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Parenting Skills: It's Not Rocket Science


God gives us countless opportunities to help our children grow in goodness and to come to know, love, and serve him.


For more than four decades, my work as a developmental psychologist has focused on helping parents and teachers develop good character in youth. For the most part, effective parenting is common sense — the wisdom of the ages. What makes parenting harder than ever, however, are the changes in the world in which we're raising kids.

Before laying out a parent's battle plan for combating an environment that's increasingly hostile to moral values, let me share a personal story illustrating one of the biggest challenges we now face as families — the sexual culture. We saw that culture change before our eyes as our kids were growing up. By the mid-seventies, with the sexual revolution in full swing, the TV heroes and heroines with whom kids identify had taken to sleeping around. Observable effects on children soon followed. In the early eighties, when our younger son Matthew was in sixth grade, he told us that many of the boys in his class had started to "go with" girls. A few weeks later, he mentioned that these boys and girls were stopping at a park on the way home from school to play "Truth or Dare" in the pine trees.

I asked him, "What's Truth or Dare?"

He explained that kids stood in a circle, and when your turn came, you could choose "truth" or "dare." If you chose "truth," you had to answer truthfully any question you were asked. If you chose "dare," you had to do the dare. I asked for an example of a dare.

Matthew said, "Okay … um … I dare Brian to go to the center of the circle and French kiss Jennifer."

He hastened to reassure me, "I always choose truth, Dad!"

"Well, I'm glad to hear that," I said. "But even if you yourself aren't doing things like French kissing, just being there gives approval to the kids who are doing bad stuff." He agreed to hang out on the park's playground equipment with another kid when the group went into the pine trees.

A few weeks later, Matthew came home and said that several of the boys in his class had told him they were going to have sex with their girlfriends when they got into seventh grade.

"What did you say?" I asked.

"That you're not supposed to do that until you're married." I was relieved to know he had absorbed that family value. But he added, "They still say they don't see anything wrong with it, and they're going to do it."

However, a societal environment that can't be counted on to support good character means parents have to be more vigilant, more intentional, than in past generations.

The debate between Matthew and his friends about premarital sex went on for another couple of weeks. (I don't remember coaching him along the way, though in retrospect that would have helped him give some reasons for his stance.) Finally, he recounted a conversation with a boy we often saw at Sunday Mass with his parents, who, we felt sure, would have been shocked to learn that their eleven-year-old son was talking about having sex with his girlfriend. This kid said to Matthew: "If you're not supposed to have sex until you're married, then how come they never say that in church?" (That prompted me to write up my conversations with Matthew in a letter to our pastor asking for a little help from the pulpit.)

Matthew is now a dad with six kids of his own. In his spiritual memoir, Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic he makes it very clear that he's far from a saint, but he says he was a virgin until his wedding night. So, even in a toxic culture, there's reason to hope that a family's moral values — with parental effort, the grace of God, and children's willingness to cooperate with those helps — will take root in their conscience and character.

However, a societal environment that can't be counted on to support good character means parents have to be more vigilant, more intentional, than in past generations. In today's world, we have to take deliberate steps to create a strong family life that builds close relationships, teaches good values, fosters the faith, and fortifies our kids against the cultural temptations and pressures. The good news is that millions of couples who have embraced that challenge have found raising a family a deep source of meaning, fulfillment, and joy. Let's look at seven principles of parenting that can help to make it so.

1. Make Character Development a High Priority

Wise parents ask, "What kind of child do we want to raise, and how will we do it?"

A good way to answer that question is to sit down and write a "family touchstone." A touchstone expresses the values and virtues you want all family members, parents as well as kids, to feel accountable to and live by. When their four kids were young, Catholic parents Matt and Suzanne Davidson wrote the following touchstone that they hung in the kitchen, where they could review it at the start of the week and refer to it whenever they needed to:

The Davidson Way

  • We commit to being honest and trustworthy, kind, and fair. We don't lie, cheat, steal, or intentionally hurt others.
  • We don't whine, complain, or make excuses.
  • When we make a mistake, we make up for it, learn from it, and move on.
  • We work to keep our minds, bodies, and souls healthy, strong, and pure.
  • We commit to learning and growing in our faith through practice and trust in God's goodness.
  • We live with an attitude of gratitude and joy.

