Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and author of the new book, How to Raise Kind Kids and Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain. Often called “the father of modern character development,” Dr. Lickona is the author of several books on children and character, a Catholic, and an associate member of the American College of Pediatricians. He and his wife have two grown sons and 15 grandchildren.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Lickona on the topic of raising kids in a culture of consumerism, so I was eager to read his latest book.
He starts off with humor and humility by acknowledging that “there’s no secret formula for raising kids, no 10 easy steps that can guarantee the outcome.” He wryly muses that a more accurate title for his book might be How, on Your Good Days, to Try to Get a Little Bit Better at Helping Your Kids Be a Little Bit Kinder.
That said, the book is a treasure trove of constructive ideas and helpful anecdotes for parents trying their best to raise children who are kind, respectful and caring in a world that doesn’t always value or encourage those character traits. Lickona covers everything from dealing with discipline, to handling social media, to avoiding the dangers of our hypersexualized culture.
Here are three of his practical proposals that stood out to me.
Make a Family Mission Statement
Be clear about the values — such as kindness — you want to foster in your children. Dr. Lickona urges parents to create a family mission statement that spells out explicitly what your family’s values are. He suggests posting it where everyone can see it and refer to it. He provides an example of one family’s mission statement:
- We commit to being kind, honest and trustworthy, and fair.
- We don’t lie, cheat, steal or hurt someone on purpose.
- 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.
When behavior problems arise, when conflicts occur, a family mission statement can serve as a point of reference for everyone. It also provides, in written form, a shared understanding of what it means to be a member of your particular family.
Have Family Meetings
Dr. Lickona believes that having regular family meetings is one of the best ways to build a positive family culture. They can be used to solve problems, resolve sibling issues, work out bedtime battles, discuss policies on matters such as screen time and doing chores. As children participate in solving problems, they have an opportunity to help create a happy family. And parents have an opportunity to share values. “It’s the time,” he writes, “when you are the most explicit about the kind of family you want to be.”
At their own first family meeting, when their sons were 7 and 2, the Lickonas had two conversation starters prepared to get things moving: “One thing I like about our family is…” and “I would be happier in our family if…” Each family member got a turn. Dr. Lickona said that he’d be happier if they could get their older son, Mark, up each morning without a problem. Mark himself proposed a solution. He suggested that when waking him up, his parents remind him of something he was looking forward to that day. And it helped!
Here are a few tips from Dr. Lickona for making the most of family meetings:
- Start with a half-hour meeting once a week.
- Have popcorn or another snack ready so kids look forward to it.
- Have one person speak at a time, with no interrupting.
- Discourage blaming and focus on problem-solving.
- After each person has spoken, summarize what he or she said so that everyone feels he or she has been understood.
- Ask everyone for suggested solutions.
Dr. Lickona recounts speaking with a father recently about the family meetings he and his wife have been doing for about a year with their four children. “After the kids learned in our family meetings how to solve conflicts by talking things out, they began doing this on their own with other conflicts,” he told Lickona. “For us, this was a surprise – and one of the big benefits of doing family meetings.”
Learn How to Talk Together
Like most parents, Dr. Lickona often got one-word responses to questions he’d ask his sons. “How was school?” “Fine.” “How’d the game go?” “Great.” And, of course, “What did you do at school today?” “Nothing.”
So one day he asked his then 13-year-old if he’d ask him a question for a change. “Okay, Dad, how are your courses going?” Lickona realized he’d never talked about his college teaching to either of his sons. He’d never shared anything about a crucial part of his life with his children. So he told Mark about his courses that semester, what was going well and what wasn’t, and why. When Mark answered his question about how his courses were going, Lickona says, “It felt like a real conversation.” From then on, whenever they were together, doing chores or riding in the car, Lickona and his son would do what he calls “back-and-forth questions.” “What’s been the best part of your day?” “What’s on your mind these days?” Those back-and-forth questions became a tradition in the Lickona family.
When speaking to groups of parents, Lickona always encourages them to try talking with their children in this way. “If you do only one thing differently after tonight,” he tells them, “I hope you’ll try back-and-forth questions. It will enrich your family relationships and teach your children the art of conversation – a gift that will last a lifetime.”
Here are some of Dr. Lickona’s suggested conversation starters:
- What was the best part of your day and why?
- What is something you learned today in school or from life?
- What’s something you accomplished this week that you feel good about?
- What are you grateful for today?
- What’s something you’re worried about?
- What’s the hardest thing about being your age? The best thing?
- What do you wish we did more often as a family?
The most important question we can ask ourselves as parents is this: What kind of people do we want our children to be – as we’re raising them and when they’re all grown up.
“Of all the virtues that make up character, love has been considered by many philosophers to be the wellspring of all the others,” Lickona writes. “No virtue is more central to love than kindness.”
How to Raise Kind Kids will guide parents in passing on their values and providing the environment that brings out the best in their children.