I have talked with young children in Denver-area schools for twenty years —mostly first graders through fifth graders—about grown-up themes: right and wrong, honor, virtue, personal responsibility, character and merit. In hundreds of conversations I listened with what my clarinet teacher called a “musical ear,” hearing their tone and pace and enthusiasm, giving voice to their struggles and the melodies that carried their beliefs and dreams.

The discussions gave me insights into children’s values, aspirations and expectations. Children are curious. They are educable. They want to understand the flow of an argument and expand the scope of their thinking. They are not weak. They are resilient, tough and don’t mind getting scraped or bloodied, physically or metaphorically, if the cause is just and if it will make them moral and decent. I always leave the classroom with a rejuvenated optimism because these little folks were serious about serious issues. They wanted to become better people.

I learned children want many things from their parents. They want ice cream, candy, iPhones and over-priced running shoes. They want food and shelter, and, of course, they want to be loved. But as much as anything, children want parents to make them stronger, physically and morally. They want to be taught to behave so they will be respected and to rightly feel proud; more ‘show me the virtue’ than ‘show me the money.’

To become stronger, to be respected by people worthy of respect, to feel proud, children want parents to teach right from wrong. They want parents to teach them to be good. They want this from parents because children consider parents the primary architects of their moral structure and the educators that teach them to liberate virtue from vice.

Morality is not a matter of opinion or whim or wishing or convenience but is deeply rooted in the truth of life itself. Morality is based on and measured by truth, that is, an accurate assessment of relevant facts in their proper context coupled with understanding the consequences of decisions, policies and behaviors. Therefore, to make children stronger, to teach them to be decent and good, parents owe children the truth.

We owe our children the truth about the world—that doing good is hard work, that goodness is not always rewarded, that right and wrong are not determined by popular vote but by unwavering ethical standards, that self-esteem must be earned, that knowledge does not necessarily lead to wisdom, that bad people do bad things and that good people sometimes do bad things even when they intend to do something good.

We owe our children the truth that morality cannot defend itself and that ethical values will wither if they are not defended. We owe our children the lesson that truth is not an end in itself but a springboard to moral action in pursuit of virtue.

To convey these truths, parents must be credible. Parents are up against the world to establish and maintain their moral standing with their children. To do so, to be competitive, parents must be informed, authoritative and present. The parent who fails to influence its child’s morality can be sure someone else will do so. Trust and credibility are constantly being challenged. They can quickly be undermined and transferred. Parents must continuously earn the trust of their children for it can no longer be commanded or taken as a given. Your children judge your credibility and integrity.

Yet, parenting is more difficult now than at any time in history. Parenting is trying, tedious, expensive and humbling. It is painful, full of anxiety and fear and sometimes seems thankless. Parenting requires backbone. Someone will always disagree; tell us we could have done better or that we were wrong.

Parents cannot be like pandering politicians who run everything through focus groups before deciding what to say or do. We cannot stick fingers up to see which way the winds of public opinion are blowing before deciding how to raise our children. Parents must see the big picture and be accountable, duties that do not burden children. Parents can have no exit strategy and cannot be voted off the island. Parents are the island. Parents are, as the poker expression goes, “all in.”

In my early school years, the greatest sins were talking in line, running in the hallways and the occasional fist fight. Now schools are infested with knives, guns, drugs, unchecked bullies and perverse sex education classes. Our youngsters have high rates of sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancies, suicides and homicides and watch thousands of hours of TV featuring unending violence. Edgy entrepreneurs offer pimp and ‘ho’ costumes in pre-school sizes.

In addition to these grim societal distortions, children’s access to the Internet and other easy communication resources can place parents at a competitive disadvantage in influencing their children. Today’s plugged-in, media immersed and savvy children get data, ideas, philosophies and direction from a multitude of sources. There are free markets of delivery systems and free markets of information. Parents have no monopoly. Parents must now compete for what Hugh Hewitt, in his book, Blog, calls “mindspace,” in this case, the conscious attention and awareness of their children.