Another family we know had an embroidered sign hanging in their home: "Remember you're a Morfit." A simple reminder, aimed at keeping kids identified with the family values.

If we're going to emphasize character with our kids, we need a clear concept of what it is. Good character consists of virtues. Virtues are good habits — inner dispositions, developed through practice, to behave in morally good ways.

What are the human virtues needed to be a person of character? Here are ten affirmed by nearly all cultural and religious traditions:

  • Wisdom — good judgment, knowing right from wrong
  • Justice — respecting the rights, dignity, and worth of all persons
  • Fortitude — the "inner toughness" that enables us to do what's right in the face of difficulty
  • Self-control — the ability to govern our appetites, impulses, and emotions
  • Love — being kind, compassionate, generous, and forgiving
  • Hard work — doing our best no matter what we do
  • Positive attitude — finding the good in all situations
  • Integrity — being true to ourselves and standing up for what's right
  • Gratitude — thanking God and others for our blessings and not complaining
  • Humility — knowing our strengths and weaknesses and striving to be a better person

We should help kids recognize their virtues ("That was generous of you to share with your sister.") and their areas for growth ("How can you work on controlling that temper? Let's make a plan."). And we should make it clear that we're also trying to be better people — that our character, like theirs, is a work in progress.

2. Love Your Children

Dozens of studies show that a warm, caring, and responsive parent-child relationship is strongly linked to children's healthy development. When kids feel loved, they become attached to us. That attachment makes them receptive to our values.

Effective parents "see themselves as raising adults. They view their children as adults-in-the-making."

What does it mean to love our children? We do that by taking care of them: meeting their physical and emotional needs; showing affection; taking the long view, considering how our actions will affect the kind of person they are becoming; affirming them in authentic ways; showing interest in their lives and respecting them as individuals; spending time together; having meaningful communication; and sacrificing for them. Let me illustrate just some of these ways of making parental love real and felt in our relationships with our children.

Taking the Long View

In my graduate course on character education, I asked my students to write an essay on the question, "How did your parents affect your character development?" A young woman in her early twenties wrote this poignant response:

I was an only child, and my parents knowingly let me have my way most of the time to show how much they loved me. But the long-term effect on me is that I have struggled with selfishness my whole life. I'm used to getting my own way, and when someone goes against me, I take it very personally.

The Catholic educator James Stenson, in his book Compass: A Handbook on Parent Leadership, says that effective parents "see themselves as raising adults. They view their children as adults-in-the-making." That means asking: What will my kids be like when they are grown men and women? Will they be hardworking and responsible? Will they make loving husbands and wives and capable mothers and fathers? How might my actions now as a parent affect those outcomes?


In his book Healing the Unaffirmed, the Catholic psychotherapist Conrad Baars says that many of the patients he sees suffer from "emotional deprivation disorder." They struggle with feelings of being unloved and unlovable, oversensitive, insecure and afraid of life, depressed, and unable to make friends and relate to others. These feelings, Baars believes, stem from not receiving enough loving affirmation — and often getting far too much criticism — when they were growing up in their families.

Affirmation can be as simple as, "Thanks for doing the dishes — the kitchen looks great!" or a note in a kid's lunch bag: "Andy, have a good day at school. I love you. Dad." Or it can be a treasured family tradition, such as "The Christmas Love Letter" written by our friends John and Kathy Colligan. Kathy explains:

Each Christmas, my husband John and I would write a letter to each of our five kids and put it under the tree. We'd tell them what we loved and appreciated about them, the ways we'd seen them grow during the past year, the talents and character strengths we saw emerging, all the things we cherished. It was always the last present they opened, and the one that meant the most to them.

