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Raising Children of Character: 10 Principles

  • THOMAS LICKONA

Parenting is arguably the hardest job there is and the one for which we get no training. Here are ten principles of parenting that can guide us in the demanding work of raising children of character.

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1. Make Character Development a High Priority

One of my college students, reflecting on her character development, wrote: "I was an only child, and my parents let me have my own way most of the time. I know they wanted to show how much they loved me, but I have struggled with selfishness my whole life."

We need to view our children as adults-in-the-making. What kind of character do we want them to possess as grown men and women? Will they be generous and responsible adults? Will they make loving husbands and wives, and capable mothers and fathers? How is our approach to parenting likely to affect these outcomes?


2. Be an Authoritative Parent

Parents must have a strong sense of their moral authority — their right to be respected and obeyed. Psychologist Diana Baumrind's research has identified three styles of parenting: authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive. Authoritarian parents use a lot of commands and threats but little reasoning. Permissive parents are high on affection but low on authority. By contrast, authoritative parents are high on authority, reasoning, fairness, and love. The authoritative parent "explains reasons behind demands, encourages give and take, and sets standards and enforces them firmly but does not regard self as infallible." Baumrind finds that at all age levels, the most self-confident and socially responsible children have authoritative parents.

To establish an authoritative parenting style, we should have a zero tolerance policy for disrespectful speech and behavior. When kids engage in disrespectful back-talk, they need immediate corrective feedback ("What is your tone of voice?", "You are not allowed to speak to me in that way, even if you're upset."). Allowing our children to speak to us disrespectfully will quickly erode their respect for our moral authority, our rules, our example, and our teaching.


3. Love Children

When kids feel loved, they become attached to us. That attachment makes them receptive to our guidance.

One-on-one time. We need emotionally intimate time to keep any relationship strong and growing. To protect one-on- one time with our children, we should plan it. I know a school superintendent, a father of four, who can show you in his appointment book which child he'll be spending the coming Saturday afternoon with. "If I didn't schedule that time," he says, "it wouldn't happen."

Love as communication. Good communication doesn't happen automatically. We often need to do something deliberate to bring about a meaningful exchange of thoughts and experiences. When our older son Mark was 13, I became frustrated with the fact that our exchanges typically consisted of my asking questions and his giving monosyllabic answers. ("How was school?" "Fine." "How'd the game go?" "Great.") One day, in exasperation, I said: "It would be great if you asked me a question."

He said, "Okay, Dad, how are your courses going this semester?" It was the first time I ever talked to him about my teaching. After that, even if we had only five minutes in the car, we'd do "back-and-forth questions": I'd ask him one (e.g., "What was the best part and the worst part of your day?"), he'd ask me one (often the same question), and so on. It became a family tradition.

Love as sacrifice. About a million children see their parents divorce each year. Marriages fail for many reasons, including violence, alcoholism, and infidelity. Researcher Judith Wallerstein's book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (2000), documents the often lasting repercussions of family breakdown for both kids and adults. Given such evidence, both secular and religious marriage counselors are now urging married couples having problems to do everything possible to try to save their marriage.


4. Teach by Example

Teaching by example goes beyond treating our children with love and respect. It has to do with how we treat each other as spouses and how we treat and talk about others outside the family — relatives, friends, neighbors, and teachers. These days, the most important example we set may be the stands we take — especially stands that are unpopular with our children or at odds with what other parents are permitting. What do we prohibit? Violent video games? TV shows and movies that contain sex, violence, or foul language? All forms of pornography? Immodest dress? Parties where there's drinking? Do our kids know where we stand on the great moral issues of the day — respect for life, war and peace, threats to the environment, the plight of the poor? Stands like these define our values.


5. Manage the Moral Environment

How should we regulate kids' use of media — TV, movies, music, video games, and the Internet? The basic rule: The use of media in the home is a privilege, not a right. Exercise of that privilege requires parental permission and presence. We should also thoughtfully explain our moral objections to something rather than simply forbidding it.

Today's moral environment also requires more vigilant supervision of our children. The research report Building a Better Teenager (www.childtrends.org) finds that "handson" parents — those who know about their children's activities, friends, and behaviors and monitor them in age-appropriate ways — have teens with lower rates of sexual activity and drug and alcohol use.

We should also expose our children to what is noble and heroic. Somewhere in the evening paper there's at least one example of integrity, courage, or compassion. The website www.teachwithmovies.com is a source of films that offer positive role models and matter for moral discussion. Books That Build Character by William Kilpatrick provides an excellent annotated bibliography of more than 300 books appropriate for different age levels.


6. Use Direct Teaching to Form Habits and Conscience

7 Ethical Tests

  1. The Golden Rule (reversibility) test:
    Would I want people to do this to me?
  2. The what-if-everybody-did-this test:
    Would I like it if everyone else acted this way?
  3. The parents test:
    How would my parents feel if they found out I did this?
  4. The religion test:
    Does this go against what my religious faith teaches?
  5. The conscience test:
    Will I feel guilty afterwards?
  6. The consequences test:
    Might this have bad consequences, now or in the future?
  7. The front-page test:
    How would I feel if my action were reported on the front page of my hometown paper?