Parents must talk to their children or they are likely to lose them. I don’t mean your children will stop asking for pizza or to use your credit cards or to pay for their lawyers. Rather, parents risk loss of influence. Parents that do not speak credibly and authoritatively with their children will be defined by other forces. To a significant extent, your children will know you based on what you talk about—what you find worthwhile and value and what you don’t; what you take seriously and what you don’t; whether you value moral reasoning and truth or whether you don’t. A single phrase spoken by a parent that praises or demeans a person will have a greater moral impact on a child than a dozen weighty books or sermons.

In advertising terms, your words and actions are your ‘brand.’ As advertising guru Ernie Mosteller describes it, parents must be consistent across all the platforms, expressing a consistent morality for themselves, their children, in-laws, sports coaches and colleagues, whether on vacation, at work and so forth. A Velcro-type morality that can be ripped off or slapped on when it suits a momentary convenient purpose will subvert the parent’s ‘brand’ as well as the parent’s character and integrity.

Ironically, in our communications-enriched world parents often have difficulty talking with their children. Many parents have told me they feel left out of the conversations in their children’s lives. The little munchkins come home from school and you ask, “How was your day?” and you get a shrug as they trek to the phone or the Internet or homework or sports or the TV. Parents confided in me that they feel uncomfortable talking to their children. They fear they won’t be interesting or won’t know what to say about some subjects.

Some parents fear their minds are not fast enough to successfully deal with their children’s challenges and rebuffs. Some topics make parents anxious and defensive. Who of us has not felt discomfort from the risk of criticism or rejection or unfavorable judgment when our thoughts, emotions and values are placed in the open? I have. Consequently, interaction diminishes.

The Good, The Bad and The Difference: How to Talk with Children About Values provides techniques and a format for talking with your children about moral issues. The book is divided into four sections. Part I presents skills for having conversations, for moral reasoning and the Moral Measures, a structure to evaluate the moral content of an action or belief or consequence. Part II discusses four moral principles. Part III presents seven virtues which I call the Seven C’s. Part IV contains in-depth discussions on three topics and a concluding chapter about parents’ moral stature in the home.

Ethics is not an exact science that can deliver certainty in all moral questions. Ethics is based on principles that guide reasoning and draw upon virtuous qualities. Moral reasoning is the process that uses ethics to figure out how to act virtuously. Through moral reasoning a person can develop the ability to do the right thing in a wide variety of different circumstances. This capability or competence is the result of employing several distinct virtues and skills; moral, intellectual and behavioral.

By the way, I am fully aware that any subject can be taught unethically, including ethics. Therefore, I determined to be the children’s fiduciary, a term in law that means I owed them the highest standard of care, the highest duty of protection. I never lost sight of the trust bestowed upon me when invited into the classrooms. I kept my personal opinions to myself. My thoughts on wars, presidents, fiscal policy, oil spills and terrorists were irrelevant. I did not advise children what to think. I tried to teach them how to think.

If the reader finds a sentence or two in this book that seem to hint at some grand political ideology, the reader has misconstrued my intentions and has given me undeserved credit. I am neither that clever nor that ambitious.

I distinguish moral reasoning from ordinary logical reasoning since, in the words of Dennis Prager, reasoning itself does not create moral values. Reasoning itself does not teach good from bad and right from wrong. Only virtuous reasoning has morality and ethics woven through the mental process of individuation, that is, where a situation’s unique facts and context are evaluated using moral standards. Virtuous reasoning is the blossom, not the original root, of reasoning.

This book shows parents how to teach moral reasoning by having conversations that incorporate moral themes and principles. Parents will see how current and historical events and all the little day-to-day dilemmas and challenges that saturate our lives can be logically and fluidly looped into morally-oriented discussions. Parents can give moral direction to their dialogues with purpose, passion and love. Conversations will be illuminating, challenging, joyous and welcome. Such dialogues not only develop the moral character of children but also enhance the parents’ credibility and integrity.

