Set a good foundation by teaching gratitude and personal responsibility at home.
The thought of raising a brat of a child can bring panic and anxiety to any parent. It’s an especially overwhelming thought if you don’t have the proper tools on hand to teach your child how to be a kind person. Sometimes we don’t even know what we are doing wrong. Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., developmental psychologist and author of How to Raise Kind Kids, says the most common mistakes parents make in childrearing is not exercising moral authority with confidence, constantly making kids happy by sparing them from disappointment and not being intentional in creating a positive family culture.
Kids who do respect their parents’ moral authority create a foundation for moral development later in life, Thomas says. “It’s difficult to teach kids anything if they don’t listen to you, they don’t obey you, they don’t respect the fact that you are the mom and dad and you have the right to expect obedience,” Thomas says.
Try these six tools Thomas recommends for raising kinder kids:
Develop a Positive Family Culture. Creating a family mission statement gives your children a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. Thomas suggests sitting down together and discussing your family’s core values and virtues. For example, “the Smiths don’t lie, cheat and steal,” “the Davidsons are kind, gracious and don’t hurt people,” or “the Lannisters always pay their debts” (OK, maybe that last one is a bad example). Having a family charter sets a tone of how the family should behave and will give children moral clarity in why and what the family believes.
Become a Character Coach. In order to raise a kind person, you need to be a kind person. Model good behavior and teach them the responsibility to care for others. Instill good virtues, such as kindness, respect and self-control. Thomas writes that the surest way to be happy is to make others happy. Good character also means not letting little infractions slide. “Take the small stuff seriously,” Thomas says. “If you don’t correct rudeness and tantrums, for example, in your 6-year-old, you’ll have a lot more trouble reining in swearing and door slamming by your 16-year-old.”
Keep Constant Contact. The responsibility of raising children well falls on parents’ shoulders. Stay in touch by holding regular family meetings to discuss anything that may be exciting or troubling in their lives. Thomas suggests a technique he used in his own family, called the back and forth questions. The key is to ask your child a question, such as “what was the best and worst part of your day?” Encourage the child to reciprocate and ask you the same. After a while, you and your child will develop the art of good conversation. “Meaningful conversation enriches family life, builds relationships and gives you a vehicle to transmit your deepest values,” Thomas says. “Without those conversational exchanges, we really are on the sidelines of our children’s character formation.” In his book, How to Raise Kind Kids, Thomas provides 40 conversation starters to get the verbal ball rolling.
Reduce Screens. Technology is great, but not at the expense of a deteriorating family life. A sad statistic is that screens—TVs, phones, tablets, video games—are drastically changing the amount of face time families put in each day. When kids “disappear” into their own worlds, parents know less about the goings-on within their children’s lives, and problems like irritability and poor sleeping habits can emerge. Challenges grow as teens begin to seek validation from social media. Thomas suggests a four-week electronic fast, a technique developed by child psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley, author of Reset Your Child’s Brain. He admits the first few days may be rough, but parents can start to notice real changes in their kids, such as fewer tantrums and arguments. After four weeks, slowly reintroduce devices, allowing one hour of screen time per day.
A Little Hard Work Never Hurt Anyone. Our kids learn all their habits, good and bad, from what happens at home. Continuously trying to appease and not disappoint them can turn our kids into self-absorbed meanies. It undermines the family culture and can have adverse effects on the rest of the family. A good way to avoid these feelings of entitlement is to make the kids part of the household team. Thomas suggests giving them responsibilities and chores to do within their abilities and hold them accountable when they don’t meet expectations. They should know the value of work, and everyone within the household should contribute.
Make Gratitude the Right Attitude. Constant complaining can be a drain on the family. It makes children unhappy, and it certainly is no joyride for the parents, either. Teaching good gratitude practices, such as using a gratitude journal or counting your blessings, can shift your child’s focus from what they have instead of what they don’t have. If this is a part of everyday life in your household, for example, giving thanks for a meal and asking around the table what everyone is grateful for, then positive feelings will start to cultivate and the negatives will dissipate. “Gratitude is an act of kindness and ingratitude is an act of unkindness,” Thomas says. “We should teach our children what gratitude means and why thankfulness is important. Gratitude is feeling and expressing thanks for the benefits we receive. Why does it matter? Because it makes us feel better, and counting your blessings is the secret of a happy life.”