While a person is certainly formed and influenced by his or her later experiences, the crux of who we are--our personality, perspective, demeanor, principles, outlook--is largely in place by the time we are ready to enter Kindergarten.
I think we can all agree that we would like to be people of character. Yet, what exactly do we mean by this term?
Character: moral excellence and firmness.
A person is character is a person of virtue: someone who is faithful, just, temperate, courageous, hopeful, wise, and above all, loving.
As a mother of a one-and-a-half year old, the realization that our daughter's character is mostly formed by the age of 5 really hits close to home.
In some ways, one could say these are the easiest years of raising children. Seemingly the hardest tasks are dealing with a picky eater, avoiding temper tantrums, or potty training.
And yet, it is exactly these early years that are absolutely key in forming a person's character. So, in a real sense, these are also the hardest years because there is such a lofty task presented to us parents!
Character is formed in four ways:
1) Example: what children observe in the actions and words of the adults around them.
2) Directed practice: what children are led to do or made to do by the adults in their lives.
3) Word: verbal explanations of what they witness and/or are told to do.
4) Suffering: how the child learns to view and handle the difficulties that come to him or her.
In reading this, my first thought was of the children who spend the majority of their early years in daycare settings. The vast majority of their days is spent with someone other than mother or father. This means that the example, directed practice, words, and approach to suffering that shape one's character is shaped mostly by someone outside the home.
The repercussions of this reality should perhaps have parents questioning the need for childcare during these formative years or, at the least, lead mothers and fathers to really scrutinize possible childcare services. Aside from the daily schedule, facilities, or the experience of those leading the childcare, what is the character of the adults running the program?
For myself, I am examining more closely what example, practices, words, and approach to suffering I model for Mary. In this journey of life where we each must strive for sanctity, Chris and I can give Mary an extra "boost" along the way by instilling within her instinctive, deep-rooted behaviors that will form her character.
At this age, Mary is both a sponge and a parrot: she absorbs my words and actions and then repeats them back. In fact, as I write this, I said aloud, "I need a title..." and I heard beside me, "TITLE!"
So, if I can exhibit and model character...she will, too.
I realized there are countless little ways I can do this and, in teaching Mary character, I find I am strengthening my own.
One practice I have found especially helpful is focusing on sanctifying suffering. When an inconvenience presents itself, I want to demonstrate to Mary that this is an opportunity for grace, not just a pain in the neck.
Thus, when a glass of water spilled all over the floor and I had to clean it up, I said, "Who should we offer this up for?" She thought a minute and exclaimed, "Pop!" (the name she calls my father). So, I prayed aloud, "Lord, we offer cleaning up this water for Pop and all his particular needs today."
Something so small, and yet so capable of defining character...it amazes me to think that, if Chris and I are able, with God's grace, to share little things like this with Mary, when she is later presented with crosses she will instinctively draw upon these first approaches to suffering and use them to understand how to cope and sanctify her soul through them.