However, The Good, The Bad and The Difference is not a book about absolute moral truths or about moral absolutism. It is not a simplified statement of right and wrong. It is about reasoning and about skills to find to the truth. A person doesn’t acquire values and reasoning skills as if they were sunlight flooding into the living room after pulling the curtains open. One struggles through the reasoning process. Humility and hard work are required. Through this book I try to go beyond moral reasoning and encourage those habits and attitudes that nurture it.

Hundreds of conversations serve as templates that parents can duplicate, modify or enhance. Just add a parent, sprinkle with enthusiasm and success is assured. The book’s structure and process make it easy to understand the content’s lessons. The moral issues in each conversation topic are analyzed, argued and learned just as an airline pilot can be taught to fly using a simulator.

The conversations are the marketing research for the parents; the stories have been proven to engage children, exercise their minds and stir their souls. The ideas and analyses are accessible and the topics progress in a dynamic learning sequence that builds upon skills and principles toward reasoning of greater complexity.

Each chapter can stand alone regarding the specific issue, virtue or principle addressed, although the book is intended to be read as a unified statement on moral reasoning. Direct quotes from the children show how they grapple with serious issues. I hope the reader can also ‘hear’ the children’s melodic voices– sometimes poetic and majestic, often humorous, sometimes despairing and sometimes downright exasperating, but always respectful of the conversation’s importance.

As in a musical ensemble, the children play off each other in a jam session of words and arguments, adding their riffs and tunes, but also listening and responding to their classmates with dazzling attentiveness.

Their comments may cause a chuckle to bubble out like a little trout stream. Some may bring a tear to the eye. Through their words the eloquence and wisdom and compassion inherent in young children are illuminated, and I honor these children by sharing their words.

I’ve been asked by inquisitive folks, “What’s your market for the book?” I confess I was taken aback because the answer seemed self-evident: anyone that wants to raise or influence a child to be moral. No special skills are required, other than, perhaps, the willingness to admit you don’t know everything or that you might have changed your mind about something.

Nothing more presumptuous or grandiose is required than a parent putting an arm around its child and asking, “What do you think?”  Then you prospect and inquire, knowing you will leave a little gold dust in your child’s soul.

The classroom is one of many venues where moral learning takes place, but it is not the best or most effective. Families are the most efficient and successful institution for conveying moral values and for creating good people. Borrowing from the movie ratings system, I hope this book inspires parents to get a little more P in the PG realm. Children want their parents to be moral leaders; they want their parents to be adults, that is, something honorable, noble and steadfast; not a  sullied adjective slapped in front of words like ‘bookstore’ or ‘videos’ or ‘entertainment.’

Parents who have read this book as it evolved told me it has given them support and strength to stand up for what they know is right. One mom said the skills in the book helped her do things that made her proud. “We’re all in this together,” another mom said, “so this helps us all. The more skilled we get, the more we will be inclined to speak with our children.”

These words are affirming of course, for many reasons. But high on the list is that those words support the overarching theme of this book: my faith that if given even the slightest encouragement and guidance to do so, most parents will be more likely act to advance honor, beauty and virtue. They will seek the truth that will enhance purpose, meaning and self-awareness with those they love. Parents are the best source for creating good people and I have faith that they will try to do so. Most likely none of us will finish the task but we should begin.

The Good, The Bad and The Difference offers a collection of dialogues that get children involved in their heads and in their hearts. They will give children the voice to tell their stories to you. I am confident this book will help you create your own magic, your own poetry, your own memorable phrases and turn otherwise unremarkable moments into something remarkable. The memories and words will linger.

As for your children, they may forget many things—the new pair of shoes once upon a time, a vacation, a soccer victory or a gift certificate, but they will never forget your words. Even more, they will never forget that you took the time to speak them. Those will be your finest hours.

To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
to earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others;
to leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;
to know even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

Ralph Waldo Emerson