Dr. Thomas Lickona, a developmental psychologist and professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland, discusses his new book, How to Raise Kind Kids and Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain.
JOHN RUSTIN: Welcome to Family Policy Matters. This week we’re pleased to bring you part two of a discussion with Dr. Thomas Lickona about his new book, How to Raise Kind Kids and Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain. We hope you enjoy the show. Dr. Lickona, you speak in terms of parents being a “character coach” for their children. Talk about this concept of being a “character coach” and how does that differ from parents just kind of living life out at home on a daily basis.
TOM LICKONA: There’s a great tendency—mistake that I think all of us parents [make]: thinking that words alone will do the job. If we say, “How many times do I have to tell you to do that?” Or, “How many times do I have to tell you not to do that?” And we think that, just as long as we repeat the words, it’s going to somehow instill the virtue. But virtues are habits. This goes all the way back to Aristotle and it comes down through Christian tradition. Virtues aren’t mere thoughts; they’re habits to be developed by performing virtuous actions again and again and again. You can’t reasonably expect that a child will start saying, “please” and “thank you” if you tell them that once or twice or three times. You have to tell them hundreds of times until it finally gets in their wiring. They have to practice it and you have to anticipate. And then there are more complex, sensitive skills. For example, sibling conflict is a huge challenge in every family. The kids fight with each other, parents then yell at the kids, and the whole house is upset. So, I really encourage parents to have a dedicated space in the home for conflict resolution. You can call it the “Solution Circle,” the “Talk It Out Space,” the “Conflict Corner.” And you have the steps posted for how to solve a conflict if you’re having an argument or some sort of a problem with your sibling. Step one is you calm down, take three deep breaths, count slowly to ten, longer if you need to, and then you take turns saying what you think the problem is, what your feelings are about it. Then, you show understanding of the other person by bouncing back what they’ve said. That’s a skill called active listening. [It’s] tremendously important in conflict resolution, and will be of ongoing importance as you get older, in your marriages and so on. Being able to show that you have heard the other person and you have taken the trouble to demonstrate that you’ve understood what they have to say, and they have a chance to correct it if you didn’t get it right. Then you take turns in saying what you think is a fair solution. And, finally you agree on what is fair to both parties of the conflict. Now, in the beginning, the parents have to actually walk kids through that and say,”Step two is this,” and coach them, give them feedback. Just the same as when you teach a kid to hit a ball or shoot a basket, you don’t expect a lecture to produce a skill in sports. You understand it’s going to take many tries, lots of feedback, trying again, until they get the skill and a higher level of mastery. It’s the same with character skills. It takes demonstration, feedback, continuing practice, encouragement and so on, until it becomes part of their repertoire.
JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Lickona, obviously our children in the formative stages of life spend a tremendous amount of time in school. What partnering role can parents and educators play in creating a positive and reinforcing environment in their children’s school, so our kids are not just learning these virtues at home but they’re also learning them from their teachers and other folks within the educational environment?
TOM LICKONA: There should be lots of two way communication. The character education movement, which is really under renewal, was something that was present in our founding when every kid had to go to school for two reasons: to learn literacy and to basically learn virtues in order to be a good citizen in a democratic society. We’re getting back to that and it’s really been growing into a national, and even international movement, over the last three decades. And it basically involves trying to create the same kind of culture in the school that you’re creating in the family and vice versa. The processes are really parallel: What works in the home, works in school and the other way around. There’s research that shows the basic processes are very similar in both domains. And certainly, telling the principal or whoever is listening, you care every bit as much about character as you do about academics, and possibly even more. You want your child to be a good person and you support the school and whatever it does to help the children grow in character, and you appreciate the reinforcement of what you’re trying to do in family life. So, the school knows that this is a priority. Lots of schools have the impression that parents care more about test scores and grades than they do about whether their child is kind and respectful. That, in fact, is not the case when you do surveys. Parents say they care more about the child’s kindness, respect and honesty and responsibility, than they do about the grades. Not that the grades aren’t important, but they value character most highly. Ironically, parents and teachers have just the opposite perceptions of each other: Teachers think parents care more about test scores; Parents think teachers care more about test scores. So we need to get on the same page and realize that we both care deeply about character. And the school and the family are the two great formative institutions, along with religion, the third, which historically has been responsible for passing out a legacy of good values for the next generation. And if we can start pulling together, it’ll make a difference in our culture.
JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Lickona, no matter how well we raise our children, and no matter how kind they may be, it is inevitable that at some point, they are going to confront a bully or another kid who is just plain mean. How can we prepare our children to process and respond appropriately to these kinds of situations and not be concerned that all the good things we’ve tried to instill in them at home kind of come completely unraveled when they confront this type of conflict?
