How to Teach Children Values


A growing cynicism and the erosion of ethics make raising children a perilous task.

Bill Bennett

We live in an era that almost seems dedicated to the corruption of the young, to assuring the loss of children's innocence before their time. Since 1960, there has been a more than 500 percent increase in violent crime, a more than 400 percent increase in out-of-wedlock births, a tripling of the percentage of children living in single-parent homes, a tripling in the teenage suicide rate, a doubling in the divorce rate and a drop of almost 75 points in the SAT scores of our students. In comparison with the rest of the industrialized world, the United States ranks at or near the top in the rate of abortion, divorce and unwed births. We lead the industrialized world in murder, rape and violent crime.

The Importance of Virtue

Intelligent public policies can address some of our plight. But we need to recognize that many of the problems afflicting society today are moral problems, and therefore remarkably resistant to governmental cures.

The real answer to the perils of our time is that we simply must become more civilized. And the best way to become more civilized is to inculcate virtue in our children.

Now by “virtue” I don't mean a kind of moral perfection that none of us is capable of attaining. What I do mean is that we must pay attention to something that every civilized society has given preeminent importance: instilling in our children certain fundamental traits of character—traits like honesty, compassion, courage, perseverance, altruism, and fidelity to one's commitments.

Teaching virtue to our children need not be a controversial undertaking. Forming good character in young people does not mean having to instruct them on thorny issues like abortion, creationism, homosexuality, or euthanasia, to name just a few. These are important and complex issues that deserve discussion in the proper forum. But as our own experience bears out, people of good character are not all going to come down on the same side of difficult political and social issues. Good people — people of character — can be conservative, and good people can be liberal. We must not permit our political disputes to obscure our obligation to offer instruction on the importance of good character.

Society's Role

Charles William Eliot, President of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909 and the editor of the Harvard Classics, once reminded us that “in the campaign for character no auxiliaries are to be refused.” And in the campaign for good character, there are at least three auxiliaries parents should be able to count on as a matter of course.

The school is one. We need to agree again on the fundamental purpose of education — which is to provide for the intellectual and moral education of the young. From the ancient Greeks to the founding fathers, moral instruction was considered the central task of education. Until a quarter century or so ago, the consensus was so complete as to go practically unchallenged; now it's time to go back to basics. Parent should insist on teachers who are willing to discriminate between right and wrong. They should also insist on the school's maintaining policies that reward good behavior and punish bad. We need a solid curriculum in history and English — not courses in moral reasoning, but the good old stuff quarried from our rich store of literature and history.

Religious institutions are a second important auxiliary. A number of thoughtful commentators have remarked recently that the mission of the church has become confused: churches have become overly political and secularized, and they are not paying enough attention to their primary responsibilities—affirming faith and attending to the moral life of believers. It would also be helpful if serious beliefs were not so often the subject of ridicule and disdain. Why don't we hear more form the media about the positive effects that religion has on many people's lives, instead of what we so often have: discussions of religion with the backdrop of scandal? Controversies shouldn't be ignored, but we should be able to expect basic fairness and proportionality.

A third auxiliary is popular culture. Our society has become far too cynical and sleazy. From my childhood through adolescence and into early adulthood, I was fortunate that people went to the trouble of pointing out to me individuals who possessed certain qualities of human excellence that were worth imitating and striving for. But for some reason, many people today seem contemptuous of the very notion of heroes. This kind of corrosive cynicism is dangerous. It puts children's ideals, aspirations, and their notions of self-worth in jeopardy. Children need to know what deserves to be emulated and loved and nurtured; popular culture can provide an important assist.

The Role of Parents

Clearly, schools, religious institutions, and the popular arts can be important allies in moral education. And to a certain extent, it is true that the family can never completely counteract the influence of the culture in which we live. Nevertheless, it is also true that teaching character begins where it must — in the home, with parents. What are some of the things that parents need to do to help children develop good character? Here are four areas:

TIME These days we often hear that it is quality time that is important. The trouble with this is that you can't sit a child down and say, “Son, we now have a half hour together. Let's make it `quality' time.” Children don't understand what that means; for them, quality time is quantity time. The real-world fact is, there is no substitute for spending time with your child — and children know it.

My mother, who was divorced, raised my brother., Bob, and me. She held two jobs, as a medical receptionist and a secretary. It was tough on her. But my memory is that she spent a lot of time with me — and it made a huge difference in my life. Though she never said it, she had made a decision: The needs of her sons came before her own needs.

Times have changed. Not long ago, during a break in a trip, I was watching a daytime TV talk show. The topic dealt with single mothers who wanted to date. In the course of the discussion a woman conceded that her young child had needs, but said, “I have needs, too.” It turned out that her needs consisted in maintaining a very active dating life.