Together Time

One study asked adults to relate their favorite childhood memories. People typically remembered not expensive toys, clothes, or trips, but the simple things they did with their parents or as a family: playing board games, taking walks, playing catch, going swimming or fishing, outings for ice cream, tenting overnight in the backyard.

Meaningful Communication

Christian Barnard, originator of the heart transplant, recalled Sunday afternoon walks and talks with his father. They'd hike to the top of the hill by the dam, sit on a rock, and look down at the town below. "Then I would tell my problems to my father, and he would speak of his to me." This kind of one-on-one, emotionally intimate communication is especially important for building the bonds that give parents the inside track in a world of competing influences.

As a Catholic father once said, we should also "make a big deal of the family meal." That time is potentially an island of intimacy for sharing experiences, beliefs, and values. To make conversation meaningful and get everyone talking, it helps to have a topic: What was the best part and the hardest part of your day? What was something you learned today, in school or just from life? What's a way you helped someone, or someone helped you? What are you grateful for today? (For more family conversation starters, see the 2013 issue of excellence & ethics, our character education newsletter, at

Love as Sacrifice

One young woman, now a Sister of Life, says:

The language of my father's love was the sacrifices he made to be with his family. He was home for dinner every night, helped my mother with the cooking, and was always the last to sit down. Evenings were often spent helping us with our homework, weekends going to our games. His gentle encouragement helped me when I was struggling in school or sports. In receiving his love, I found that I not only wanted to love him, but I wanted to be good for him.

For many parents, there is no greater sacrifice than to endure the inevitable trials and sufferings of marriage. Says one mother: "The most important thing parents can do for their children is to love each other and stay together."

3. Exercise Authority Wisely

A friend from Australia says that since coming to the U.S., he has often witnessed the following scene: A parent he's talking with tells his or her child to do something. The child ignores the directive, says something disdainful like, "Yeah, right," and walks away. The parent then gestures helplessly to my Australian friend and says, "What can you do with a kid like that?"

Parents must have a strong sense of their moral authority — of having the right to be respected and obeyed. In The Moral Child, Stanford psychologist William Damon states that how well parents teach their child to respect their authority lays the foundation for future moral growth. In Take Back Your Kids, Catholic family psychologist William Doherty says that we face "an epidemic of insecure parenting." Insecure parents, he says, are skittish about exercising parental authority, refuse ever to get angry with their kids, and consequently allow their kids to walk all over them.

Occasional, non-abusive parental anger is necessary, as Doherty points out, particularly when kids are blatantly disrespectful or defiant. In the scenario above, described by my Australian friend, an appropriate parental response to the kid's contemptuous public disobedience would have been to take him by the collar, march him off to a private place, and say to him eye-to-eye: "Look, buster, I'm your mother. You don't talk to me like that — not at home, not in public, not ever. If you know what's good for you, you will do what I said — immediately."

Fortunately, there's solid research showing why and how to exercise parental authority. Berkeley psychologist Diana Baumrind observed families in their homes and identified three styles of parenting: authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive. Authoritarian parents used lots of commands and threats but little reasoning. Permissive parents were high on affection but low on authority. By contrast, authoritative parents combined confident authority with reasoning, fairness, love, and encouragement of age-appropriate self-reliance. At all developmental levels, Baumrind's research and other studies have shown that authoritative parents have the most secure, competent, and morally responsible kids.

In practice, authoritative parenting means at least five things.

First, we must take strong stands that are consistent with our values. For example, do we prohibit TV shows, movies, and video games that contain sex, graphic violence, or foul language; music with profane, lewd, or denigrating lyrics; all forms of pornography; immodest dress; parties where there's drinking; prom overnights? And do we explain to kids the reason for our rules, so they understand they're not arbitrary, but based on our love and concern for their welfare?

Second, we must have a zero tolerance policy for any kind of disrespectful back-talk, paying attention to both tone and content. When kids cross the line into disrespect, they need immediate, sometimes sharp corrective feedback, such as "What is your tone of voice?" or "You are not allowed to speak to me in that way, even when you're upset."

