Raising Teenagers to be Kind and Grateful

Raising Kind Kids

Parenting takes many shapes. We want our tween and teens to succeed academically. We hope they flourish socially. Yet one crucial area of adolescent development that may not get as much attention is their character – are they being honest, loyal, and compassionate? Are they being respectful in the home and outside it?

The Center for Parent and Teen Communication’s Q&A series is focused on character development and other essential topics related to raising teenagers today. We’re talking with bestselling authors and experts in the fields of parenting, psychology, medicine, positive youth development, social media, and resilience. Senior Writer for the CPTC, Allison Gilbert, an award-winning journalist, continues this exciting initiative with a conversation with Developmental Psychologist Thomas Lickona, PhD.  Dr. Lickona is the Founding Director of the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (Respect and Responsibility) and author of nine books on character, including How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain.

Thomas Lickona, Developmental Psychologist, expert in
Thomas Lickona, PhD

Allison Gilbert: Your latest book, How to Raise Kind Kids, centers on kindness and other virtues that make up good character. How can a parent explain to a teen why character matters?

Thomas Lickona: Here’s what I say when I talk to teens: Look around. Who enjoys true happiness and a sense of fulfillment? Character is the key to self-respect and respect for others, a good reputation, a clear conscience, peace of mind, the development of your talents, work done well, positive relationships — in fact, to success and happiness in every area of life.

What does it mean to be a person of character? Being the best person you can be. That doesn’t mean being perfect. We all make mistakes and act in ways that don’t reflect our best self. Kids do; parents do. Developing good character means trying to be your best self more of the time. When you make a mistake, admit it — and learn from it.

AG: Which virtues are the most important for teens to develop?

TL: I believe there are ten virtues that comprise good character, and they’re all important. Each needs the others as a “supporting cast.” The ancient Greeks considered wisdom, or good judgment, the master virtue because it tells us how to put the other virtues into practice. Others include fortitude, or inner toughness (the ability to do what’s right in the face of difficulty or danger); self-control (the capability to govern ourselves, control our temper); and kindness (the disposition to care about the happiness of others).

Another essential virtue is plain old hard work. Booker T. Washington said, “Nothing ever comes to us that is worth having except as the result of hard work.” The virtue of humility makes us aware of our shortcomings and motivates us to be better. In contrast, pride is the worst vice because it blinds us to our faults.

If we want to raise children of good moral character — with kindness and respect at the core —we have to be intentional about creating a family culture that is strong enough to withstand the toxic influences of the wider culture.

AG: How can parents instill these virtues in their teenagers?

TL: At all age levels, I find many parents struggle with teaching respect, especially respect for their authority as parents. And if we don’t teach that, we’re going to have trouble teaching any of these important virtues.

Here are six ways I suggest parents teach respect:

  1. Respect your children. Take a genuine interest in their lives. Teach the art of conversation; engage them in back-and-forth questions where you ask them a question (e.g., “What was the best part and the hardest part of your day?”), and then encourage them to ask you the same question.
  2. Require respect. Have a “no tolerance” policy for disrespectful talk and less-than-respectful non-verbal responses like rolling the eyes. Demonstrate what respect sounds like and looks like as shown by tone, content, and body language — and do the same with disrespect.
  3. Model respect in your words and actions. Set an example by how you talk to each other as parents and how you treat and talk about others outside the family.
  4. Insist on respect for all family members. Don’t allow siblings to tell each other to “shut up,” call names, or be rude or disrespectful in any other way.
  5. Correct disrespect firmly. When kids speak or act disrespectfully, give immediate corrective feedback: “Can you say that in a more respectful way?” “What is your tone of voice?” “Do you need to go to your room, calm down, and we’ll talk about this later?”
  6. Establish a consequence for disrespect that continues after a correction. In a calm moment, explain to your child: “There needs to be a consequence if you continue to be disrespectful after one reminder. What do you think would be a fair and effective consequence?”  When teenagers help to set the consequence, they’re more likely to accept it as fair when you have to enforce it.

AG: Is it ever too late?

TL: It’s never too late. Obviously, the sooner we begin deliberate efforts to build good character, the better. But even if you haven’t gotten off on the right foot, you can still make a course correction.  Take a walk with your child. Be humble. Say, “Being a parent isn’t easy; you learn on the job. You’ll find that out yourself someday if you have children. I’ve made my share of mistakes as a parent. But I’d like for us to make a new start and work together to make a happier family.”

Then sit down together as a family and start with a practical problem you had last week —morning hassles, screen policies, chores, sibling conflicts, whatever may have been a source of tension and trouble. Set rules for respectful talking and listening, go around the table to get everyone’s perspective on the problem, then around again to get positive suggestions for making the next week better, and finally combine those into a plan that everyone signs — including when you’ll talk again to discuss how it’s working. Studies find these family problem-solving discussions, during which everyone’s voice is valued, make for more respectful, more cooperative kids and less stressful households. This is giving your children an authentic responsibility: becoming co-creators of a happy family.

AG: You founded The Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (Respect and Responsibility at SUNY Cortland in 1994. What’s changed in character education and the culture in the last two decades that parents of teenagers should know about right now?

TL: If we want to raise children of good moral character — with kindness and respect at the core —we have to be intentional about creating a family culture that is strong enough to withstand the toxic influences of the wider culture. I believe four cultural changes have made the work of raising kind and respectful children more challenging than ever:

  • An increasingly angry, polarized, and uncivil political culture
  • A parenting culture of entitlement (parents do all the giving, kids do all the taking)
  • The dominance of electronic screens (and reduction of conversations through which values are transmitted)
  • A hypersexualized culture (sexualisation of children at younger ages, normalization of extreme sexual behavior, and increased access to pornography)

In How to Raise Kind Kids, I suggest ways parents can push back against these powerful cultural forces. Religion can be a strong ally. Research finds teens who say their faith is important to them exhibit higher levels of altruism and are significantly more likely to avoid drugs and alcohol, sexual activity, and delinquency. Another way parents can push back is to create a Family Mission Statement that shapes family culture. Questions to be asked include: “What kind of a family do we want to be?” and “What are the values we’re all willing to live by and hold ourselves accountable to?” Answers are best reflected in a series of “we” statements such as “We treat each other with respect and kindness and apologize when we don’t” or “We all pitch in and do our part.” The reality is that many parents feel overmatched by the power of the current culture. These two strategies can help.

About Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert is Senior Writer for the CPTC. Her pieces cover an array of topics including self-care, bullying, grief, and resilience. Allison is author of numerous books and speaks across the country to corporations, non-profits, and community groups. You can learn more by visiting www.allisongilbert.com.

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