Society needs to affirm once again the message that having a child is the most important thing a person will do in life, and that act entail certain obligations. Some may argue otherwise, but there is simply no substitute for parental and moral guidance: logging lots of time, doing chores and errands together, playing together, reading together, and patiently explaining the way the world works and the way people ought to live. It is worth remembering, however, that in instructing children in moral education, we shouldn't expect perfection from them. And we shouldn't expect perfection from ourselves either. But we should expect that our life, taken in its totality, will be a good pattern for our children.


We can't expect children to take messages about rules or morality seriously unless they see parents taking those rules seriously in their day-to-day affairs. As Helen Mary Warnock, a former Oxford professor, has written, “You cannot teach morality without being committed to morality yourself; and you cannot be committed to morality yourself without holding that some things are right and others wrong.”

A child cannot learn about honesty if she sees one or both of her parents lie or cheat. We can't expect a brother to treat his sister with respect if the father is not treating the mother with respect. And we can't expect a child to develop compassion for others if there is no evidence of compassion shown to others by the child's mother or father.

Family is not destiny; fortunately, other responsible adults can help shape children's character. And just as some children who have good parents turn out to be bad, some children who have bad parents turn out to be good. They can overcome the odds. But we should make it as easy as possible for them to be learn good character. The general rule is obvious: Parents should not only talk the talk, they should walk the walk.

Moral Instruction

Children need to be taught not only by example but also by precept. If you tell a child that it's important for her to be a good person, the next question she inevitably asks is “Why?” Parents need to be able to answer that question confidently, in a way that will make sense to the child.

Parents also need to provide children with specific reference points. My wife, Elayne, and I often read from the book I edited, The Book of Virtues, an anthology of great moral stories. To Joseph, our five-year-old, we read the story “Please,” about a little word that lives in a boy's mouth and needs to be taken out of his mouth very often, so it will be strong and happy. We read this as instruction on manners, the basic building blocks of civilization. To John, our ten year-old, we read about the Spartans' heroic stand at the Pass of Thermopylae. He is ready to comprehend more complex virtues, like courage and sacrifice. Elayne and I have found that one of the keys to any kind of learning is repetition: We need to keep telling the stories again and again. They boys love hearing them, and it takes time for them to internalize the message. But over time, they do.

Love and Discipline

The most valuable thing a parent can provide to a child is love. Love is making sure that a child sees tangible examples of his parents' deep and enduring affection and devotion. Cornell psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner once said, “In order to develop a child needs the enduring, irrational involvement of one or more adults in care and joint activity with the child.” When someone asked him to explain what he meant by “irrational involvement,” he said, “Somebody has got to be crazy about that kid!”

But discipline is a very important part of the concept of love. The point of discipline is to set responsible limits and reinforce good conduct. I am convinced that children understand intuitively that discipline is a sign of love; that is, enforcing rules and providing order and structure are signs that parents care enough to pay attention.

Shaping a Child's Life

The reason we need to instill virtue in our children is not to satisfy narrow ideological beliefs or to impose a kind of rigid conformity. The real reason we instill virtue has to do, finally, with the well-being of children. Because a life characterized by virtue is still the best, the most honorable and the most successful way to live.

Social science and common sense agree on this point: Nothing more powerfully determines the shape of a child's life than his values, his beliefs, his sense of right and wrong. Since time immemorial, it is given to parents, preeminently, to provide these things. And for parents, there is no more important, nor rewarding task.

What does a Character Building Day Look Like?

Teaching good character rests with rules and precepts, imitation and example, story and moral literacy. How might these things play out in a day in the life of a child? It might look something like this: Before school, the child needs the discipline and the good habits to get up, get dressed, get his books together, and show up at school on time — with homework done, and ready to answer questions from the teacher.

During the school day, he will ideally spend time with a teacher who is comfortable in her position of authority, uses that authority confidently and competently, is a good example and works with the improvement of her students as her motivation.

At the school our son, John, attends, there is something called the “character honor roll,” which is given equal footing with the academic honor roll. That's a good idea.

During recess, the child should play according to the rules of the games and be willing to lend a supporting hand to other children who are having a difficult time.

When he gets home from school, there are probably chores he will be responsible for: yard work, or cleaning his room, or taking care of his pets. During family dinner — an activity too often overlooked in our hurried world — there should be an opportunity to discuss events from the day, both personal and global. In the evening, homework will be done. Parents might help check it and oversee it, but certainly they must make sure that it is done. And when the child gets ready for bed, they may want to read him a story or two, say prayers together and kiss him good night.

These are the kinds of day-to-day tasks that can make all the difference.


Bennett, William J. “How to Teach Children Values.” Ladies' Home Journal, (September, 1994).

Reprinted with permission of William J. Bennett and Empower America.


William J. Bennett was Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Secretary of Education under President Reagan, and Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Bush. The author of The Book of Virtues several other best sellers. His most recent book is The Educated Child: A Parent's Guide from Preschool Through Eighth Grade. He is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and codirector of Empower America. He lives with his wife, Elayne, and their two sons in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Copyright © 1994 Empower America

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