Third, we must make wise use of all the teachable moments presented by children's transgressions. Even small things — a mean remark to a sibling, a minor lie, a failure to do an assigned chore — should be taken seriously. Over time, dealing with the small stuff will have a cumulative effect on our child's conscience. If we let little things go, there won't be a foundation for dealing with bigger problems later on. If we don't correct rudeness in a six-year-old, we'll have trouble reigning in swearing and door-slamming by a sixteen-year-old.

Fourth, we should discipline in a way that gets kids to take responsibility for their actions. One way to do that is to make them their own judge and jury: "What do you think is a fair consequence for what you did?" Whenever possible, we should require restitution: "What can you do to make up for it?" If kids say, "I don't know," give them a choice of two things they could do to heal a hurt, restore family peace, help around the house, and so forth.

Finally, the wise exercise of parental authority requires vigilant supervision. The research on authoritative parents describes such parents as knowing where their kids are, who they're with, and what they're doing, including their online activity. These hands-on parents have teens with the lowest rates of sexual activity and drug and alcohol abuse. Meg Meeker, M.D., author of books such as Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters and Your Kids at Risk: How Teen Sex Threatens Our Sons and Daughters, gives this advice to parents: "Watch your kids like a hawk."

If you haven't established this kind of authoritative parenting style, you may need to give your child what I call the "obedience speech" (ideally when they're little, but it's never too late). In a quiet moment, explain:

The big idea we want to teach our kids is that obedience is a virtue.

There's something very important we want you to understand: mothers and fathers have the job of being in charge of the family. God gives us that responsibility. Kids have the job of obeying their parents — doing what we ask you to do. It's the same in school: A teacher is in charge of the classroom. Kids have to do what the teacher says.

So when we ask you to do something — come to dinner, pick up your toys, get ready for bed — you have to obey. You can't say, "No." That's not allowed. If you forget, we'll give you one reminder: "Remember our talk about obedience." If you continue to disobey, then there will have to be a consequence.

And we'd like you to obey cheerfully, without complaining. Obeying cheerfully makes the family a happier place for everybody.

Okay, can you tell me what I said? (Patiently review whatever needs repeating.)

The big idea we want to teach our kids is that obedience is a virtue. As David Isaacs points out in his book Character Building, "Children should be encouraged to obey not primarily out of fear — a low-level motive — but out of love, to help their parents. Obedience is the first step toward developing the virtue of generosity."

4. Teach By Example

Teaching by example includes treating our children with love and respect, but it goes well beyond that. One mother describes some of the many things her parents did that are etched in her memory:

My parents weren't perfect, but they were respectful of one another and supported each other in their childrearing decisions. No one in our family cursed. My mother was always helping out others in the community. My father showed tremendous kindness toward people and animals. Both of my parents were really interested in how people lived in past generations and in different cultures, and they fostered our understanding of that. They would also frequently voice their opinions about societal issues.

Many kids would have trouble answering the question, "What do your parents stand for?" If you've ever taken a stand in the workplace, participated in a protest, written a letter to the editor, or expressed a strong conviction that went against what others were saying, have you shared that, and your moral reasoning, with your children? Stands like these define your values and model moral courage.

We increase the power of our own example when we expose our children to other positive role models. The Giraffe Heroes Project ( has developed a bank of more than a thousand stories of everyday heroes of all ages who have shown compassion and courage by sticking out their necks for others. William Kilpatrick's Books That Build Character provides an annotated bibliography of hundreds of fiction and non-fiction books whose admirable characters will live in a young person's imagination.

The website catalogs hundreds of good films that offer positive role models and strong character themes. And we should be sure to tap the rich resource provided by the lives of the saints (see Mary Reed Newland's excellent book The Saints and Our Children).

5. Teach Directly

If we want to maximize the positive impact of our example, our kids need to know the values and beliefs that lie behind it. We need to practice what we preach, but we also need to preach what we practice.

