Dr. Thomas Lickona, a developmental psychologist and professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland, talks about his new book, How to Raise Kind Kids and Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain.
Thanks for joining us this week forFamily Policy Matters. As parents, we all strive to raise kind and respectful children, and we also desire to develop a pleasing and happy family environment. But far too often these days, it seems like there are forces throughout the culture that are working counter to these laudable goals.
Our guest today is Dr. Thomas Lickona, who has written a new book entitled, How to Raise Kind Kids and Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain.
Dr. Lickona, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you back on the show with us.
TOM LICKONA: It’s great to be back.
JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Lickona, you talk about, in your book, a supporting cast of ten virtues that are essential to creating a positive family environment that fosters kindness and respect. As we begin, if you would, list those ten virtues for our listeners, and talk about why they are so important in the development of our young people?
TOM LICKONA: The very first virtue, which is actually sometimes overlooked, is “wisdom”—plain old good judgment. The Greeks actually consider it the master virtue because it guides the application of all the others. It tells us how to be kind, how to exert self-control, how to be fair in any given situation. So, we want to encourage our children to take the time to think: What’s the best decision here?; Is this right or is this wrong what my friends are doing?; to really stop and think and pull upon their values and best resources. The second great virtue is “justice.” Justice is treating all people with respect for their inherent dignity, their rights, their worth as a person. It extends to respect for animals, for the natural environment that is necessary to sustain all life. And we need to teach our kids that there are really two kinds of “injustice.” There’s harming another person, actually hurting somebody, but there’s also failing to protect another person from injury, from injustice. So, we have an obligation to avoid hurting, but also extend help when somebody else is a victim of bullying, for example, in the schoolyard, or any kind of unkindness or injustice. The third great virtue is “fortitude.” That includes lots of sub-virtues. It’s the strength of character that enables us to do what’s right when it’s hard to do so. So perseverance, determination, resilience—all those are part—courage, moral courage, physical courage, all those are part of the virtue of fortitude. […] You need fortitude to deal with all the challenges and tests of life. Life is difficult. It is not an easy road. There are going to be struggles and setbacks and you need fortitude so that you can keep going. There’s an old saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
The fourth virtue is “self-control.” This is the ability to govern our desires. There’s an old saying, “Either we rule our desires or our desires rule us.” And that means self-control of our appetites, our emotions, our impulses, the ability to wait, to delay gratification. All those kinds of things are part of the great virtue of self-control. A global survey showed that most people worldwide rank self-control their weakest character quality, the one they find the most challenging. A good family discussion is: Why is that so?, How do we resist temptation?, How do we control our temper?, and so on.
The fifth great virtue is “Love,” which includes kindness and empathy and forgiveness and compassion, generosity. All those are part of the great virtue of love, which is different from justice in that it goes beyond the requirements of fairness. We go the extra mile. We do more than fairness demands. And love, of course, in the view of many philosophers and in the view of many religious writers, is the wellspring of all the other virtues. It’s what motivates us to care about character, to want to be the best person we can be.
Sixth virtue is “Positive Attitude,” to realize that our attitude is always a choice, that we are in charge of our attitude. There is an old saying from Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right?” So our attitude really is tremendously important. It affects everybody around us. If we have a positive attitude, we lift others up: If we have a negative attitude we drag them down.
“Hard work” is the seventh great virtue. Nobody accomplishes anything worthwhile without it. There are a lot of great quotes that capture that. Wilmer Rudolph said, “The impossible just takes a little bit longer.” So you cannot over-emphasize that too much. Our children need to learn to work. Hard work isn’t always fun but it’s essential to accomplish anything.
“Integrity” is the eighth great virtue. This is honesty to and with others, telling the truth, respecting their property, not stealing, not cheating, but it’s also honesty with ourselves. One of the greatest dangers in the moral life, the life of character, is self-deception. If we lie to ourselves, rationalize our behavior, make excuses, then we’re capable of doing anything and killing our conscience in order to be at ease with what we’ve done.
“Gratitude” is the ninth great virtue. It’s the secret to a happy life. It means expressing thanks for benefits received. Saying “thank you” is an act of love. We should teach our children that. You can never express too much appreciation.
The final virtue, which in a sense motivates the whole quest for character, is “humility.” And that’s the virtue that keeps us wanting to be a better person, striving to improve, correcting our faults and failings, admitting our mistakes, basically, being able to apologize for wrongs that we do and then setting things right
So those are the ten essential virtues. They make up good character. These are [embraced] by religions and cultures around the world. You can find them in stories. Children’s literature typically exemplifies these virtues—good literature does. They serve as a supporting cast. Kindness doesn’t stand alone. It needs a supporting cast.
