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How to Instill Humility in Your Children

  • Pat Williams Author, Souls of Steel
  • Published Feb 22, 2008
How to Instill Humility in Your Children

Humility is one of the rarest of all the character traits—and the most desperately needed. Here are some ways we can encourage this character trait in our kids:

1. Teach your kids to be servants. Jesus repeatedly taught this lesson to His disciples: "Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, 'If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all'" (Mark 9:35). There's no such thing as an arrogant servant; a servant is humble by definition. If kids learn to see themselves as servants of God and others, they will naturally develop an attitude of humility.

After the publication of my book Coaching Your Kids to Be Leaders (FaithWords, 2005), I received an email from Tom Walsh, a reader who is teaching his kids character and humility at an early age. He told me, "Thanks for writing this book! As a father of two boys, ages two and four (with a third child on the way), I found a lot of ideas in your book about how to raise emotionally and spiritually healthy kids. Your book inspired me to action."

He went on to say that, one Saturday, he took his two boys out to a bagel store for breakfast, then they went to a local nursing home to visit some of the residents. He had never done this before and wasn't sure of the procedure, so he walked up to the desk and told the receptionist that he and the boys would like to visit someone.

"Who have you come to visit?" the receptionist asked.

"Anyone," Tom replied. "We just want to visit someone who could use a little company."

The surprised receptionist informed a staff member, and the staff was very accommodating. They let Tom and his boys wander around and talk to people wherever they went. Finally, they came to a lounge where a number of residents were gathered, eating doughnuts and sipping coffee.

George, Tom's four-year-old, walked right up to people, put out his hand, and said, "Hi! My name is George! It's nice to meet you!" The boy gave each person a hearty handshake. The people at the home were charmed by Tom's two boys—and it was an uplifting experience for Tom. For his sons, it was the beginning of their training in becoming servants to others—an invaluable field trip in the school of humility.

Tom Walsh concluded with these words: "I don't think you can ever start too early training kids to consider other people and serve them. At the same time, you are teaching them to sharpen their social skills, overcome shyness, and build their confidence. Thanks again for providing that spark of inspiration in your book!"

I'm pleased that my book inspired Tom to take that action—but I feel his story has inspired and touched me even more! He showed me that it's never too early to start teaching humble servanthood to our kids.

2. Encourage kids to admit mistakes. You can't be a person of humility if you can't admit it being wrong. Our kids need to see that people think more of them, not less, when they admit mistakes. When our kids face criticism, they need to learn to consider the merits of that criticism instead of instantly defending themselves.

One way to encourage kids to admit mistakes is by showing mercy when they confess their sins and errors. Tell them over and over again that, when they fail or sin, they can always be forgiven and accepted. A confession will always make life easier for them than a cover-up or a lie. Kids who feel they can safely go to their parents with the awful truth are much less likely to be dishonest and defensive.

Another way to encourage kids to admit mistakes is to set an example by admitting our own errors. Some parents feel they need to keep up a false front of perfection in front of their kids. They feel that admitting mistakes would diminish them in their children's eyes. In reality, when we as parents say to our kids, "I was wrong, please forgive me," we are actually magnified in their eyes.

3. Teach kids to demonstrate empathy toward others. Because humility is essentially a matter of considering the needs and feelings of others, children need to learn sensitivity to the feelings of others.

Debbie Fahmie is the music specialist at Cypress Elementary School in Osceola County, Florida, and president of the Florida Elementary Music Educators Association. She uses music education to build character—and especially to encourage empathy in young people. She has a heart for students with problems and needs.

"The neediest of students," she told me, "are the ones who made me really dig deep into my soul. It's the students who are life's 'throw-aways,' the 'unlovable kids,' who inspire me and bring out my empathy for others. I don't believe a person can have true character without empathy for all of humankind. The person of true character will do good to others—not to be recognized, but simply because it's the right thing to do.

"I use cooperative learning to bring out my students' empathy for each other. I teach my students how to help the child who is struggling, how to befriend the unlovable child, how to bring out the best in others around them. Again and again, my students discover it feels good to do good to others. Instead of bribing kids with candy and tokens, we should motivate kids to seek that inner incentive and warm feeling of doing good to others. That intrinsic reward is so much more valuable than a material incentive.

"Music is the perfect medium for allowing students to experience the harmony of working together and the pitfalls of focusing purely on self. Empathy and humility work together in the lives of these students to produce character and compassion. If we can influence young people to become caring and compassionate, we will give a wonderful gift to the world."

4. Teach young people to take satisfaction rather than pride in their accomplishments. When children perform well or achieve a goal, it's good for them to feel that warm glow of joy that comes from a job well done. But let them know that arrogant or disrespectful behavior is not permitted.

When kids excel in academics, sports, music, or some other endeavor, monitor their attitude and behavior. Be alert to signals that they feel superior or look down upon their peers. Encourage good sportsmanship. Help them understand that people of great character acknowledge the achievements of others; only small-minded people engage in smack talk and put-downs.

Encourage your kids to use their abilities to serve God and help others. Teach them to enjoy the feeling of a job well done and to thank God for His gifts of talent, strength, and health which make it possible for us to achieve our goals. Everything we have is a gift. We can't take credit for a gift; we can only be grateful to the Giver.

