Ep 20: Building a Strong Family Culture

Episode Summary

Thomas Lickona, author of How to Raise Kind Kids, reveals how parents can combat the constant barrage of influence on teenagers from peers, media, and the internet. His philosophy for this requires creating a family culture so strong it overpowers the negative influences.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

When kids become teenagers, they start thinking about life’s “big” questions. What is meaningful? How can I be a good person? Who am I, really?

These might all sound like philosophical questions, because they are! Teenagers are essentially novice philosophers. They want to think about these big questions and get some semblance of answers.

If teens aren’t able to safely process these questions at home, then teens can find a lot of suggested answers to these questions elsewhere. And you might not like some of the answers teens find.

You probably know how to raise good kids, but there is no shortage of shady people trying to influence your teenager. Marketing campaigns, social media trends, and random people in online communities can have your teenager’s full attention anytime they want, thanks to technology. It’s important to pay attention to these shady voices, and the peer pressure that follows, so you can lessen the influence negative values will have on your teen.

But, Peer Influence Doesn’t Have to be Negative!

With intentional conversations, you can design a strong family culture at home that taps into the power of positive peer influence!

To learn more about how to raise good kids with a strategic family culture, I spoke with Thomas Lickona.  He is president emeritus of the Association for Moral Education, and has spoken to parents around the world about fostering moral values and virtues in kids. Thomas has been researching developmental psychology for over 50 years, so he knows a thing or two about how to raise good kids! His new book, How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain, helps parents understand how to build a strong family culture with good virtues.

Defining a Family Mission Statement

Thomas says that intentionality is crucial for figuring out how to raise good kids and build a healthy family culture in a tech-dominated society. This is because technology allows teens to experience external sources of social influence 24/7. Parents can feel largely outmatched by the endless barrage of peer pressure.

Thomas wants to assure parents it’s possible to know how to raise good kids even when the influence of social media dominates our teens’ worlds. It’s not easy though. He believes it requires a positive family culture that is strong enough to overpower the influence of what they see online. So how does a parent go about intentionally creating a strong family culture?

A “family mission statement” is one intentional family ritual that creates a positive family culture.

A family mission statement is a motto or phrase that the whole family agrees on and recites frequently. It should capture the values of the family, and be at the heart of your family’s identity. Thomas wants this to be your guiding compass for understanding how to raise good kids. Reciting it should be your family’s most common ritual.

Rituals are important to building a family culture. By doing the same thing as a family, you can build your kid’s sense of connection and pride to the family identity. This connection and pride is important because it’s this bond that will combat the powers of external peer pressure. A family mission statement might sound foreign and weird to a lot of parents, but Thomas insists that it’s a pivotal part of discovering how to raise good kids. 

Thomas insists that one reason parents don’t know how to raise good kids might be due to a lack of intention around shaping family culture. Making a family mission statement means sitting down with your kids and having open conversations about what kind of family you want to be. Thomas is certain, this simple meeting can leave a massive impact.

Hear Your Children’s Voices

As a parent, you can take the lead when it comes to formulating your family mission statement. But when learning how to raise good kids, you need to make sure your kids have a voice in determining this mission statement. Research on moral empowerment shows that it’s important to give kids a greater sense of responsibility as early as possible. Basically, kids need to know their voices matter and that they are responsible for what they say.

In understanding how to raise good kids, parents need to teach their kids to speak up for what they believe. If you can empower your kids to have a say in something as central as the family mission statement, you can teach them how to balance their desire for autonomy with their desire for belonging. You can teach them that their opinions can still hold merit and value, even if they differ from the group’s. This of course doesn’t mean they get to have the final say in the family mission statement, though!

Your family may run into several disagreements over what should be included in the family mission statement. You, as the parent, always have the final say, though. Thomas offers some strategies for talking with teens who might be stubborn and less cooperative with the family mission statement. This requires more patience, but teens should ultimately be encouraged to contribute their voices to important conversations.

The goal is to ultimately give everyone in your family a chance to learn how to raise good kids and answer the question, “What do we as a family want to believe?”

Using the Family Mission Statement

Thomas provides some examples of good family mission statements, which families wrote together and recited frequently. One family hung their family mission statement in the kitchen, and recited it at the start of every week. This family also referred to it when they ran into conflict and needed to ask, “Which of our values are we forgetting?”

The family mission statement is an excellent tool for learning how to raise good kids. When your child messes up, the family mission statement is there to ensure you’re not starting with a blank slate. This can give your kid a sense of security when receiving parental guidance and discipline.

