Parents should be authoritative – loving and confident in their authority.
Thomas Lickona recalls coming home cranky and hungry one evening to find his wife on the phone with a needy friend and no supper ready.
He decided to make grilled cheese sandwiches and turned up the heat to "accelerate the cooking." He became distracted because his two boys were quarreling and the next thing he knew the sandwiches were on fire.
Lickona lifted the pan and the blackened sandwiches fell to the floor. So he stomped upstairs to the bathroom "to be depressed" about what a "bad example he was of self-control."
Shortly afterwards, one of his young sons came upstairs and spoke through the bathroom door.
"Daddy you shouldn't have thrown the grilled cheese sandwiches on the floor," he said. "Now we don't have anything for dinner."
"I am not a perfect parent," said Lickona, a developmental psychologist and grandfather of 10. "All of us blow our stacks and do things we regret."
Lickona, the author of Raising Good Children, is a fount of practical tips for parents on how to build character and virtue in children.
A specialist in character development and education at the State University of New York at Cortland, Lickona stressed parents do not have to be perfect.
In a talk in Ottawa, sponsored by the Neeje Association, a local charity for women and families, he stressed that children do not need a perfect role model, only someone who is trying.
In fact, it is good for them to see someone struggling, because the life of virtue is a life of struggle, he said.
First, parents must make character development in their children a priority and emphasize the long view, Lickona said, stressing parents must know what virtues make up good character.
He listed wisdom or good judgment, justice, inner toughness, self-control, being willing to sacrifice for others, a positive attitude, hard work, integrity, gratitude and a desire to be a better person.
Children who are overindulged "have difficulty coping with life's disappointments," he said. When they grow up, they can have a "distorted sense of entitlement."
Second, parents must build a happy marriage based on love, respect and commitment. Work on better communication, active listening and taking time to be with each other, he said.
He also urged families to develop "reconciliation rituals" to allow for quick forgiveness and moving past arguments or conflicts. Parents must keep their disagreements about children private, "be a team" and support each other in disciplinary matters.
Third, parents must love their children and show it through affirmation, time, communication and sacrifice. He suggested finding out what a child is interested in and encouraging those interests.
One parent discovered that his son liked fishing, so he took him early Saturday mornings to fish even though the father himself had no interest in it. Children who behave well may rebel against their parents' values when they get older if their individuality and unique interests are not affirmed and encouraged.
Lickona suggested a technique called "back and forth questions" to get over the feeling that the parent is interrogating a child who often answers each question in one syllable. In this exercise, each person takes a turn asking a question, and it often leads to interesting revelations and deeper intimacy.
He encouraged having a conversation topic for family meals. One topic at a family meal was a Dear Abby letter from a pregnant teen who was afraid to tell her parents. This kind of discussion can let children know they must never fear telling their parents if they are in trouble.
The fourth principle is being an authoritative parent as opposed to an authoritarian or permissive one. Authoritative parents are loving, confident in their authority and rule enforcement and make reasonable demands on their children that are appropriate to their age-level.
Parents have to know how to say "no" and must have zero tolerance for disrespectful speech and behaviour, he said. Sibling interactions must also be characterized by respect.
A fifth principle is to teach by example through moral moments your children will remember, Lickona said.
When he was growing up, neighbours passed around a petition to prevent an Asian family from moving in. Lickona's mother was the only one in the neighbourhood not to sign.
"We need to have moral courage to stand up to the peer pressure of other parents who are being permissive."
The sixth principle is to manage the moral environment by proper supervision. Children who have loving, warm and involved relationships with their parents fare the best.
Parents must "set clear expectations and monitor their children's activities in age-appropriate ways," he said. This means ensuring children do not watch too much TV, or use the computer or cellphones and social media without supervision and limits.
Parents of teenagers should let their children know they will be checking on their online activity from time to time and to inform their friends they will be doing so.
Three-quarters of sixth graders have a television in their bedroom, he said. Watching hours of television with high levels of violence or sexual content is associated with children being more violent, desensitized to violence, and more likely to become sexually active.
Lickona urged setting limits on the use of media, such as having quiet nights where the TV is off, or making watching TV "a special family activity, not a private pastime."
Principle seven is to use direct teaching to develop conscience and moral reasoning, he said. "Parents can form conscience at an early age."
It is important to teach children about empathy. They need to know that others suffer not only visible physical hurts, but also "inside hurts" that can come from name-calling. It's important to explain that inside hurts can hurt more and last longer than outside hurts, he said.
When children are doing something wrong, it might work to ask them, "What is the rule about this?" rather than to tell them.
Ask them, "What will happen if you keep arguing?" or "How can we solve this problem?" or "How can you help make this a good day instead of a bad one?"
Principle eight is to discipline wisely, he said. When children do wrong, not only must they say they are sorry, they must make some restitution.
Another principle is spiritual development. He urged parents to nurture prayer in their children, to make prayer like a conversation, that includes both talking to and listening to God. Parents need to talk about their faith with their children.
Children leave the faith for two main reasons, he said. One is sin. If a young man is sleeping with his girlfriend, he is not likely to go to Morning Prayer.
The other reason is that religion was presented as a set of rules and regulations that the young person rejects because the faith has not deepened into a relationship with God.