It's often said, you can't change the nature of a person. But parents are charged with molding the character of children in ways that will help them become happy and productive.
Can negative character traits be diminished, but never destroyed? Or is there a way we can help children overcome antisocial inclinations that limit them?
It's interesting to look in the Bible. There are a number of examples of the overcoming of ingrained character traits through spiritual insight. The stubborn pride of Naaman gave way to humility through his contact with the prophet Elisha (see Second Kings, chap. 5). And Christ Jesus seems to have effected change in the characters of many of the people he healed. For example, a greedy tax collector, Zacchaeus, eagerly renounced his ways in the presence of Jesus (see Luke 19:1-10). Mary Baker Eddy, the woman who discovered Christian Science from studying the teachings of Jesus, wrote in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures: "Jesus beheld in Science the perfect man, who appeared to him where sinning mortal man appears to mortals. In this perfect man the Saviour saw God's own likeness, and this correct view of man healed the sick" (pp. 476-477).
My husband and I proved that this method of spiritual "seeing" is effective. One of our children seemed to have inherited an uncontrollable temper. His tantrums were frequent and lingering, causing many hours of distress in our home. We had tried many different techniques for addressing this, to no avail.
About this time, we heard of a different approach. We were told this was a method of discipline used by an African tribe some people might regard as uncivilized! When a tribal member acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he or she is said to be placed in the middle of the village, unrestrained. Work stops and every member of the tribe stands around the person who has acted wrongly. Then each person takes a turn speaking aloud to the individual about all the good things he or she has done. Every strength and good point about that person is discussed in depth. On the other hand, nothing is said about the offense. When each member has had a turn, the circle is broken and the person is welcomed back into the tribe with celebration. Apparently the necessity for these ceremonies is quite rare.
My husband and I realized that this approach more nearly followed that of Jesus than what we'd already tried. We resolved to encircle our son with praise for his goodness.
When our son's temper would flare, I would get close to him and tell him what I knew to be the truths Christian Science had taught me of his real nature: that he was a loving and lovable child of God; that he loved good and wanted to do right; that I could not accept this behavior of his, because I knew it was bad and harmful, and he could not inherit it from God, who is total goodness. (These truths are based on my understanding of the account of creation found in the Bible in the first chapter of Genesis, as it is explained in Science and Health.)
In doing this, I found that I was really seeing the boy's true, spiritual identity, right where hatred and rebellion were shouting the loudest. I was learning to see my son as Jesus taught. Then our son began to identify himself with good more consistently. He enjoyed seeing himself as an expression of goodness and of love.
He told me one day he wished he could start his life over without this bad temper. This was a turning point. I saw that his outbursts weren't just an imposition on our family; they were imposed on him. He truly did not want a bad temper to be a part of his identity, and was ready to give it up. The flare-ups then became less and less frequent as he began to recognize them as an imposition on his true nature and to reject them.
A few years later one of my son's friends said he wished he could be more like our son. He said, "I have a terrible temper, and sometimes I think my parents might give me away." I was happy to assure him that he, too, could be free of the imposition!
You can find other articles like this one in the Christian Science Sentinel, a weekly magazine.