For example, if your child is skipping classes at school to hang out with friends, your family mission statement can be a guiding compass for a hard conversation. You can use it to show your child which family value he or she is missing out on. This should eliminate a sense of surprise when you discipline your child. And of course, this is just one practical use and benefit of the family mission statement.

Lots to Look Forward to

Having a family mission statement as a foundation for your family identity has a seemingly endless list of practical uses and benefits. For starters, it can unify families, guide teens in maturity, and help parents and teens wrestle with life’s biggest questions.

You don’t want to miss Thomas discuss how to raise good kids along with other hot topics, such as:

  • Sports coaches and “team culture”
  • Having philosophical conversations with teenagers
  • What does “kindness” look like?
  • The “100 Goals” Assignment
  • Balancing individual values with family values
  • Improving our “Virtues Vocabulary”

There were so many amazing gold nuggets of wisdom I got from Thomas in this episode. He wants parents to feel comfortable having big, philosophical conversations with their teens, and feel sure that they know how to raise good kids. I really hope you get a chance to listen to this episode. I think you’ll really appreciate it.

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Kickstart a deeper relationship with your teen by sending a letter apologizing for previous issues and expressing a desire to improve:

“Susan, I love you very much. I’d lay down in the road for you–I would die for you. I love you that much. Sometimes I feel like that’s not coming across. We have a lot of arguments. You’re going through adolescence. There are many tough things you have to deal with that go way beyond the family. School. Peer groups. What you’re going to do with your future. I understand all those pressures–I went through them. But look, even during these hard times–maybe especially because of them–I’d like to get better at that. If you have children some day you’re going to feel that it’s probably the hardest job you’ve ever had. You don’t get an instruction manual, everybody has to figure it out, every child is different. And I think I made some mistakes. But anyway, I’d like going forward to have the best relationship we can have. And I’d like to start by listening to your thoughts and your feelings. How would you like to take a long walk this weekend and talk about it? Love, Dad”

-Lucy Maddox

2.  Initiate a deep conversation about values to live by:

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3.  Help your teenager to develop a more positive life philosophy:

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4.  Use this conversation starter to get your teen to open up:

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5.  Use this conversation starter to get your teen to open up:

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6.  Use this conversation starter to get your teen to open up:

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7.  Use this conversation starter to get your teen to open up:

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8.  Use this conversation starter to get your teen to open up:

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9.  Affirm your teenager’s autonomy to experiment with their life philosophy:

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10.  Give your teen advice in a removed way by telling them about a lesson you learned:

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11.  How to start a weekly family meeting in a laid-back non-confrontational way:

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12.  When a teen speaks to you in a disrespect tone of voice:

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Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Write a Family Mission Statement to Clarify Values:

Culture is one of the strongest known influences on teenage behavior. If you aren’t deliberate about creating a strong family culture then your teen will be swept along by the larger popular culture that their peers are all following. In our interview, Thom told me the best way to create a deliberate family culture is to draft a family mission statement. This is a simple document where you outline the core values your family stands for. To get your teen to buy into the mission statement, you’ll need to get their input while you are writing it. The best way to do this is during a family meeting. Get everyone together and write the mission statement together. Ask everyone to answer the question: “What do we most deeply believe?” Then type up the responses and post them on the refrigerator. To prepare for this session, spend a few minutes thinking about how you will answer when it is your turn. What do you most deeply believe? What values do you want your teen to internalize? When you write the actual mission statement, be sure to use the collective voice, “We commit to…”

2.  Have a Talk About the “Deep” Stuff:

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3.  Get Your Teen Thinking about Life’s Big Questions:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: You have this idea that I really love that there’s kind of a family culture, and you’re really strategic about how to kind of build a family culture.

Andy: I’d love to talk about A. Kind of how you came up with that as a concept, and then B. How that might manifest during the teenage years and how you might be able to kind of build that if you’re a parent of teenagers?

Thomas: That’s an excellent question. The reason the family culture is terribly important is that it enables parents to develop the family as a resource for everyone to tap into really the power of the group in a positive way.

Thomas: For example, schools often struggle with what they call the peer culture and the peer culture can be very negative. Kids can think, hey, what’s the big deal about cheating? And what’s the big deal about drugs? What’s the big deal about sex and so on.

Thomas: They get to all these kinds of casual attitudes as a result of the peer culture and frequently schools don’t know how to try to influence the peer culture. They think that essentially it creates itself and there’s very little they can do as adults to shape it. Potentially the most powerful force in teenagers lives is peer pressure, but that doesn’t have to be a negative.

