Chapter 1

Chapter 1 from The Good, The Bad and The Difference: How to Talk with Children About Values

“The genius of the artist is to free the angel locked in the marble.”



If there’s one fact that’s been pounded into my aging brain more than any other, it’s that children want to talk to their parents. They want to, they need to, they expect to and they are resentful when they can’t. They want to talk for two main reasons: as a general rule, children respect their parents more than any other people; and children—certainly most of them—want to become capable and honorable human beings. They know parents offer the best prospect for achieving those goals.

Eyebrows may raise and skeptical chuckles may escape like gas from a shaken soda pop can, but my statements are drawn from hundreds of conversations with school children as young as first graders.

Children have told me who their heroes are and who they most respect. Initially they name people of fame and wealth and public achievement; athletes, celebrities, rock stars and some corporate mogul in the news. After 9/11, many named firefighters and police. One impressive child chose Abraham Lincoln because he unified our country. One youngster respected her wheelchair-bound neighbor born with spinal bifida because “he never complained and always seemed happy.”

No child named the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board for lowering interest rates.

As they further ponder the values that underlie their selections, children say they respect people that impacted them directly, such a doctor that saved their life or the life of a friend or family member. As the minutes in class tick by, children increasingly acknowledge that the people they respect the most and view as heroes are the people that help them every day, their parents.

Parents are the folks that sacrifice for them, devote so much of their lives and resources caring for them, feeding them, clothing them, taking them to soccer practice and music lessons and generally instructing them to be responsible participants in society. “I know they could have more stuff if they didn’t have to raise me,” many a child has said.

But of all the reasons they respect their parents, the most honored is that parents help them become stronger better people.  “They have more experience,” Tulley explained. “They may have made mistakes so they can give advice to help us avoid them.” But it was Samantha, a second grader, who described parents’ highest virtue. “Parents teach us how to live right”


Teaching right from wrong is the foundation for teaching children to live virtuously. I’ve learned that children are hungry for this guidance. They value it. They want to talk about it. They respect the good that their parents do; helping fix a stranger’s flat tire, saving a drowning child, volunteering at a battered women’s shelter, and they want to be like them.

Parents teach right from wrong by their actions, of course, and that is probably the most powerful and effective method of teaching. But they also teach by their words. For example, Sarah, a first grader in my first class in 1990, said, with pride piggy-backing on every word, “You sit down for dinner with your mom and dad and they teach you what is right.”

Max, a fifth grader, eloquently echoed Sarah’s words when he told me that he loved “learning how to help humanity.” I asked where his love came from? “It comes from my parents,” he replied, his unscheming eyes glittering.  “My parents talk to me if I’ve done something wrong or if I’ve made a mistake and they tell me what is right.”

I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want to talk with their children about right and wrong. One mom’s comment is typical:  “It’s my job to raise moral children. It’s a matter of pride. It gives me satisfaction to know I am doing a good job. My children reflect upon me.”

Speaking to our children about right and wrong should be easy. We parents are more experienced, more educated and, generally, more verbal than our children. Wise words should flow to angelic children like warmed honey from a jar. Yet, as Gershwin wrote in ‘Porgy and Bess,’ it ain’t necessarily so. Indeed, many parents look forward to talking about this topic with the enthusiasm the tooth has for the drill.

Apprehension is understandable. Some think that they might not be sufficiently agile thinkers to respond to their children’s challenges. Sometimes we lack the confidence to know what is right  in our complex and conflicted culture. Some of us think our comments won’t be profound or persuasive. Sometimes we agonize that our opinions might be inconsistent or might not be valid in all similar situations. Also, our ego, our vanity, our sense of power and authority, even our self image, can become entwined like a pile of linguini, affecting our objectivity and, frankly, sometimes our patience. And finally, let’s face it, some subjects are just darn uncomfortable to talk about.

If you feel or think any of these things, as my friend Lenny says, fuhggeddaboutit! There’s no need to put yourself through the rinse cycle of your washing machine. Having a conversation about right and wrong is a skill. Skills can be learned, like a hobby or sport, and this skill can be a lot more fun and a lot more rewarding.

I share my experiences talking to children about right and wrong and my suggestions for distinguishing one from the other. I also share the advice children have given me  about how their parents should talk to them generally about any topic. Their comments are candid, poignant and unfiltered. A few, I confess, made my eyes watery. As you read their words, you can see in your mind’s eye their earnest faces as they struggle to express difficult ideas with voices of vulnerability but also of hope


“Praise works with only three types of people; men, women, and children.”– Anonymous   (who wrote a lot of good stuff)

I arrived early at Erik’s fourth grade class.  Mrs. Nelson was seated, reading to students sitting in a semi-circle on the floor. She waived me in, finished the lesson and walked to the back of the room.  I approached her empty chair, and, for no reason that I can recall,  I asked the class if it would be okay if I sat down.

“Yeah!” Molly hollered.  “Be our size!”