Moral heroes — people who rescued Jews from the Holocaust, for example — have described their parents as both modeling and explicitly teaching high moral standards. For example, one rescuer said, "My mother always said to do some good for someone at least once a day."

We can start by directly teaching everyday manners: "Say please and thank you." "Don't interrupt someone who's speaking." "Look at a person who's talking to you." "Clear your dishes from the table." Hundreds of small 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 be unkind — to call names, bully, or exclude others? Because you wouldn't want to be treated that way. Because when you do those things, it creates an "inside hurt" for the other person. You can't see it, but it hurts more, and often lasts longer, than an "outside hurt" that you can see. Why is it wrong to lie? Because lying destroys trust, and trust is the basis of any relationship.

We should also directly teach the fundamentals of our faith, starting with the three purposes of our lives: salvation (getting to heaven and helping others get there), service (using our gifts to build God's kingdom here on earth), and holiness (growing closer to God and becoming more like Jesus). We should make a list of other Catholic truths we want to teach our children, for example:

  • There is such a thing as truth. We're Catholic because we believe what the Church teaches is true. Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit, the source of all truth, to guide the Church when it teaches about faith and morals.
  • Life is sacred, from conception until natural death. We must respect and defend it.
  • We have a special duty to help Christ's "least ones" the poor, homeless, disabled, sick, oppressed, and unborn.
  • Sex is the beautiful gift of a good God, but he reserves it for the marriage of a husband and wife.

6. Solve Conflicts Fairly

Conflicts — between parents and kids or kids and each other — are an unavoidable part of family life. They can lead to a build-up of tension, explosions of yelling and screaming, and a residue of anger and alienation. But handled in the right way, conflicts can make a family stronger, teach kids responsibility for helping to create a happy family, and develop listening and problem-solving skills they can use throughout their lives.

In my work with parents, I've encouraged them to have sit-down family meetings weekly, or as needed, to address the issues that cause conflicts. Here's my eight-step recipe for a successful family meeting:

  1. Choose a practical problem, such as morning hassles, bedtime battles, kids not getting along — perhaps a problem that was a source of tension during the previous week.
  2. In the days before your first family meeting, lay the groundwork that will help it be a positive experience, not an exchange of accusations or put-downs. Have at least a brief individual conversation with each family member. See how they feel about the problem. Explain that the purpose of the family meeting will be to "find a solution that's fair to everyone." Set a time to meet. However, if the time arrives and the family atmosphere isn't good, postpone the meeting.
  3. Start the family meeting with a prayer. To create a flow of positive feelings, do a quick round of what our family called Appreciation Time: "What's something that someone in the family did for you lately that you appreciated?"
  4. Then set ground rules for discussion. Give everybody a voice in that. Ask, "What rules will help us have respectful talking and listening?" (Examples: "One person speaks at a time." "Look at and listen to the person who's talking.")
  5. Emphasize again that the purpose of a family meeting is cooperative problem-solving, not blaming. "Let's have a positive discussion where everybody helps to solve the problem. Please express your feelings in a nice way." (Expect to have to remind kids of this during the meeting.)
  6. Go around the table, giving everyone a chance to express a point of view. Write down proposed solutions. Discuss those and combine them into an agreed-upon plan.
  7. Keep the meeting's pace brisk and, ideally, under half an hour.
  8. Sign and post your Family Agreement — including when you'll meet again to discuss how it's working and what changes, if any, are needed to make it work better.

It will take some practice for family meetings to feel natural and go smoothly. But stick with it, and you'll reap the rewards. Studies have found that over time, these problem-solving sessions make for more cooperative kids and happier, less stressful households.

7. Provide Authentic Experiences of the Faith

Research has found that youth who frequently attend religious services and say their faith is important to them exhibit lower levels of sexual activity and drug and alcohol use, and higher levels of altruistic attitudes and behaviors. How can we foster the kind of faith that is not just professed but lived out in everyday life? One Catholic family had a tradition of a partial fast every Monday night (broth for the parents, a piece of fruit for the kids) and sending the money saved to Catholic Relief Services. A Catholic father found that volunteering with his self-centered fifteen-year-old son at the city's soup kitchen got the son thinking less about the latest stuff he wanted and more about the needs of others. Service gives us a chance to remind our kids of what Jesus said: When we care for his "least ones," we are loving Christ himself.

