving his arm and yelling, “Bang!  Bang!  Bang!  Bang!”  I never realized that bears hunted by yelling “bang” – but now I do!



On Tuesday, God surprised us with a rare November Tennessee snow, so our special activity was playing in the snow!  It doesn’t get any better than that!  Okay, so it really wasn’t very much snow at all, but to Mr. BANG and Drama Queen, it was the best snow ever!  It was enough that we were able to take a nice snowy hike through the woods by our house down to a little stream.  They loved it!



Mr. BANG’s request for Wednesday was to make a repeat visit to one of our favorite places – the aquarium.  We go all the time, but it never gets old!  Mr. BANG is all about the sharks, so we wandered around the ocean area observing the sharks, sea turtles, and the always fascinating jellyfish.  We even paused to watch the diver show, which my children normally want to run (literally) right past.  It’s partway down a long, zig-zagging ramp, and that ramp is probably 80% of the reason my kids always want to go “see the sharks”!



Thursday was cake-making day.  Both of my children started helping make cakes when they were around 14 or 15 months old, so by this point, they’re old pros.  Since I was making a two-tiered cake (for the first time!), I set each of them up to make their own cake.  I had all the ingredients measured out and lined up in order – and let them go to work.  For the first time, I got to be their helper instead of them being my helper!  It was awesome letting them have that experience of making their own cake, with just a little help from Mommy!  Afterwards, they both had that air of confidence, knowing, “I made that cake!”




We started the day with streamers over his door, an idea I got from my friend Amber.  He was really confused at first.  He just stood there and asked, “What do I do?”  Once he got the hang of it, though, he kept running back and forth through the streamers, getting more and more excited.  It culminated in him running circles in his bedroom for about ten minutes singing one particular song he made up.

Friday was probably the most exciting of all because that’s when we got to go have lunch with Daddy at his office!  Both children always love going into Daddy’s special world where he spends his days.  AND there’s a giant fish tank at Daddy’s office, so having lunch while watching the fish is quite a treat as well!


Friday also was his actual birthday.  Instead of sitting and opening all the presents at once, we spread presents throughout the day so the child can take time to enjoy each one.  First thing in the morning, he opened one from Mommy and Daddy and the gift from Drama Queen (they always give each other a new book of their choosing).  At Daddy’s office, he opened another gift.  After nap, he opened the two gifts from extended family members, and after dinner he opened his last gift from us.  (That one is a card game that I will have to tell you about later – it’s awesome!!)


Saturday was his birthday party with friends.  It turned out to be an absolutely gorgeous day, so we spent much of it outside.  I don’t do organized party games at this point.  I set out limited toys inside and let them run free outside!  Parents get to chat, and the kids have a blast!  🙂  For months, Mr. BANG has talked (sang, actually; he made up a song that he’s been singing repeatedly.  Every day.  For about 6 months.) about having a Thomas birthday party with lots of blue cakes.  So I did my best to suit.  (It was my first time with fondant, so don’t judge!  🙂 )

It was supposed to look like this, but I did the best I could in the time I had!  🙂


I love the fun of birthdays and letting the child get the chance to really feel how special he is – and how much fun he is to spend time with!

Raising Givers

I decided to try something new this year.  And, honestly, I thought it would be a total flop.  I adapted ideas I had heard over the years from a few different moms and decided that during the month of December, I would set out tons of toys, along with an empty bin, and encourage them to give some of their toys to needy children.  Now, my children are 3 (as of this morning!) and 4.  They really like their toys.  A lot.  I really did not have high hopes that they would go for this “giving away toys” thing.  But, wow, they are amazing me!

I told them about the project on Tuesday evening, then prepared the playroom after they went to bed.  Normally, I keep things simple and just have a small number of toys out at a time, rotating them every month or so.  Part of my thought in this project, though, is to give them an understanding of how many toys they have in contrast with needy children.  So I crammed as many toys as I (neatly) could on their toy shelves.  As you can imagine, they went crazy the next morning, and our playroom quickly became a total wreck, with toys everywhere.


At first, when I would remind my kiddos of giving toys to other children, they were quick to point out, “I play with such-and-such every day, so I’m going to keep that.”  Pretty soon, though, my birthday boy, Mr. BANG started putting a toy here and a toy there into the give-away bin.  By the end of the day, he went through the shelves (after toys had been cleaned up), saying, “I’ll share this with a child,” or “I’ll give this to a baby”.  I’m not sure how much he understood that he was actually giving them away, but he did specifically say, “I just love this, so I’m going to keep it” concerning a few toys, so he must have some level of understanding.

By the time he finished, one area was bare except for one whale finger puppet, a puzzle, and some empty containers.  He had even put our wooden blocks, one of his favorite toys, by the give away bin!  I didn’t question him on any of those choices; I just made comments about how great it was that he was thinking of other children more than himself, and that I imagine it makes God smile when he’s being generous with his toys.  I knew that I could later privately veto anything put in the bin – including those blocks.  (Sorry the second pic is sideways.  I tried to correct and it wouldn’t let me save it that way for some reason.)


One important thing I had explained at the beginning was that when one child placed something in the bin, the other child needed to leave it there.  Then every evening before bed, we would look through the bin and see if there was anything in it that one of the children did not want to give away.  Those we would simply pull back out and keep.  That prevents continuous fights about Mr. BANG giving away things that Drama Queen wants to keep.  That first night, when Drama Queen looked through the bin, she pulled back out probably 3/4 of what Mr. BANG had put in, but she did leave the other fourth!  I was really surprised!  We actually had a decent amount of toys that they both agreed that they wanted to give to other children!

That night after bedtime, I restocked with other toys, so the playroom still had the look of being jam-packed with toys.  Yesterday, the second day, they were more realistic about what to put in the bin.  Mr. BANG put less, Drama Queen put more.  Several times throughout the day, she cheerfully said, “I don’t need this anymore – I can give it to other children!”  They ended the day with about as many items in the bin as the first evening, but this time they only took out a few toys before approving the contents of the bin.

Other than the generosity of their sweet hearts, the other thing that has surprised me is that it’s hard for me to give away some of those things!  I mean, the really high-quality wooden toys aren’t going on the shelves in the first place because I know I don’t want to give those away.  Those are the few I’ll be setting aside for grandchildren in a few decades.  (Is that silly?  It sounds silly as I type that.)  But there are plenty of others that I hesitantly think, “Should I take that out?  I thought we’d get more use out of that!”  I’m really limiting myself on what I veto, though.  There are a few things that I know I would be replacing soon if we gave them away (i.e. large plastic animals, plastic boats), so I’m putting those back in my toy storage and making myself follow my kids’ lead on giving the rest away!  😉

One other detail to make this work smoothly is that each night after the kids are in bed, I move all the give-away toys into a different box, which I place out of sight.  There are two benefits to that:  1)  it leaves the bin empty each morning, begging for toys to be put in, and 2)  Mr. BANG and Drama Queen aren’t tempted to take back toys they had given away the day before.

What do you do to teach your children to be givers?