Kay Hill is like most grandmothers—her home is adorned with pictures of her 19 grandchildren and she sparkles as she shares stories of their successes. But the flavor of these accounts differs slightly from the usual grandmother tales. Kay's stories are peppered with words like sincerity, responsibility, kindness, diligence, and compassion, just a few of the 49 attributes that serve as the foundation of the Character First! program.
Kay's husband, Tom Hill, is chief operating officer of Kimray Incorporated. In 1992, Kimray developed and piloted the Character First! program in their business. The ethical focus helped the business reap financial benefits-including an 80% decrease in workers' compensation costs and a 25% increase in profits. Nationwide, businesses applying the program have also noticed a reduction in theft, drug abuse, and other workplace problems. But character training has more personal benefits and rewards for Kay: strengthening the bonds of love and respect within the Hill family.
When Kay and Tom had children, they vowed they would not make the same mistakes as their parents. They would love their children and things would go well-after all, how hard could it be?
Kay admits that's not at all what happened. Before long, they fell into a pattern of negative reinforcement-being threatening, repeating themselves, and focusing on the things their children, Thomas, David, and Karen, had done wrong. Over the years, this took its toll and when David went to college at OSU, their relationship was severely strained.
Even when he came home for visits, he would only stay about 15 minutes before arguments ensued and he would leave, Kay said. This went on for three years.
“Then God arranged that David had to move home,” Kay said. “He'd run out of money and didn't have a job.”
Tom and Kay talked and realized that what they'd been doing all the previous years had not been working. So, they decided to try something different. They began praising David.
“At the dinner table we'd say ‘It's so much fun to have you at the table, David,'” Kay said. From that point on, they were attentive and vocal, noticing and praising all the positive things about their son. Within months, their relationship shifted from one of pain and hostility to one of love and affection.
At about the same time, Tom was implementing the character training at Kimray to cut down on theft, drug abuse, and other workplace problems. The Hills saw that the same principles used with families could work wonders.
Kay said the first step in changing established patterns is for parents to look at their children with eyes that see their good qualities. “It may seem forced at first, but kids don't care. They are happy to be noticed and praised for character,” Kay said. With children, their main motivation is to please. Frustration sets in when children think it doesn't matter how hard they try, they can't make their parents happy. This scenario is played out with even well-meaning parents when a child brings home a report card with six As and one B. Too often, the single B gets much more attention than the As.
“If you don't accept and encourage your children, they'll find someone who will,” Kay said. Unfortunately, this sometimes turns out to be gangs or other self-destructive influences. “Children need to know that the support system they have at home beats all other support systems,” Kay said.
Parents don't have to wait until an event occurs before encouraging the right action, Kay said. For instance, if the children are playing together, don't wait until there's a fight over a toy, say, “You're being very generous and sharing your toys.” This extra reinforcement may be just the thing to short-circuit selfishness before it starts.
Kay said there is an important difference between encouraging positive character traits and building skills. Once someone learns a skill, whether it is tying shoes or mastering linear algebra, it is something they know how to do and in most cases will not have to re-learn.
“Character is a moment by moment decision for the rest of our lives,” Kay said. Positive reinforcement of those decisions strengthens relationships, not just between parents and children, but also with spouses, co-workers, and friends.
Gayleen Rabakkuk is a mother of two and a freelance writer in Oklahoma City. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma and her work recently appeared in the Houston Chronicle.