TOM LICKONA: That’s an excellent question because the real world includes people who are not kind in their habitual approach to other human beings, and in fact, are just the opposite. And for us all to have the humility to recognize that we each have unkind moments, we’re each capable of cruelty, so we all can reflect on ways we’ve not been kind so that we all bring that humility to the situation. But there are some kids who sort of make a practice of meanness, and unfortunately, get very good at it. So we need to prepare our children for that. They will encounter those bullies. We’ve got a good friend who happens to be my surgeon. His two fine sons are bright, kind boys, and they’ve each been called “gay” by their high school classmates and told that they should kill themselves. It got to the point where these boys asked if they could go to another school. So, we do need to prepare our kids going into the school environment. It can be even a private school. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a public [school] to encounter this vicious behavior on the part of some of the peers. So, first of all, to think to yourself as one quote says, “Everybody’s fighting a hard battle.” In a sense, I feel sympathetic and understanding: Why do these kids act this way; People who hurt others are hurting themselves, typically. And the research shows kids like this come from homes where there’s often harsh punishment, where they don’t get the love they need, or maybe there isn’t the support that every child needs. So that’s one perspective that helps. Second, not to instinctively lash back with a verbal retaliation, while at the same time taking care of yourself so you’re not a victim. You can protect yourself from being a victim in a couple of ways: First of all, avoid a situation where you think you’re going to encounter these; Second of all, be with a friend. Bullies pick on people who are not with somebody else. So that’s important. Also, tell our kids to be peer allies if someone is being victimized by bullies. You hang with that kid. You give them some protection. You have their back as it were. You can even offer them emotional support: “Hey, don’t pay attention to that kid. Let’s go and have lunch together; I’ll see you later in the halls or on the bus,” whatever, just something that befriends the kid who has been the victim of bullying. Finally, I really recommend self-defense. Our older son was sort of a passive kid in elementary school. We found out after elementary school that he was picked on by some boys in the playground, I don’t know how serious. We didn’t see evidence that he was really upset by this, but he acknowledged that he has faced that kind of peer cruelty in his elementary school experience. Later on, when he was delivering papers as a 13-year-old in Boston, he was attacked in the streets early one morning. He delivered the Boston Globe before school started, and he came home shaking like a leaf. This kid held him at knifepoint, he was probably on drugs, probably 19 years old. So we took karate lessons after that, father and son, and as a seventh grader he developed the skills of being able to handle himself. He only used this once when he got back in our hometown. We returned from Boston, a kid jumped him from behind, he made a move, pulled the kid’s ankle from under the kid and the kid went flying backwards on his back, and nobody messed with our son after that. But the real change is when you know you can defend yourself, you send off different signals. You carry yourself with more confidence. So I do think self-defense for girls and boys. These days, girls are increasingly at risk of sexual assault. Lord have mercy, we’re in a bad spot culturally regarding that. And I think it’s good to know these basic skills of self defense.
JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Lackona, what would you say to parents whose kids are older and who may think it is too late to create a home environment that espouses virtue and kindness? Based on your experience, is there a time at which these efforts really become futile, or is there always hope for parents to break bad habits and to form new ones that can bring things that you talk about in your book: kindness, respect, and gratitude, into the home?
TOM LICKONA: It’s never too late. There are stories of […] killers in prison having religious conversions and starting a whole new life walking in faith, and so on. And there are stories of individuals. I remember a kid, he was a mean kind of kid in high school, and I saw him a couple of years later, he’d been in the military for two to three years and he was a totally different person. He was courteous, friendly, just a different person. He had matured. I think the military, as an institution, can be a character-building experience for many or most people who have that experience and he came out a different person. So there’s a huge potential always to grow, it’s never too late. But it may mean that you have to build a relationship with your child. Often, children get caught up in negative dynamics. Maybe you need to say, “Look, we’ve been down a rocky road. I’ve made some mistakes, I want to understand your feelings about things.” Take a long walk in the woods and have a heart-to-heart, and then you make a plan for what you want to do differently, including rules, giving your child a chance to speak up for what they think is fair so that they have some voice. Try to respect them and understand where they’re coming from and then you make a new start. You do something like these family meetings and a family mission statement. And then you make sure you build in the connective rituals so you’ve maintaining that one-on-one time. You’re not just managing behavior; you’re spending some time together doing something that you both enjoy. Let your child choose where they want to go for breakfast on a Saturday or where they want to get a pizza and so on. Keep that one-on-one time going so you’ve strengthened the bond that gives you the inside track in a world of competing influence. It’s never too late. Kids can turn around. There may be things happening in their life that are disruptive, maybe there’s problems at school, maybe you’ve had a traumatic experience, you may need family counseling, family therapy in certain circumstances, but never throw in the towel. And of course, praying with kids and asking God for the grace to deal with whatever challenges they face is tremendously important. We’re not in this alone.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s a great encouragement as we conclude our discussion. Dr. Lickona, before we leave, I want to give you an opportunity to let our listeners know where they can go to get a copy of your new book, How to Raise kind kids and Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain.
TOM LICKONA: You can go to my author website which is simply thomaslickona.com. There’ll be a link to places to order the book. There are three different choices. Some people like Amazon, other people prefer other booksellers, so there are three choices for that. There are other books that I’ve done in the past [that] some people might be interested in, and some free resources they can tap into. We have character education [in] our college for respect and responsibility, and a lot of free materials that schools can use in character education.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s great. I’m sure many of our listeners will avail themselves of that valuable information and will want to get a copy of your book, How to Raise kind kids and Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain.With that, Dr. Thomas Lickona, I want to thank you so much for joining us on Family Policy Matters, and for your ongoing work to help parents and teachers raise kind and virtuous kids.
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