A tingling jolted up my spine. I had struck gold. Molly had said something profound, something metaphoric, something that demanded further exploration.

I asked Molly what she meant. Her nose wrinkled. Her words emerged slowly. “It’s like you’re the same as us,” she replied. “It’s like you understand us better.” Clayton chimed in: “You’re just talking to us instead of telling us what to do.”

Hundreds of children have interpreted Molly’s words.  “You’re not standing over us,” Alexandra said.  “It means,” Stephen said, “you see things from our perspective.”  Morgan said:  “To see the world as a kid sees it.” Cara said. “It’s that you are not so powerful.” “It means to be a child with us,” Ellis said.

Did Ellis really want adults to be children, I asked?

“I mean,” she clarified thoughtfully, “to respect us, that we’re kind of equal.”

I asked children if there were specific ways that parents could talk to them so they could be “their size.” Their heart-swelling answers gave instruction on voice tone, topics, vocabulary and concerns about disagreements between parent and child. Of course, the children quoted here don’t speak for every child, but their thoughts are representative.

Lauren: “What’s an effective way to talk and get us to think about stuff? Ask questions. We might not know the answers right away but we’ll start to think about it.”

David: “Try to think on the same level instead of using difficult language.”

Diamond: “Get eye to eye contact. It shows us respect.”

Nick: “Just ask what would happen if you did this or that.”

Beth:  “Talk with a calm voice and don’t yell. If adults yell, the kid will get mad.”

Alexandra: “You should explain because kids get confused, and it doesn’t feel good. You feel like you’re in a little box and everyone is torturing you.”

Charlie:  “Make the sentences short and use simple words. Don’t lecture.”

Lauren: “Don’t keep repeating stuff.”

Kelsey: “If the kid needs help, just show how to correct it.”

Joey: “It helps me a lot when you explain things to me. Don’t tell me what to think.”

Nick: “Talk to them as if they were your friends. Don’t talk down.”

Sadie: “When my parents encourage me, I feel it’s not just me alone. They are helping me.”

Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Use common words to say uncommon things.” Note how these little children intuited the wisdom of a poet as acclaimed as Stevenson. It is easy to be clever, but real cleverness is being simple.

Amber mentioned difficulties talking with parents. “It’s harder to talk to your parents about things. Some children are scared of their parents. The parents relate badly.”

Paige, a verbal fifth grader, exclaimed:  “I love to debate. I love to argue, but not with parents or adults.”

“Why not,” I asked?

“They don’t listen. They just tell you you’re wrong and you get into trouble.”

“Yeah,” Alexandra added, “Parents take things personally.” I could not suppress a hearty laugh. She’s right.

Stephen, a bright fifth grader said: “I feel like I have to get through a brick wall to get to my destination.”

“That’s quite a statement coming from a ten-year-old!” I remarked.

“I’m eleven,” he sharply replied.


One of the most consistent themes over the years is that children don’t want to be treated as…drum roll…… children! In 2007 I began presenting my course at the Ebert Polaris Elementary School, a glittering jewel of a school located in downtown Denver. I raised this topic in one of my first classes there.

“Don’t use little words,” Ari said emphatically. “We know the big words.” He felt that using little words was patronizing. Emerald, elaborated with a sharp remark. “Yeah, it’s like when we’re given a kid’s menu. I hate kid’s menus!”

Children, just like the rest of us, have a sense of when they’re being treated respectfully. Respect is shown when “the parent thinks about what we say.” Caylin sees a lack of respect when a parent says something like, “Oh, yes, that’s nice honey,” and then go on to something else.

Listening and asking follow-up questions is eloquent evidence of a parent’s respect for the words of the child. “It shows that the parent is making sure it knows what we’re talking about.” “When they ask us questions,” Caylin added, “then we know they’re listening and that they care.” Ronald offered his advice: “Don’t act like a big robot and go ‘Uhuh! Uhuh! Uhuh!”

Angelo made one of the most soulful comments in all my years in the classroom. “Parents respect us when they talk about things that they’re proud of or that they’re ashamed of.” I was perplexed. Why, I asked, did it show respect to talk about what a parent is ashamed of? His answer was profound.  “It shows they can be honest and talk about the good and the bad things. It shows me that they treat me as a friend.” Doesn’t that answer send a little tingle down your spine? These remarks, I emphasize, were made by fifth graders!

Children feel honored and acknowledged when we talk with them.  Cristina’s thought is widely shared.  “My mom or my dad tells me that I made a good point, and then I feel really good about that. When someone respects your opinion you feel supported.” Jessie, a fourth grader, spoke in broader terms. “When they ask my opinion, it shows that they respect me. Not whatever they say goes. It’s a better way to learn. Ask and talk. It’s okay to disagree. If they disagree, talk about it. If they talk and take the time to explain, then they show that they care about you.”


“Feelings and opinions are recruited, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal influence of [individuals] upon one another.”

