As my children were growing up, I was fully aware that the development of their spirits was my number one priority. My familiarity with the training of military men and women may have influenced my thinking. I knew that the goal of military boot camp is the development of the body, but even more so, its purpose is to strengthen the spirits of the men and women. Men in the Air Force, Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines must come to believe in their own abilities if they are to triumph in adversity. They must learn that pain is not a signal to quit, fear is not an occasion to retreat, and resistance is not an impenetrable wall. And failure is an opportunity to ready oneself for the coming victory. “Do or die” is the Marine motto.

Though there is great value in a strong body, those who by nature are frail of body or are handicapped are just as capable of developing strong spirits. In reality, it is probably more common to see strength of spirit in a physically handicapped child or adult than in a naturally capable individual. It is fun for kids and parents when children excel physically, but it is even more of a pleasure to see bravery in a child that is crippled, blind, or in some way unable to match his peers. The principle remains the same; push the boundaries of what you perceive as your limits, or what others tell you are your limits, and be an overcomer. Triumph. Achieve. Excel. It is not the height to which one climbs, rather how far one climbs above perceived limits that builds a strong spirit.

There are naturally talented or gifted children, performing far above their fellows, who remain weak in spirit because they have not been called upon to overcome in a wide spectrum of challenges. Again I say, it is not the level of expertise one achieves in relationship to the norm; it is the experience of facing the difficult, the scary, the painful, the boring, and even the impossible and believing in yourself enough to keep trying until you conquer.

This takes place when a ten-month-old conquers walking, when an eighteen-month-old successfully puts his pants on, and a two-year-old gets the courage to jump off the side of the pool into his father’s arms. Character is formed and the spirit is strengthened when the five-year-old successfully conducts his daily chores of feeding the animals and gathering the eggs.

When the little four-year-old says, “Look, Daddy, see how strong I am,” you need to look and acknowledge his strength, for though physical strength does profit a little, he is at that critical age in life when growth of the spirit is at a peak. If he thinks he is doing good, it is time to brag on his accomplishments.

Manned up

I remember a story one of our readers told of how she manned up her son. She had a loose cover plate on an electrical outlet and asked her four-year-old to fix it. He got a screwdriver, only to discover that a flat-head screwdriver will not work on a Philips-head screw. So he located a screwdriver in the drawer that looked like the screw on the receptacle, and sure enough, it fit. He was elated with his prowess in problem solving. He felt like a real engineer. He fixed the loose plate and placed the screwdrivers back in the drawer. In that ten minutes of success he had grown two years older. For several days she told everyone they met that her son was taking care of the house, repairing everything broken, for he went around and “tightened” any screw he could find.

Early experiences of this sort will create a strong spirit in your child. To be shoved aside and told that he is not big enough will create a weak spirit that strives for attention in obnoxious ways that produce more rejection.

By the time they are two years old

At the moment, Deb and I have 19 grandkids and expect about ten or fifteen more—but not this year. As each grows in stature, I again have the opportunity to do another “clinical” study on child development. It is clear to me, by the time a child reaches his second birthday, his strength of spirit, or lack thereof, is already quite apparent. The first two years of a child’s development is the most critical and telling. If the truth be known, children in the womb are influenced by the emotional state of the mother.

The way you bend the sapling in its first two years will determine the way the tree leans. It is critical to maintain a positive and creative atmosphere during those first months. Build his confidence and boldness by manipulating his environment so he is always an overcomer. The two-year-old should be a winner in all things. To be a winner, there must be a game, a contest, a trial, a test of strength or mental expertise.

Confidence is built when a child manipulates objects in his environment: when he successfully drinks from a cup and is praised, when he puts on a garment, picks up after himself, or rides a rolling toy. When a child delights his parents with a page he colored or a pile of blocks he successfully stacked, he grows in his self-worth. The “can do” spirit is made from many little “I did” experiences. A spirit of “nothing can stop me” grows out of overcoming many little barriers.