We need to practice what we preach, but we also need to preach what we practice. Direct moral teaching helps to develop a child's habits and conscience. "Pick up your toys." "Say please and thank you." "Don't interrupt." "Look at a person who's speaking to you." Hundreds of teachings like these communicate to children, "This is how we behave," "This is how we live."

Direct teaching includes explaining why some things are right and others wrong. Why is it wrong to lie? Because lying destroys trust. Why is it wrong to cheat? Because cheating is a lie — it deceives another person. This kind of moral reasoning helps children develop a conscience that will guide them when we're not around. Developing our kids' decision-making skills also means teaching them certain "ethical tests" they can use to evaluate any given behavior. (See side bar.)

Finally, direct teaching can also take the form of guiding our children to a good book, article, or pamphlet. A Canadian mother told me she was at a loss for words when her 16-year-old daughter Lisa disclosed that she and her boyfriend were thinking of having sex. When the mother said, "But sex is meant for love," Lisa replied, "But we do love each other, and this is how we want to express it." To help a teenager reflect on the meaning of love, a parent could offer a pamphlet such as Love Waits. It reads, in part:

Love is patient; love is kind. Love wants what is best for another person. Love will never cross the line between what's right and wrong. It's wrong to put one another in danger of having to deal with hard choices, choices that could change your lives forever. Having sex before marriage may feel right for the moment. But the possible costs of an unexpected pregnancy, abortion, and sexually transmitted disease — as well as the deep hurts that can come from a broken relationship — outweigh the feelings of the moment. If you are getting to know someone — or are in a relationship — remember: If it's love, love waits.



7. Discipline Wisely

Disciplining wisely means setting expectations, holding kids accountable to them, and responding to their lapses in a way that both teaches what's right and motivates the child to do what's right. This means discipline should be clear and firm but not harsh.

Sometimes a disciplinary consequence is needed to help kids realize the seriousness of what they've done and motivate them not to do it again. In imposing consequences, however, many parents come down too hard in a moment of anger ("You're grounded for a week!") and end up going back on what they said. A better approach is to ask a child, "What do you think is a fair consequence for what you did?" Together the parent and child can then agree on a consequence that will help change behavior.

Restitution is also important: When you do something wrong, you should do something right to make up for it. Restitution is restorative. We should teach our kids to ask: "What can I do to make up for what I did?"


8. Solve Conflicts Fairly

Fairness Agreement

  1. If Mom has promised to do something with us, she will tell the person she is busy and will call back later.
  2. We will make a list of things to do while Mom is on the phone.
  3. Mom will try to make her calls shorter.
  4. If Mom has to be on the phone for a longer time, she will tell us, and we will behave.
Mom, Phillip, & Ben

Conflicts provide important opportunities to foster character development. A fairness approach can be used to solve a wide range of family conflicts. It has three parts: (1) achieving mutual understanding; (2) arriving at a fair, agreed upon solution to the problem; and (3) holding a follow-up meeting to evaluate how the solution is working. One mom used the fairness approach with her sons Phillip (7) and Ben (5) to address the problem of the kids acting badly when she was on the phone. "The more we talked," the mother says, "the more I understood their feelings of rejection when I'm on the phone for a long time. I explained that with working and going to school, this is often my only way of keeping in touch with friends." Once they understood each other's feelings, the mother, Phillip, and Ben were able to brainstorm solutions. They worked out a Fairness Agreement (See side bar), which they all signed and posted. Two days later, Mom and the boys held a follow-up meeting. The mother reports: "We agreed we had stuck to our plan. The kids played together or did things independently when I was on the phone. I made calls shorter. There has been much less hassling about this problem."


9. Provide Opportunities to Practice the Virtues

Virtues develop through practice. We don't develop character in kids simply by talking about it; they need real responsibilities in family life. A mother of three sons (ages 2, 4, and 6) says: "The rule in our house is that you get a chore for each year of your age. Our boys are all very proud of what they do." Children should not be paid for these chores; such jobs are the way they contribute to the family.


10. Foster Spiritual Development

"Religious Involvement and Children's Well-Being" (www.childtrends.org) reports that young people who frequently attend religious services and say their faith is important to them exhibit higher levels of altruism and lower levels of drug and alcohol use and sexual activity. It is certainly possible to be an ethical person without being religious, and having religious faith by no means guarantees that a person will be good. But for many persons, religion gives life a higher meaning and an ultimate reason for leading a moral life. If we are not ourselves religious, we must nevertheless help our children to develop a spiritual vision that address life's largest questions: What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of my life? What leads to authentic happiness?

Kids will make mistakes growing up, just as we did. That said, it's our job as parents to make the most of the many opportunities we have to help our children become persons of character.

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Acknowledgement

Thomas Lickona "Raising Children of Character: 10 Principles." taken from Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues (New York: Touchstone, 2004).

Reprinted with permission of Thomas Lickona.

The Author

Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland. He is the author of Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues and the Christopher Award-winning book Educating for Character. He has also written Raising Good Children and co-authored Sex, Love and You. Thomas Lickona was instrumental in development of the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs. He is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2004 Thomas Lickona
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