Thomas: It can be harnessed as a positive thing. For example, when we see a team in athletics that has a great team spirit, where people cheer each other on where everybody holds each other up, you see the difference that that makes in the ability of that team to function as a unit, to do their best on the field or the court. And it’s a powerful force. Well, the same thing in any group, there is a culture, you can shape it, you can harness it. You can point it in positive directions and make it a support system for every individual.

Thomas: Now, the family mission statement is one very intentional way to credit create a positive family culture. Intentionality in today’s wider culture is increasingly important because parents often feel over-matched by powerful cultural forces.

Thomas: Whether it’s screens, whether it’s the political culture, whether it’s materialism, consumerism, whether it’s an obsession with sex. Whatever it is, parents feel wow, how do you compete against this? What am I? I’m just a dad, I’m a mom. And my kids look at me as a dinosaur. I didn’t grow up in these times and so on.

Thomas: But the secret really to having the inside track as an agent of positive influence in our child’s growth is to form a bond and cultivate that relationship through connective rituals and to do the same thing with the family. So the kids feel a strong connection to their family, indeed a pride in their family values and their family identity.

Thomas: One mother for example, said that their family simply had a motto, “Lieberman’s don’t lie”. And that was a simple way of honoring integrity.

Thomas: It was something their family believed deep in and the parents wanted their children to be truthful with them and so on. So Lieberman’s don’t lie that captured the family culture.

Andy: It’s like a core value.

Thomas: A core virtue or core value. Most parents, unfortunately, because we’re busy, we’re stressed or not intentional about shaping a culture in the family. What happens in that case is we’re carried along by the larger culture. And that ends up really raising our kids instead of us.

Thomas: A family mission statement is one very deliberate way to try to shape a family culture. Means sitting down with your kids in an open conversation saying, what kind of a family do we want to be? What do we most deeply believe? What are the virtues or the qualities of character that we all want to exhibit in our relationships, in our interactions, in our behavior inside the home and outside the home.

Thomas: You could take the lead as a parent by you saying some things but you certainly want to get your children’s voice. The research shows that experiences of moral empowerment, where children have a voice in the family that affects not only family decisions and family matters, but also that affects their own decisions, that impact their own lives. Even something like, do I want to stay back in third grade or not?

Thomas: Sometimes parents try to make the decision for their kid or the teachers try to make it, but there’s an excellent book called, The Self-Driven Child.

Andy: Actually we just had Ned and Bill on the podcast.

Thomas: Did you really? No kidding.

Andy: Yes, they’re great.

Thomas: I absolutely love their book. I blurbed it… we had the same editor actually.

Andy: Okay sure, I noticed a lot of parallels, I think.

Thomas: They have the wisdom that very often children have more wisdom about what they need and the best thing for them than anybody outside of them has. Now that doesn’t mean the kids make the final call on all kinds of things.

Thomas: They say in their book, for example, if your child is under peer pressure or if they’re influenced by drugs, or there’s something happening that really weakens their ability to make a good judgment, you have to protect them against a destructive judgment in that case. But in general, you want to try to draw them out.

Thomas: A family mission statement does the same thing with everybody around the table and you say, what do we most deeply believe? And here’s a mission statement that a family came up with. Their name was Davidson, the kids were seven, nine, six, and four at the time. They call their family mission statement, “The Davidson Way” and the mission statement consists of a series of “we statements”. The collective voice is very important, that indicates shared ownership.

Thomas: We commit to being kind, honest and trustworthy and fair. We don’t lie, cheat, steal or hurt somebody 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, and pure. We commit to learning and growing in our faith. This was a Catholic family, their faith was important to them. We live with an attitude of gratitude.

Thomas: Then the dad says we hang that in the kitchen. We might review it at the start of a week, but mostly we refer to it when we’ve hit a bump in the road, we say what are we forgetting? And our mission statement, how can we put that into practice?

Thomas: So it becomes a point of reference.

Andy: It’s like a foundation that you then can build on and then keep coming back to.

Thomas: It’s a lens through which you look at your family life. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to live up to that perfectly. Those are ideals, those express what you aspire to, but you’re not starting with a blank slate when your child is mean to his little sister or doesn’t feed the dog or is rude and disrespectful to you as a parent. You’re not starting from scratch. You’ve got that to draw upon.

Andy: Absolutely.

Thomas: That’s one example of shaping a positive family culture and giving you a framework, a foundation that gives kids more security. That gives you a sense of who you are. That gives everybody a shared sense of identity as a family.

Andy: You talk about comparing it to a team, a sports team. And it strikes me that the coaches that we think about like the John Wooden’s as being really the great coaches of all time. All the sports movies that we watch are about having to take this ragtag team of different personalities and kind of blend it together and find like a common team culture and something to believe in and something to fight for as a team.

