Thomas Lickona: Building Catholic Character: 5 Things Parents Can Do

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What is “Catholic character,” why does it matter, and what can we do as parents to develop it in our children?

By Thomas Lickona, Catholic Education Resource Center

lickonaThe best way to answer those questions is to begin with an even more basic one: What is the meaning of life? Scripture and the Church teach us that we have three divinely ordained purposes that give our lives meaning:

  1. Salvation — seeking to save our eternal souls and help save the souls of others (that salvation, the Church teaches, is God’s free gift but requires our cooperation through faith in God, obedience to his commandments, and repentance of our grave sins).

  2. Service — using our God-given talents to build God’s kingdom here on earth.

  3. Sanctity — growing in holiness.

The third of these life goals, sanctity, is central to building Catholic character. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says something that is stunning: “Be thou made perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). St. Gregory put it this way: “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.”

Scripture tells us, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:16). If we want to be like God, our vocation is to love. The essence of love is to sacrifice for the sake of another, as Jesus did. Love is self-gift.

What, then, is our goal if we want to develop Catholic character in our children and ourselves? The character of Christ. A life of self-giving.

In short, the ultimate mission of every Catholic family, like the mission of the Church as a whole, is to turn us into little Christs. It is to foster, with the help of God’s grace, the “transformation in Christ” that the Holy Spirit jump-starts in our baptism — a process that is meant to continue through our entire lives.

What Virtues Should We Foster?

The high goal of Christ-like character builds on a base of what the Church calls “natural virtues.” Among the natural virtues that families and schools should nurture are the four advanced by the ancient Greeks, named in Scripture (Wis 8:7), and adopted by the Church as “the cardinal virtues”:

  1. prudence, which enables us to judge what we should do;

  2. justice, which enables us to respect the rights of others and give them what they are due;

  3. fortitude, which enables us to do what is right in the face of difficulties;

  4. temperance, which enables us to control our desires and avoid abuse of even legitimate pleasures.

These natural virtues are developed through effort and practice, aided by God’s grace.

In order to develop Christ-like character, however, we need more than the natural virtues. We also need the three supernatural, or “theological,” virtues:

  1. faith in God, which enables us to believe in God and the teachings of his church.

  2. hope in God, which leads us to view eternal life as our most important goal and to place total trust in God.

  3. love of God, which enables us to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.

The three theological virtues are considered supernatural because they come from God and have as their purpose our participation in God’s divine life.

As the Catechism (1813) teaches, the theological virtues are not separate from the natural virtues; rather, they “are the foundation of Christian moral activity; they animate it and give it its special character.”

The Catholic writer Peter Kreeft points out, “The Christian is prudent, just, courageous, and self-controlled out of faith in God, hope in God, and love of God.” The supernatural virtues, like the natural virtues, grow stronger through our effort and practice, in cooperation with God’s grace.

What can we do as parents to build Catholic character, both the natural and supernatural virtues?

First, realize that to prepare our kids to follow Christ is to prepare them to take the road less traveled. Living a life of Christian virtue has always been countercultural but never more so than in today’s media-driven, materialistic, sexually decadent, and morally relativistic world.

With that in mind, here are five fundamentals of parenting for Catholic character.

1. Build a loving relationship

Time together. Kids will care about our values when they know we care about them. Emotionally intimate time is especially important for helping our children feel loved and for maximizing our influence on the kind of person they are becoming. The late Christian Barnard, originator of the heart transplant, remembers the times with his father:

Whenever we were ill, my father got up late at night to doctor us. I suffered from festering toenails that pained so much I would cry in bed. My father used to draw out the fester with a poultice made of milk and bread crumbs or Sunlight soap and sugar. And when I had a cold, he would rub my chest with Vicks and cover it with a red flannel cloth. Sunday afternoons we walked together to the top of the hill by the dam. Once there, we would sit on a rock and look down at the town below us. Then I would tell my problems to my father, and he would speak of his to me.

Love as communication. The quality of our love often comes down to the quality of our communication. To create quality dinner discussion, for example, try having a topic: “What was the best part of your day?” “What is a way you helped another person?” “Who has a problem the rest of the family might be able to help with?”

Love as sacrifice. Says one mother: “The most important thing parents can do for their children is to love each other and stay together.” In a major shift from a generation ago, both secular and religious marriage counselors are now urging married couples having problems to do everything possible to work out their difficulties and save their marriage. Catholic parents can strengthen their marriages by drawing constantly on the graces of the Sacrament of Marriage through good times and bad. Research shows that the more a husband and wife each practice their faith, the better their relationship, and the more their children thrive.

2. Use the power of good example

The example we set — especially when it is coupled with a loving relationship — is one of the most important ways we affect the character of our kids. Our example includes not only how we treat our children but how we treat each other as spouses and how we treat and talk about others (relatives, friends, neighbors, and teachers).

We increase the power of our own example when we expose our children to other positive role models. The Giraffe Heroes Project has developed a bank of more than 1,000 stories of everyday heroes of all ages who have shown compassion and courage by sticking out their necks for others.

William Kilpatrick’s Books That Build Character offers hundreds of fictional stories whose admirable characters will live in a young person’s heart and imagination.

The website catalogs hundreds of good films that offer positive role models and strong character themes.

