Laila, my six year old daughter, is painting our fence. Braving wild hordes of stinging wasps (read: small, harmless flies) that are actively trying to murder her (read: flying around in her general vicinity) in the tropical heat (it’s about 85 degrees).
Why send a six year old to paint a fence in such monstrous conditions?
Well, because it builds character, of course!
Tara (my wife) and I began talking about building character a while back.
Have you ever met a person that has never really had to do anything hard?
A “spoiled” person, you might say. A person to which everything has been given freely.
They’re paper thin. They’re insubstantial. They have no character.
Compare that person to the person you know who has gone through very hard things in their life, and come out the other side triumphant. The person that has earned what they have by crawling through dirt to get there.
Night and day, right?
The person that has experienced hardship becomes fuller, more robust, more THERE.
They have character.
How do we impart character to our children?
Better put: how do I keep my child from growing up to be that vapid, two-dimensional non-character?
Well, I don’t want to spoil them, that’s for sure. But good God, it’s almost impossible NOT to these days! If the kiddies don’t have a cell phone by fifth grade they’ll be social pariahs. Ridiculous by my own standards, but so were our standards compared to our parents.
Well, Tara and I decided that we would introduce artificial hardships to the children.
You want an iPhone with a glittery pink case? No problem. Daddy will buy you that iPhone, little sweetums (or whatever else they’ll invent by the time Laila is an angsty teen). But you’re gonna have to learn to make fire with a stick or something.
You want those fancy jeans? Oh yeah, I got you.
But you’re going to have to learn how to lay bricks.
Or dig a ditch. Frame a house. Be hot. Be sore. Go hungry. Go thirsty. Apply yourself. Push through the discomfort. Understand that life doesn’t HAVE to be as easy on us as it currently is. Understand that what you have is a privilege, and that it takes work to sustain, and that you’re not ENTITLED to anything.
And that is why Laila is painting a fence.
Because she just HAS to have a brand new, sparkly, purple bike, and she must have it before school starts.
Granted, she’s well on her way to outgrowing her current bike, and I’d already planned on getting a new one for her for Christmas, BUT…if she has to have it NOW, then why waste a valuable learning opportunity?
So she’ll be out there, slapping on paint, braving barbarian insect hordes and whining and complaining and taking more time than she needs to take.
That is, until the day she realizes that perseverance and endurance have their own intrinsic value, and that they will get her a lot closer to the prize than whining about what she thinks she’s owed.
And that, I think, is where character begins.*
*At the time of writing this, Laila was still painting the fence. She was struggling to get six to eight sections of fence done in the hour that we gave her to paint (we didn’t want her out there all day long). But, with twenty-five sections left to go, she said “I want that bike today. I’m gonna finish the fence today.” And she did it. She buckled down and got all twenty-five sections done in an hour and a half!
She’s now the proud owner of a purple bike with lime green pegs, a basket, and a bell. And hell, I’m pretty proud of her.