5. Set a zero-tolerance policy toward disrespectful attitudes and talk. Children should never be permitted to behave rudely or use profane language. Train them to speak and behave respectfully from an early age. Make it clear that you will listen to your kids and consider any complaint or object they may have—as long as it is stated respectfully.

Peter Roby, Director of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, told me a story from his boyhood. "My father will always be my hero and role model," he said. "He demanded that I show respect on the field or court towards the officials, opponents, and fans. When I was about ten and playing Little League baseball, I got visibly upset with an umpire's call on some of my pitches. When I came in after the inning, my father said, 'If you ever act disrespectfully to an umpire again, I'll come out on the field and drag you off the mound.' He expected me to respect everyone. I did from then on."

Here are some suggestions for dealing with kids who show disrespect: If a child becomes disrespectful during an argument or disagreement, stop the conversation and remind the child that you will only listen to his or her opinions if they are stated courteously. You might interrupt and say, "Would you like to restate that in a respectful tone?"

When children correct their tone and show they can discuss disagreements in a respectful way, affirm their maturity and character. Let them know that you notice their character growth, and you are proud of the way they conducted themselves, despite the disagreement.

If your children persist in being disrespectful, impose consequences that are age-appropriate and consistent. Don't discipline out of anger, simply because your kids pushed your buttons. Discipline out of love, because you want to shape their character.

Thomas M. Doran, a partner with Hubbell, Roth & Clark, Inc., recalls, "In my youth, I was prone to biting and indiscriminate criticism. My dad's best friend was my godfather, and one time he was visiting from Chicago. He was a big-hearted, cheerful man and an ex-Marine like my dad. The three of us got into a political discussion and I made a disparaging remark about my dad, but he ignored it. Later, after my dad left the room, my godfather took me aside and said, 'Your dad is my friend, and I won't tolerate my friend being insulted—not even by his own son.'

"That was the first time my godfather ever spoke to me man to man. It wasn't pleasant being talked to that way, but even then, I realized that this man wasn't threatening me. He was doing what a godparent is supposed to do. He was instilling moral character in me. I had shown disrespect, and he was letting me know that disrespect for parents is a blot on my character.

"My godfather never mentioned that incident again, and we had a great relationship until the day he died. He was a man of character, and he cared enough about me to take me aside and strengthen my character."

6. Encourage kids to be teachable and coachable. Our kids need to be willing learners. No matter how much they think they know, they can always grow and improve.

Since 1968, I have worked alongside some of the legendary coaches of the NBA—Jack Ramsay, Dick Motta, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Gene Shue, Billy Cunningham, Matt Guokas, Chuck Daly, Doc Rivers, Brian Hill, and more. When it's time for the NBA draft in the spring, when all the information has been gathered about the top college players, there is always one question that every one of these coaches has asked without fail: "Can I coach this kid? Will he listen to me?"

If being coachable is so important in pro basketball, how much more important is it that our own young people be teachable and coachable? Here are some suggestions for raising coachable kids:

First, when you teach or coach your kids, be positive. Kids respond to positive coaching, but they resent yelling, shaming, and belittling. If they come to know you as a positive and encouraging parent-coach, they will be more likely to listen and follow your instruction. We sometimes forget how children view the world. If we expect too much of them or treat them harshly, we'll shame them and undermine their confidence.

Second, be a good role model. Your kids are watching every move you make. If they detect hypocrisy in your life, they'll use it as an excuse to disregard what you say. As someone has said, our children will become what we are—so we'd better start becoming what we want them to be.

Third, praise effort, not results. If a child is only affirmed when he succeeds, he'll become fearful of failure. When a child feels affirmed even when he tries and fails, he has more confidence to take risks and go out on a limb for you. So when your child fails, don't let your disappointment show. Always say, "Great effort! Way to hustle! I'm proud of you!"

Fourth, treat your child as a unique personality. Every child is an individual, and the kind of coaching that works with one child may not work with another. Train each child according to his or her unique needs.

7. Be a role model of humility. Let your kids see you serving others. Let them see you asking for directions and not having all the answers. Let them see you reading, listening, and seeking knowledge and wisdom. When you get cut off on the freeway, let them see you responding gently—no honking or obscene gestures. Let your kids see how teachable and coachable you are. Ask them to teach you something they know and you don't.

Cal Ripken, Jr., is a former shortstop and third baseman who played his entire career for the Baltimore Orioles from 1981 to 2001, and is famed for his 2,632-game "Iron Man" streak. A few years ago, he wanted to take a laptop computer on the road with him to keep in touch with his family via email—but he had a problem.

"I'm a little intimidated by the technology," he said, "but my daughter Rachel is at the age where she can teach me. She's seven years old." Ever coachable and teachable, Cal Ripken was not ashamed to seek technical advice from his little daughter. Humility is an attractive trait. When your kids see humility in you, they will want to be humble like you are.

Excerpted from Souls of Steel by Pat Williams with Jim Denney (Faithwords, February 2008). Copyright 2008 Pat Williams. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Pat Williams is senior executive vice president of the Orlando Magic basketball team and a popular speaker averaging over one hundred appearances per year. He served as general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers for twelve years. He has also been affiliated with the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks. Pat has published a total of twenty books. He lives in Orlando, Florida, with his wife, Ruth. You can read more about Pat at