Autonomy, Belonging, Competence—and Fostering Kindness in Kids

David Streight (January, 2019)


I never envisioned this space for a book review, but I had the chance to read Tom Lickona’s latest title, How to Raise Kind Kids, shortly before its publication and can’t help but say a few enthusiastic words about the simple, practical wisdom that makes this book so good. Lickona is perhaps the best known character educator in the western world (maybe the rest of the world, too): a driving force behind, and the founder/anchor of the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (Respect and Responsibility) at the State University of New York-Cortland. Despite how well known he is, those who have the chance get to know Tom Lickona, even a little, soon realize that eagerness for “fame” seems the farthest thing from what drives him. I think of recent conversations with educators from three far-flung states (New York, Oregon, and Alabama) who would agree that “Tom is all about fostering just what this book wants: kindness.”


How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain fits my original goals for this blog space for both philosophical and practical reasons. Lickona does not often refer specifically to self-determination theory, the philosophical underpinnings of our focus at Heart of Character. And yet the importance of autonomy, of developing the social-emotional and other competence of children, and of deep, caring relationships that are so foundational to character work run in filigree through this book, as through many of his works. Though the goal for How to Raise Kind Kids is kindness, Lickona’s avenue to kindness is relationships, of course. Strengthening relationships, and building the foundations for later relationships, comprise the real meat of his book.


Self-determination theory’s two other threads—autonomy and competence—are not just incidentals in How to Raise Kind Kids, however; they really are deeply woven in. In the chapter on how to run a good family meeting, for example, the empowerment of children through giving them some voice, choice, and responsibility—that is, fostering their autonomous development—is a critical element: Lickona stresses that “the purpose of a family meeting is cooperative problem solving” (italics his); he adds that parents can propose rules for discussion, “but I recommend also asking kids for input”; and ideally, “everyone gets a chance to share their thoughts and feelings.” Instituting family meetings is “one of the most important things you can do,” in his opinion. The importance of fostering autonomy is a recurrent theme; in his chapter on creating a positive family culture, Lickona emphasizes helping children become their own judge and jury—again, empowerment by giving children the greatest amount of age-appropriate responsibility possible over their actions. This same idea is well known to students of restorative practices, and for good reason.


Similar statements could be cited for the importance of competence, though from the Aristotelian perspective that forms the basis of Tom Lickona’s view of character development— the “character as virtue” perspective—the idea of competence almost goes without saying. The more virtuous one becomes, the greater character one is developing. But becoming virtuous only happens with practice: to become “competent” in responsibility, kindness, or honesty, one needs lots of exercise in the relevant skills and opportunities to engage in situations where one’s competence can be tested.


My real admiration for How to Raise Kind Kids does not lie in the number of ways I see autonomy, relationships, or competence running through it, however. In my review of the book for an upcoming issue of the Journal of Character Education I focused especially on the “practical wisdom” of the text, and the way this wisdom is illustrated by myriad both practical, and practicable, suggestions to help parents answer, to Lickona’s thinking, “the most important question we can ask ourselves… What kind of person do we want our child to be?”