Alexis de Tocqueville

One of the powers of language is its ability to confer values through images and analogies. Telling stories and using metaphors are two of the most effective methods of using language. Turning life’s events and challenges and choices into stories, narratives and metaphors is an effective powerful tool for teaching moral values to children. As Cara said, “I like the classes. I like the stories. Don’t give directions. Don’t give orders and demands. Give stories.”

Stories have morals and theme lines. With a little work, they can have depth and context and rich detail. They have twists and turns. They offer delicious opportunities to fashion variations and alternative plot lines.  The most effective lawyers will always try to present their case in the form of a story that has vivid metaphors, vibrant themes and meaningful lessons.

I tell stories through the interactive technique of dialogue, a word derived from the Greek dialogos, and its roots dia-, meaning through, and logos, meaning word and reason. A dialogue seeks truth through words and reason. A dialogue is a deliberation process of rational inquiry where questions and answers guide toward education, insight and self-awareness.

The kind of dialogue I’m talking about requires a self-critical examination of one’s own beliefs. The skill is to probe and extract insights, to find the truth and to develop wisdom. Dialogue encourages reasoning from the general to the specific—Was this action virtuous and, if so, why?—and from the specific to the general—I did this action. Was it virtuous?

A dialogue can be spontaneous exciting journey, with no predetermined path and no preconceived conclusions. They are moments of shared exploration, an inquiry between a child and mom or dad, grandma or grandpa, teacher or coach that deepens relationships and delights as well as educates. The give and take of ideas and the self-introspection require the child to think beyond their normal boundaries and thereby encourage the internal development of virtue.

It is not enough for a parent to have moral values. The parent should know how to articulate and communicate those values. Through dialogue, the parent helps the child develop into a moral thinker and becoming a more moral thinker is a vital precondition to becoming a more moral actor.

A dialogue with your child illustrates the virtue of taking time. Deep connections with your child are achieved through dialogue. We don’t want quick statements about facts, conclusions and lessons as if we were raising our child by a Power Point presentation. There should be no attention deficit dialogue. Properly done, the interaction slows the world down and gives us time to think.

A dialogue about ethics and virtue should go beyond sound bites for it deals with complex thoughts and the brain needs time to process new information and ideas. It should give the participants a chance to tell their own stories—what’s bothering you, what makes you happy, what makes you proud.

A dialogue with your child is not about winning and defeat. It is not a ‘zero sum’ game, where one advances at the expense of another. For several reasons, I’m against people arguing as ‘devil’s advocates.’ First of all, to argue what you don’t believe, other than posing reasonable hypothetical possibilities, risks violating the trust that needs to exist between parent and child if the process is to be credible and successful. Second, the devil has enough advocates. We parents shouldn’t aid and abet that group.

I don’t mind confiding that when I’m talking to my children or to the children in a class I must check myself to not be aggressive and to not ‘talk like a lawyer.’ Skills and styles that are effective in the courtroom—“Just answer my question.” “That’s not what I asked.” “You’re hopelessly inconsistent.”—may be abusive in other places (and they’re usually abusive in the courtroom also). A dialogue is like fly casting, a matter of easy rhythms rather than raw power. A dialogue with your child must be a ‘smote-free’ zone.

My most rewarding moments are the silences, those quiet seconds when the child pauses, reflects, and kneads her thoughts like a brioche dough and then exclaims “Oh, I get it!” or “Now I understand!” Then there is that priceless leap to a higher level of realization. Every moment can have its own magic, and you can have it also. Just remember that magic isn’t magic either.

Children are not fragile porcelain dolls. They are robust, vibrant and inquisitive. They want to argue, they want to make their statements, they want to challenge and they want to be challenged. Parents say things like, “Oh, honey, you don’t really mean that.” or “You’re saying that because you’re angry.”

Such comments insult the child. They don’t hold the child accountable for his statements. Children lose respect for the speaker. Like airbrushing, shallow conversation hides and distorts. They can be dishonest. The child escapes responsibility for his words. Introspection and the development of judgment do not occur. Treat their words seriously and hold them responsible for what they say and they will respect you more because you are listening and evaluating. Even if their words are irresponsible, you are honoring your child by engaging them in a reasoned exchange.

Reade, a fifth grader, said to me after a discussion. “You know what I like best about your classes?” I didn’t know. “You don’t treat us like children. You listen to what we say and you argue back. You help us think better.”

I could not have been more pleased if the great Julia Child served me a perfect meal on a platter of pure silver.

Look for the big picture, which is always conveyed through a collection of or by a bundling of little stories. As we lawyers say, stories have multiple entry points. We can talk about physical circumstances, character, training, judgment, intellect, whatever. All kinds of issues can be accessed by the same story. Just pick an issue and jump in.

Don’t worry about whether you are doing well. Your children may stare at you as if they were exhibits in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. Don’t be concerned. They are interested and they are forgiving. They will be inspired if they know you have a noble purpose. If my insights don’t give you a high comfort level, then take refuge in Herman Wouk’s poignant phrase, “love closes the gap where words fail.”