Learning to Steer Through Life

Just yesterday Deb and I took Parker, our 20-month-old grandson, on a ride in our little utility truck. We use it to haul manure and tools around on the farm, as well as kids. Deb asked Parker if he wanted to drive. He jumped out of her lap and stood between my legs grasping the steering wheel just like he knew what he was doing. Driving down the lanes, I showed him how to steer. He already had the general idea from small plastic toys he rode around the house. To our delight he was able to steer with my help, but he kept knocking my hand off the wheel. He wanted full control! So we opened the gate and drove into the front 12 acre pasture. There I gave him full control of the steering. He screamed his delight and triumph, navigating towards the cows. One time he got stuck in a small turn radius and I had to help him straightened it out, but he soon starting steering figure eights around the cows, making them move and protest. He yelled and hollered his triumph until Deb and I were laughing ourselves silly.

At less than two years of age, Parker is already such a man. There is no baby left in him. He wants to do man things, and if his daddy is not around to keep him entertained he will walk a hundred yards to find me somewhere on the farm working. He loves tools and work. I expect him to be pretty handy in about four years. When his daddy is not working him, I will be.

Being around the grandkids brings to mind the feelings and thoughts I had when my kids were growing up. As I let Parker drive, I knew that I was contributing to his eventual manhood. I was helping his daddy make him strong in spirit.

I do hope my reader can see the principle and spirit behind these personal anecdotes. It is not necessary to duplicate my experience. Circumstances and environment are different for each of us. Find the challenges in your environment and participate with your children in fabricating fun in a constructive and rewarding fashion. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that board games or iPod manipulation is going to make a child strong in spirit. It takes a hands-on experience in a shifting physical environment to create strength of spirit. Overcoming stress and frustration are essential to developing a strong spirit.

Navigating the swamp

Just last week my son Nathan, now thirty-two years old and married with four children, was reminiscing about one of the lessons he learned as a small child. We had a secret fishing hole deep in the swamps of the Mississippi River bottoms. It is an old river-run that floods in the spring and is replenished with fish. It is surrounded by cypress trees ten to fifteen feet in diameter at water level. You can only get to the back-water lake by traveling across a very flat bottom land thick with hardwood trees five to six feet in diameter and straight as an arrow, the thick canopy blocking out the sunlight above. The trees are so tall, the squirrels only laugh at you when you try to shoot them out of the top branches with a shotgun. The boys and I loved that old fishing hole. Their grandpa fished there when he was a kid. We always took burlap bags to carry out the fish, leaving when we had caught all we could carry.

On our return trip after a morning of fishing, I would assign one of the boys as the leader of our expedition. When I appointed a boy as the leader I followed him even if he went the wrong direction and we ended up mired in the swamp, our way blocked by downed trees.  He must discover his error and make adjustments accordingly.

As Nathan was recounting his experiences, he told how he would strike out leading the pack and every once in a while he would look back at my face to see if he could gather any sign as to whether or not he was going in the right direction. But he said my face was always stony, indifferent to where we were going.

I had taught them to read signs, how to use the sun and the moss on the trees, and to listen for distant sounds. Occasionally we could hear the faint sound of a tug-boat motor on the river about two miles away. The sound needed to be on our right as we made our way out. The moss on the trees needed to be facing us as we headed south. But there were those days when the sun was not shining and the tug boats could not be heard and the moss seemed to have grown all around the trees in the thick, damp timber. When they first started taking turns leading us out, there were occasions when we walked an extra half mile or so before they got their bearings, but they were always successful in navigating the swamp and forest. On one or two occasions when I was leading the pack I had attempted to take a shortcut, not traveling over familiar territory, I had gotten totally turned around, ending up back were I started; so it was not a “walk in the park” as the saying goes.

Neither the boys nor the girls were ever soft and delicate. They were always wiry and muscular. The process of their physical development was fun for them and terribly entertaining for me. I took great pleasure in the prowess of my children, confident that in a world gone crazy they would survive and be leaders of those who stumble around without hope or direction.

After they became adults there were times when their physical strength saved their lives or enabled them to endure hardships in foreign lands while engaged in missionary activities. Read Rebekah’s Diary and you will understand fully.

The greatest benefit of growing strong in body is what it does for the spirit of the child.

Look for the rest of the story in our new book, Training Children to be Strong in Spirit, which is scheduled to be released October 15, 2011.