There’s no secret formula to raising kids, no 10 easy steps that can guarantee the outcome. Raising human beings isn’t like baking a cake or fixing a flat tire. That said, as a developmental psychologist I do believe there are important principles and practices—some drawn from the wisdom of the ages, others from contemporary advances in moral development and brain research—that can guide you in helping your child on the road to good character.
Here are three common pitfalls you should try to avoid:
Giving too much and expecting too little
Polls find that two-thirds of parents feel they’ve spoiled their children. In too many homes, adults are doing all the giving, kids all the taking; that’s a recipe for producing self-centered, entitled kids who are poorly prepared for life. Research finds that children who have regular chores—age-appropriate jobs that they don’t get paid for but are their way of contributing to family life—develop a greater concern for others.
Being a friend and not an authority figure
Many parents want to relate to their kids, especially teens, on an equal-to-equal basis; they’re not comfortable coming from a position of authority. They have trouble saying no and sticking to it. By contrast, effective parents have a strong sense of their moral authority—their right to be respected and obeyed. A half-century of child-rearing research has identified three styles of parenting:
- Authoritarian (top-down, low on love, with little use of reasoning)
- Permissive (high on love but low on authority; kids rule the roost)
- Authoritative (combining confident authority, valuing obedience, warmth and support, reasoning to explain expectations, and willingness to consider the child’s viewpoint if respectfully expressed). At all developmental levels, authoritative parents have been found to have the most confident, competent, and morally responsible children
Failing to create an intentional family culture
Who’s raising our kids—us or the culture? In a technology- and media-driven world that bombards our children with negative messages and role models, raising kids with character requires a higher level of intentionality than has been true in the past. That means taking deliberate steps to create a family culture strong enough to withstand the unhealthy influences of the wider culture. It means taking clear stands that communicate our beliefs and values (e.g., “The use of media in the family—including all screens—is a privilege, not a right, and must be exercised in a way that is consistent with our family values”).
It includes sitting down together to write a “family mission statement” or “family way”—a series of “we” statements that express the kind of family we want to be (“We show kindness in our words and actions,” “When we hurt someone, we say we’re sorry and do something to make up for it”). It includes protecting time for “connective rituals” such as the family meal, bedtime reading, praying and worshipping together, birthday and holiday celebrations, shared activities in the outdoors, and one-on-one time. Those connective rituals strengthen your bond with your children and help to give you the inside track in a world of competing influences.
Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and author or editor of nine books on character development, including How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain (Penguin, April 2018).