JOHN RUSTIN: Thank you for that review. Those ten virtues are so important and really critical in character development. You speak in terms, Dr. Lickona, of parents being a “character coach” for their children. I think we all recognize that as parents, whether we want to or not. We set examples for our children in both good and bad ways. 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: it’s 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 expect, reasonably, 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 the wiring. They have to practice it and you have to anticipate. We had the grandchildren over for a Wednesday night dinner and there’s ice cream at the end. We remind them before we have a chance to ask whether they want the Rocky Road or the Chocolate Chip or the Strawberry, before they say their choice, their preference: “May I please have…” not “I want strawberry….” “I want chocolate….” but “May I please have…..” It’s a matter of practicing, practicing, practicing, until it becomes second nature, until it becomes natural, until it becomes natural and you don’t even have to think about it once it’s at the level of habit. 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.”—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. 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. Then you can back off, watch from a distance. Parents and teachers are both amazed when they see children mastering the skills of conflict resolution. It takes tremendous burden off the shoulders of the adults when that happens.
JOHN RUSTIN: Wow, those are great principles! I know that my wife and I went through marital counseling early on in our marriage and much of that counseling centered around exactly what you talked about—about learning to communicate effectively, and to have empathy and sympathy for the other person and really understand well the issues that were being confronted and so forth. It sounds like character coaching, as is true in many areas of our life, is really an intentional action by the parents to engage children and set the example and that sort of thing. I know one of the items you talk about in your book is that children really thrive on a combination of support and challenge. Give us some tangible examples of how parents can intentionally create this kind of environment for their children that helps them even progress further in their development?
TOM LICKONA: Sure. You used the word “intentional” and I think that’s really key. In today’s culture especially, we need a higher level of intentionality on the part of parents. We need to take very deliberate steps to teach these character virtues, these character skills. I think it starts with having a family mission statement. Sitting down together with your children saying: “What kind of a family do we want to be?”; “What are the values and virtues that we care most deeply about?” Write those down in a series of “We” statements. Here’s a family, for example: four kids, [ages] nine, seven, six and four when they did this. The statements they ended up with were: We commit to being kind, honest and fair; We don’t lie, cheat, steel or hurt someone on purpose; We don’t whine, complain or make excuses; When we make a mistake, we learn from it and move on; We work to keep our minds, bodies and souls healthy, strong, pure; We commit to learning and growing in our faith as a Christian family—their faith was very important to them; and, trust in God’s goodness—we live with an attitude of gratitude. And then the father commented: We hang this in the kitchen. We review it at the start of the week, mostly we refer to it when we hit a bump in the road some time during the week, and it gives us a framework [so we’re] not starting from scratch. We’ve got this to draw upon. Gradually, the children learn the language of it more thoroughly. They begin to internalize it and it becomes part of their conscience and character. Then you follow through on that. And here’s really where I think the rubber meets the road and it’s the real challenge because a Mission Statement can become just words on the wall unless you hold yourselves accountable. So I strongly recommend to families that they do a weekly family meeting. Maybe 20-30 minutes on a Sunday night. You look back on the week that’s just happened. You start out with a prayer, ask God to help you show love to each other, to be grateful for His love and care. And then perhaps you say something you appreciate about what each family member did during the week for you. That gets a flow of good feelings. Then you say: What was last week like? What was good? What was not so good? What was a problem that we had that we maybe could work on in the week to come: You identify the problem then say: Right. The purpose here isn’t to blame anybody. Let’s put our heads together and try to solve it. And then just go around the table. Everybody speaks their peace and you listen carefully, active listening, and try to put the solutions together. You write it up, everybody signs it, and it goes on the fridge. And say: When shall we talk about it to see how it’s going?:—Maybe a couple of days later but certainly at the next family meeting—How was it better? How can we make further improvements? And that gives you a sense of co-creating with your family. Your children become sharers in that responsibility. It’s not just the parents’ job to make a happy, peaceful family. It’s everybody’s job. And if there’s a problem—and there always will be problems in family life—you’re not facing those alone as a parent. You can sit down, pool your resources, pull together, and with the grace of God have a better week ahead.
JOHN RUSTIN: You’ve been listening to part one 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. I encourage you to tune in to Family Policy Matters next week for part two of this discussion. Thank you for listening!
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