The best books for raising good children

Who am I?

I’m a developmental psychologist and former professor of education. My life’s work and 10 books have focused on helping families and schools foster good character in kids. Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility is credited with helping launch the national character education movement. My first book for parents, Raising Good Children, described how to guide kids through the stages of moral development from birth through adulthood. My focus these days is kindness and its supporting virtues. My wife Judith and I have two grown sons and 15 grandchildren, and with William Boudreau, MD, co-authored Sex, Love, and You: Making the Right Decision, a book for teens.

I wrote...

How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain

By Thomas Lickona,

Book cover of How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain

What is my book about?

The big idea of my book is to try to create an intentional family culture based on our deepest beliefs and values like kindness and respect—and never give up. Each chapter provides real-life examples of how to do this, such as protecting family together time, talking about things that matter, getting control of screens, disciplining wisely, sitting down as a family to solve problems fairly, and more. Library Journal found the book “chock-full of straightforward tips for creating a home that cultivates empathy.” Kids, of course, are constantly shaping their own character by the choices they make and so share the responsibility for the person they are becoming. Our part as parents is to make the most of the opportunities we have to help them grow in goodness.

The books I picked & why

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Take Back Your Kids: Confident Parenting in Turbulent Times

By William J. Doherty,

Book cover of Take Back Your Kids: Confident Parenting in Turbulent Times

Why this book?

Bill Doherty is an astute psychologist and master storyteller who draws on a great store of examples and anecdotes from his work as a family therapist and director of the University of Minnesota’s Marriage and Family Therapy Program. What he sees most often missing in modern parents is not love, but the confident exercise of authority. His short book is an excellent tutorial on how to practice that. He’s right to emphasize it: At all developmental levels, studies find that an “authoritative” (not authoritarian) style of parenting is the one most often associated with kids’ becoming confident, respectful, and responsible persons. This parenting style values both obedience to adult requirements and independence in children, explains the reasons behind rules, allows give and take, but doesn’t permit kids to treat parents as peers.

Doherty’s chapter on 11 guidelines for giving and getting respect is a gem. He also offers good advice for single parents and blended families and a thoughtful discussion of the benefits of belonging to a religious community, especially one that gets kids involved in service. Page for page, no parenting book I know packs in more practical wisdom in an often entertaining way.

Character Building: A Guide for Parents and Teachers

By David Isaacs,

Book cover of Character Building: A Guide for Parents and Teachers

Why this book?

Reading this book is like taking a course from a wonderful teacher who opens your eyes to how much more there is to a subject than you ever imagined. David Isaacs was director of the School of Education at the University of Navarre, has published ten books and is the father of six children. This enduring classic, originally published in Spanish in 1976 but available in English, provides a clear, concise chapter on the meaning and importance of each of 24 teachable virtues: good judgment, orderliness, respect, responsibility, obedience to legitimate authority and rules, industriousness, moderation, modesty, justice, generosity, patience, friendship, and more.

Isaacs helpfully groups these virtues into four developmental periods (early and middle childhood, early and late adolescence) and tells us which virtues to emphasize during each period based on the characteristics of children at that age. His vision of virtues is also informed by his Catholic view of the human person (“We owe respect to every human being as a child of God”). But as he makes clear, the universal and practical value of these “human virtues” transcends differences in religious belief.

The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives

By William Stixrud, Ned Johnson,

Book cover of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives

Why this book?

This thought-provoking book by Bill Stixrud (a clinical neuropsychologist) and Ned Johnson (an SAT tutor) pops up on other “best books” lists on parenting. It deserves to be there. But it’s not, as the title might suggest, a prescription for “hands-off” parenting. On the contrary, it shows us how to actively help our kids become better decision-makers by giving them lots of guided practice in making decisions they’re capable of handling, such as: “Should I take on the challenge of moving to the next grade in school, or spend another year learning the important skills I didn’t learn very well this year?” (but definitely not decisions where, for example, danger is involved—like going to an unsupervised party).

In short, raising a “self-driven” child means doing more of a different kind of parenting—in a collaborative, mutually respectful relationship that’s more rewarding for both parent and child. It means looking for opportunities to be a consultant who asks questions like, “What’s your Plan B if Plan A doesn’t work out?” In this way we become better at helping our children develop what the ancient Greeks considered the most important virtue: good judgment. That’s a gift that lasts a lifetime.

Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories

By William Kilpatrick, Gregory Wolfe, Suzanne Wolfe

Book cover of Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories

Why this book?

Good books can be one of a parent’s best allies in teaching virtue. This guide is a gold mine of more than 300 high-quality fiction and non-fiction books that have strong character themes. There are recommendations for young, middle, and older readers. Each book is described in a full paragraph with detail rich enough to give us a clear idea of its content and value. Books like these can contribute to children’s character development in many ways: by taking them into worlds beyond their own; enabling them to learn vicariously from the good and bad choices of the characters they encounter; helping them grow in understanding of people different from themselves; and perhaps inspiring them to want to be more like a character who is wiser or kinder or braver.

Reading together can become a treasured “connective ritual” for parents and children. It was in our family. And the more kids read good books—with us or on their own—the more they’ll be immersed in goodness and attracted to it. The authors also recommend 20 outstanding movies for family viewing and discussion. William Kilpatrick, a Boston College professor of education, wrote Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong. Gregory and Suzanne Wolfe are creators of The Golden Key, an award-winning children’s book catalogue.

The 6 Most Important Decisions You'll Ever Make: A Guide for Teens: Updated for the Digital Age

By Sean Covey,

Book cover of The 6 Most Important Decisions You'll Ever Make: A Guide for Teens: Updated for the Digital Age

Why this book?

I regularly recommend this terrific book, recently updated for the digital age, to both teens and their parents. Sean Covey is the son of the famous Stephen Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Sean is an experienced father, nationally known character educator (creator of The Leader in Me program), and highly talented author in his own right. His book on “the 6 most important decisions” tackles areas of a young person’s life where good decisions can bring big benefits and poor ones can carry a high cost: (1) choosing friends, (2) making the most of school, (3) creating a positive relationship with your parents, (4) building self-confidence, (5) dating and romantic relationships (without sex), and (6) steering clear of drugs, pornography, and other damaging addictions.

Covey’s gift for connecting with young readers combines straight talk, practical tips, humorous cartoon graphics, and hard-to-argue-with wisdom illustrated with true stories from the lives of teens and supported by insights from adolescents around the world. If you and your child can read and talk about this book together, that’s best of all—but even just reading it yourself will help you think about these issues, discuss them with your kids, and give good guidance.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in parenting, life satisfaction, and child development?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about parenting, life satisfaction, and child development.

Parenting Explore 116 books about parenting
Life Satisfaction Explore 120 books about life satisfaction
Child Development Explore 23 books about child development

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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