Catholics who want the faith to take root in their kids make sure they not only get to Mass but also go to Confession. Confession requires us to examine our conscience, tell God we're sorry for our sins, and resolve to do better. We encounter Jesus and experience his forgiveness.

But why do so many kids raised in families of faith, even those that practice regularly, fall away when they leave home? The late Father Hugh Thwaites said that in his experience, there are three reasons. The first is sin. "Before there is a spiritual falling away, there is usually a moral falling away."

The second reason is that the young person "never personally grasped the meaning of the faith." Religion was just a set of external behaviors. The third reason is linked with the second: The young person did not have a personal prayer life. "The absence of any prayer life," Father Thwaites said, "will so weaken the spiritual life that it will be unable to meet the onslaughts of a pagan world. What food and drink is to the body, prayer is to the soul."

How can we help our kids develop the habit of personal prayer? Our beloved Monsignor Minehan, before God took him home, would tell the teens in our parish preparing for Confirmation to give God just two minutes, two quiet minutes, at the start of the day. Don't fake it, he said. Talk to God as if he's right there — which, of course, he is. ("God, there's this kid at school … I'd like to rearrange his face. What should I do?") And then shut up and listen. As Mother Teresa said, "God speaks to us in the silence of our hearts."

If kids draw close to God in prayer, they will usually find that God draws close to them. Here's a high school boy:

Before, I didn't even think about God. I never prayed. But when you're a teenager, you face a lot of problems. Now I believe that, basically, you need God. You can always go to him. When you pray, your problem might not get fixed when you want, or the way you want, but you will get help.

So teach your kids to pray. Let them see you pray, pray with them, pray over them, and pray for them. And talk to them about when, why, and how you pray.

And yet, even after developing a prayer relationship with God, we can still fall away. To keep the elements of a close relationship with God always in mind, our family has an index card on the refrigerator that lists the "5 Ingredients of the Spiritual Life":

  • Mental and vocal prayer
  • The Mass and the sacraments
  • Spiritual reading
  • Self-denial
  • Good works

During the college years and beyond, when the surrounding environment may be hostile to faith, spiritual reading becomes especially important. For my wife Judy and me, the works of C.S. Lewis, in the early years of our marriage, got us started on the path of reading good spiritual books. Ralph Martin's Hungry for God introduced me to the notion of seeking "intimacy with God." If our kids don't get such books for themselves, we can include them among their presents on Christmas and birthdays.

A caveat in closing: There is not a one-to-one correspondence between our efforts as parents and the choices our children will make, now or in the future. But while we don't control the person our child becomes, we should take to heart the advice of an old rabbi: "The worst mistake parents can make is to underestimate their influence." God gives us countless opportunities to help our children grow in goodness and to come to know, love, and serve him. We must do all we can, with the help of his grace, to aid them on that journey.

Yes, it's hard work (maybe not rocket science), but no work is more worthwhile.


Above is chapter 7 from
Catholic and Married: Leaning Into Love.
The stories and wisdom shared in this book
will encourage you to lean into love.
To hold nothing back.
And to experience the
Catholic marriage
God intended for you.
Order it here.



This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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lickonaThomas Lickona. "Parenting Skills: It's Not Rocket Science." chapter seven from Catholic and Married: Leaning Into Love (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2014): 105-124.

Reprinted with permission of Thomas Lickona and Our Sunday Visitor

The Author

lickona1lickonakk1Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., is a psychologist and educator who has been called "the father of modern character education." A professor of education emeritus at State University of New York, Cortland, he is the founding director of the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility) and is the author of How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain,  Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues and Educating for Character. He has also written Raising Good Children and co-authored Sex, Love and You. Tom Lickona is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Visit his web site here

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