Thomas: I’m glad you mentioned Wooden actually. Wooden is one of my heroes, he’s universally admired. He was not only winning as men’s basketball coach who’s ever lived in a men’s sports, but he was really all about character. He said, “We can’t judge our success by the scoreboard. It doesn’t tell whether we played our best, whether we work together as a unit, whether we executed the way we practiced”, he said, “The scoreboard is not the measure”.

Thomas: And so it’s the old notion of when the one great scorer comes to right against your name, he writes not that you won or lost, but how you play the game. That’s what Wooden was all about. And people like Bill Walton went on to the NBA and look back on their lives, said that really Wooden taught them a life philosophy. And they’re raising their teenagers according to his character, maxims and philosophy.

Thomas: He had an interesting statement about what he considered to be the most important goal in life. He said, “The goal of life is the same as basketball, make the effort to do the best you’re capable of doing. In marriage, at your job, in the community, for your country, make the effort to contribute in whatever way you can. You may do it materially with time, ideas or work. Making the effort is what counts in everything”.

Thomas: That’s a great philosophy of life. We can certainly share that with our children, ask for their thoughts about it.

Andy: It strikes me that Wooden was a philosopher. He thought deeply about these ideas of values that we could have as a team. And he’s got all these great sayings that people still quote today, right? Because he boiled things down to their essence.

Andy: I love the idea of coming together as a family, creating this document that’s like our family mission statement of sorts, but of course, right, that then document becomes super important. And I wonder how you go into that meeting to write this document, prepared to kind of insert some viewpoints or values into the mission statement that are really going to serve your family best in the long term or something like that.

Thomas: Well, that’s a good question because actually there may be some preliminary work that you want to do as a parent with each of your children and especially with your teens, but really the older kids. A lot of these things would sound a little bit foreign or a little bit artificial or unnatural to parents. They’re used to more casual, informal relationships, kind of relating to kids on the fly.

Thomas: And so sitting down to create a mission statement, sounds like something that came right out of Stephen Covey’s book and people, kids might say, what did you do? Read some sort of book or go to a workshop?

Thomas: You want to start really a richer conversation with your children. There’s a lot of talk now about the dominance of screens in family life. The dominance of screens in the culture, how they’re really shutting down face to face interactions. People are staring at their screens in family life, they’re not talking to each other.

Thomas: And that stands in contrast to what some parents do. For example, here’s a mom, she says she’s got three teenagers and a couple of kids younger. Says these days when I go to bed, there’s usually a knock on the door from one of the children who wants to talk about something. A problem that happened today, something the next day they’re worried about just something that’s on their mind that we haven’t had a chance to talk about. They sit on the edge of the bed and we talk, these conversations are precious to me.

Thomas: Now they’re precious to that mother, but you can be sure they’re also precious to those children.

Andy: Absolutely.

Thomas: Because they’re feeling their mother’s love. And they’re benefiting from their mothers listening, which is an act of love. They’re benefiting from wisdom and life experience that the mother shares. And a lot of parents are not creating the context for these kinds of thoughtful, quiet, meaningful conversations.

Thomas: I encourage parents to use conversation starters that consist of questions that can’t be answered with, fine, good, great, okay. Kids will give you monosyllables if they can get away with it.

Thomas: We need to be a little more thoughtful by saying, what was the best part of your day and the worst part of your day? Or what’s something that you did today to help somebody else? Or what’s something that someone else did to help you? Or what’s a kind act that you observed that someone did for another person? What’s an interesting conversation that you had today? What happened today that you didn’t expect?

Thomas: There’s always stuff that we don’t expect. Or what did you learn today from the school of life? Where kids understand you make the point that school was about more than just what you get in the classroom, all of life is a school.

Thomas: And then you do this, in what I call back and forth questions format, because you want it to be a real exchange. So you want to say to your child, okay I asked you a question, ask me one. In the beginning, kids will say, our teenage son he was 13 said, well I don’t know what to ask you Dad. And I’d asked him what’s on your mind these days. So he said, well okay, what’s on your mind? I said, well, I’m glad you asked.

Thomas: Then I told him what I was thinking about. I was having a struggle with one particular course that I was teaching at the college. And then if you continue to do this back and forth question thing, which can take five minutes, it can go on for a whole hour or depending on how much time you have, it becomes a ritual that you and your child will cherish.

Thomas: Now you’ve got a flow of meaningful conversation going. If you sit down and do something like a family mission statement, your children will be readier to talk, they’ll share something from a deeper level because you will have cultivated the soil. You will have ploughed it up as it were. And the family mission statement won’t seem like such a strange artificial thing to do.