And we should be sure to tap the rich resource provided by the lives of the saints (see Mary Reed Newland’s book, The Saints and Our Children). “The saints had their eyes on God,” says one Catholic mother. “They make very real what it means to follow Christ.”

3. Teach directly

If we want our example to have maximum impact, our kids need to know the values and beliefs that lie behind it. We need to practice what we preach, but we also need to preach what we practice.

We should directly teach everyday manners: “Say please and thank you,” “Don’t interrupt,” “Look at a person who’s speaking to you.”

We should make a list of the Catholic truths we want to teach our children. Says a Catholic mother, “I want my children to know how tremendously important the Sacraments are — how they give us the strength to get through life.”

We should directly teach the fundamentals of our faith, starting with the three purposes of our lives (salvation, stewardship, and sanctity). We should make a list of the Catholic truths we want to teach our children. Says a Catholic mother, “I want my children to know how tremendously important the Sacraments are — how they give us the strength to get through life.” Says a father: “I want my kids to understand that there is such a thing as truth, and that when the Pope teaches on faith and morals, he speaks with the voice of Christ.”

Other Catholic truths we want to be sure to transmit:

  • Life is sacred, from conception until natural death.

  • We have a special duty to help Christ’s “least ones” — the poor, homeless, disabled, sick, oppressed, and unborn.

  • Sex is the beautiful gift of a good God but reserved by God for the marriage of a husband and wife.

  • When we join our sufferings with the Cross of Christ, we become more like Jesus and participate in his work of saving souls.

  • The Mass is the single most important part of our faith, through which Jesus continues to redeem the world (and we are obligated to go to Sunday or Vigil Mass under pain of mortal sin).

  • A relationship with the Blessed Mother is a sure path to a relationship with her Son.

4. Exercise authority wisely

As parents, we must have a strong sense of our moral authority and then exercise it wisely in three ways. First, we must take strong stands that are consistent with our Catholic values. For example, what do we prohibit? Violent video games? TV shows and movies that contain sex, violence, or foul language? All forms of pornography? Music with profane, lewd, or denigrating lyrics? Immodest dress? Parties where there’s drinking? Prom overnights?

Second, we must discipline wisely. Even small things — a mean remark to a sibling, for example — should be taken seriously. The most effective discipline gets kids to take responsibility: “What do you think is a fair consequence for what you did?” “What can you do to make up for it?” Getting kids in the habit of going to Confession — examining their conscience, telling God they’re sorry for their sins, experiencing Christ’s forgiveness, and resolving to do better (we, of course, must model this) — is another vital part of helping them take responsibility for their actions.

Third, we must practice vigilant supervision. The research report Building a Better Teenager ( finds that “hands-on” parents — those who know where there kids are, who they’re with, what they’re doing, including their use of media (do you know what’s on their My Space page?) — have teens with the lowest rates of sexual activity and drug and alcohol abuse. As one writer puts it, in today’s moral environment “we need to watch our children like a hawk.”

5. Provide authentic experiences of the faith

Building Catholic character requires authentic personal experiences of the faith, within and beyond the family.

One Catholic father found that taking his self-centered 15-year-old son to see the city’s soup kitchen for the hungry and homeless, where they subsequently volunteered together, got the son thinking less about the latest stuff he wanted and more about the needs of others.

One Catholic father found that taking his self-centered 15-year-old son to see the city’s soup kitchen for the hungry and homeless, where they subsequently volunteered together, got the son thinking less about the latest stuff he wanted and more about the needs of others.

Another Catholic family had a tradition of a partial fast every Monday night (broth for the parents, a piece of fruit for the kids) and sending the money saved to Catholic Relief Services.

I know Catholic parents whose teenagers have been turned around by going to a Youth 2000 weekend (in some cases, more than one), where they experienced Masses, the Rosary, Eucharistic Adoration, and Confession (often for the first time since their initial reception of the Sacrament) and heard both adults and other kids talk about how they were changed when they let Jesus into their lives.

Our son Mark son and the oldest three (ages 13, 11, and 8) of his seven children were able to participate in Benedict XVI’s Mass at Yankee Stadium in April 2008 and came home inspired by being with the Pope and thousands of devout fellow Catholics. World Youth Days have had similar effects on young people.

These intense spiritual experiences are especially important in the teen years, when religion can seem like “a bunch of rules” or just something your parents make you do.

A caveat: Even parents who do all the right things to build Catholic character can’t control the outcome of those efforts. Not even God can make us be good. The final forming of our children’s character lies in their own hands.

That said, our most important job as parents is to use the countless opportunities God gives us to help our children grow in goodness and holiness. For as the Church has always taught, the family is the first school of virtue.



lickonaThomas Lickona. “Building Catholic Character: 5 Things Parents Can Do.” Catholic Education Resource Center (April 18, 2012).

This article is reprinted with permission from the author, Thomas Lickona.

The Author

lickona1lickonakk1Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., is a psychologist and educator who has been called “the father of modern character education.” A professor of education emeritus at State University of New York, Cortland, he is the founding director of his university’s Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility) and author of nine books on moral development and character education. He is the author of How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain,  Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues and the Christopher Award-winning book Educating for Character. He has also written Raising Good Children and co-authored Sex, Love and You. He is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Visit his web site here.

Copyright © Thomas Lickona, Catholic Education Resource Center