Andy: Sure, you’ve planted the seeds and they’re going along.

Thomas: Right.

Andy: It’s funny that you mentioned this back and forth question technique, because that was something that stood out to me when I read your book. And actually it made me think about The Self-Driven Child, Ned and Bill’s book, because they kind of have this big emphasis that your job as a parent is kind of helping your kid build the brain that is going to be most beneficial to them through the rest of their life. And that you are what you habitually do.

Andy: Helping them to learn strategies like self-regulation and metacognitive abilities. It struck me, what you’re doing with that technique is you’re helping them build the skills of having a conversation. And like you say, in the book, habits reflect values and virtues, right?

Andy: That particular habit, then it’s reflective of this value of being curious in other people and interested in other people, which is something that will serve you so well in life. Right?

Thomas: And if you remember the book is called, How to Raise Kind Kids, you’ll be asked, well, what is kindness? Fundamentally kindness is caring about other people, their needs, their feelings, their thoughts, their happiness, their welfare, it’s having an orientation toward others.

Thomas: What’s the opposite of that? Self centered is, selfishness. Not thinking of others, not being aware of other people, not being sensitive to their needs and feelings and so on. So the more we do really to cultivate thoughtfulness about life, about relationships, the more we’re doing to cultivate virtues like kindness.

Thomas: You mentioned earlier about Wooden’s philosophy, that he was really a philosopher in a sense to be a good parent of a teenager you really need to be a philosopher because adolescence is the time when children develop what the famous Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget called, “formal operational thinking”.

Thomas: That’s a fancy word, meaning that they can think about thinking, they can reflect on values in a new, deeper way. They can stand back from their own family and take stock of it. They can assess their parents more sharply.

Andy: Start saying, wait a minute why do we do it that way? Right.

Thomas: They have questions that are really life’s largest questions that philosophers through the centuries have pondered. For example, our origins, where did I come from? Destiny, where am I going? Is this life all there is? Identity, who am I? Morality, how can I decide what’s right? Values, what matters most to me? Meaning, what’s the purpose of life? What significance does my life have?

Thomas: If we don’t engage them at this level and open up conversations and develop a relationship that draws out this deeper part. Then this is still happening, it’s just outside of our awareness and we’re not interacting with it in ways that can help our children that can enrich their thinking.

Thomas: And we get kids, for example, here’s an anecdote that I collected a few years ago. There’s an associated press story about a 17 year old senior in a Californian high school, she received double 800s on her SATs. She was known to her high school friends as Wonder Woman. The reporter asked her in the course of the interview, what is the meaning of life? And she said, I have no idea.

Thomas: So here’s a young woman who’s a super achiever and is on the treadmill but clearly hasn’t thought about anything higher, deeper, farther ahead in the future, than her grades, or SAT scores, maybe what college she’s going to.

Andy: The next thing I’m expected to do.

Thomas: And now here’s by contrast is another recent high school graduate. And he said, I don’t want to reach the age of 60 or even 40 and have somebody ask me what the meaning of life is. And I have to say, I have no idea. I see so many people going through the motions, get into a good school, so you can get into a good college, so you can get a good job so you can get a better job. So you can get rich and die. I want more than that.

Thomas: So there’s a young person who says, look, life has to be about something more meaningful than this kind of rat race.

About Thomas Lickona

A developmental psychologist and professor of education emeritus at the State University of New York at Cortland, Thomas Lickona is also the founding director of the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility).

A past president of the Association for Moral Education, he serves on the Board of Directors of the Character Education Partnership and speaks around the world to teachers, parents, religious educators, and other groups concerned about the character development of young people.

His publications include:

Raising Good Children: From Birth Through The Teenage Years (1983)

Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility (recipient of the 1992 Christopher Award for “affirming the highest values of the human spirit”)

Sex, Love and You: Making the Right Decision (1994) (a book for teens co-authored with his wife, Judith, and William Boudreau, M.D.)

Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues (2004)

Character Quotations (2004) (with Matthew Davidson)

Dr. Lickona has been a guest on numerous radio and TV talk shows, including “The Larry King Live Radio Show,” “Good Morning America,” and “Focus on the Family.” His work was the subject of a New York Times Magazine cover story, “Teaching Johnny to be Good.” In 2001, the Character Education Partnership presented him with the Sanford N. McDonnell Lifetime Achievement Award in Character Education.

He and his wife have two sons and fourteen grandchildren and live in Cortland, New York.

Find Thomas on Facebook and Twitter.