Values Matter: Using Your Values to Raise Caring, Responsible, Resilient Children

We hear so much these days about how important it is that parents instill good values in their children. The truth is that if parents don’t accept this responsibility, then the void may be filled by negative forces in our culture that do not support healthy morals and ethics for our families.

The more aware parents are of their own values, the clearer they will be in expressing them and communicating them to their children.

 

What are Values?

Value is the amount of worth ascribed to something, the degree to which something is prized or has merit. Values are the beliefs that each person considers are important for himself and possibly for humanity as a whole.

Values are very important in parenting since they deeply influence all behaviors and attitudes and effect our decisions and relationships. For a value to be truly your own, you must act on it and your behavior must reflect it – not just verbally accept it or think that you should follow it.

The following common sayings refer to the important concept of acting in concert with your values in order to have internal integrity:

  • put your money where your mouth is;
  • walk the walk not just talk the talk;
  • actions speak louder than words;
  • children do as they see, not do as they are told to do.

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Some Facts about Values

Values can Cause Conflict

  • The closer the relationship to another person, the more a person feels responsible for that person. That partially explains why parents often have an intense drive to make sure their children accept their values and act according to those standards.
  • Values are very personal and are often held with great conviction, including beliefs about how to parent. Strongly committed to their values, people can feel personally attacked when someone disagrees with them or tries to inflict their values on them. As a result, conflicts can occur if someone tries to tell another person how to raise his children.

    For example, young parents often are very sensitive to comments and suggestions from their own parents about their parenting choices, as it often feels like criticism of a value the newer parents hold.

  • This strong commitment to one’s values can also lead to tension between parents when they disagree on fundamental issues about raising their children.
  • Strong adherence to one’s values is also a common cause of tension between parents and children (especially teens) when the children espouse opposing values.

 

Values are Subjective

  • Often values are not consciously chosen. They are based on deep beliefs that people learn from their parents when they are so young that they accept what their parents say and do without question.

    These early beliefs are communicated to children to a large degree non-verbally and through the myriad of interactions they have with their parents throughout their childhood. Children usually take on the values of those in charge until they are old enough (and encouraged) to begin to think for themselves.

  • Values are completely subjective and are personal opinions, not facts. Often people think that what they value is a universally accepted belief and that it is factual and objective.
  • Prejudices are formed when opinions, which are determined by our values and are interpretations of facts, are stated as facts and believed to be facts. These then are often communicated to children as absolute truths.

    For example, a parent may value the qualities of studiousness and seriousness in a child, and communicate to a more boisterous child that his highly active temperament is ‘bad.’ This more active child may then grow up believing that there is something wrong with him.

  • An important part of increasing our understanding of values is to differentiate between facts and opinions.

    In the above example, this louder and more spirited child may not be what a parent prefers (that is, what he values), but there is nothing inherently bad about those traits. Another parent may actually feel better about a child is who more boisterous and lively.

    It is all a matter of personal opinion and preference, not fact.

 

Values Change over Time

  • Values often change with age and are closely connected to a person’s developmental stage in life.

    For example:

    As teens begin breaking away from their parents, they closely identify with their peer group. These friendships become all-important, often taking precedence over family relationships.

    Once the teen matures and becomes more comfortable with himself, he can then break away from his peer group to form his own values, which often return to or become more similar to those of his parents.

    When a person becomes a parent, values often change as rearing children and providing for them become priorities in the parent’s life.

  • One very effective way that teens separate themselves from their parents is by rejecting the parents’ values. If teens have not been allowed to voice an opposing view all along, they may rebel more strongly in the adolescent years as a way of decisively differentiating themselves from their parents.

 

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The Value of Values

Understanding the concept of values and the importance of teaching them to their children gives parents a powerful way to influence their children and to shield them from the adverse forces they may encounter in the outside world.

Parents are not helpless against the realities in our culture and in the media that assault their belief systems and that make practicing healthy parenting feel like an exercise in “swimming upstream.”
 

Values Provide Clarity

  • Parents are more effective and clear when they know what they value for themselves and how those values influence what they want for their children.
  • The more conscious parents are of the values they wish to transmit and the more they know about effective ways of transmitting them, the more likely it is that their children will learn and incorporate those values.

 

Vlues Provide Guidance

  • Knowing your goals for your child helps you decide how to relate to your children. It focuses the parenting choices you make, helps you to guide your children, determine what messages you want to send and what behaviors and attitudes you want to reinforce. Do you want to reinforce:
    • hard work?
    • kindness?
    • generosity?
    • assertiveness?
    • independence?

    It helps you pick your battles; decide what is worth your time and attention and what you can let go of.

 

Values Impact Relationships

  • Understanding your values helps make clear when one value conflicts with another. You can then consciously determine what your priorities are in regard to the two conflicting values. Do you value:
    • honesty or politeness?
    • neatness or creativity?
    • socialization time with peers or time with family?
  • One very effective way that teens separate themselves from their parents is by rejecting the parents’ values. If teens have not been allowed to voice an opposing view all along, they may rebel more strongly in the adolescent years as a way of decisively differentiating themselves from their parents.

Knowing what you value can serve as a guide to determine when and how you want to intervene in a situation with your children. If you see your child misbehaving in a way that is contrary to a value you want to instill, it can be a clue about something the child needs to learn, whether it be kindness, generosity, responsibility, honesty, etc.

The situation can be an opportunity to do your job as a parent to teach that value and the behaviors that reflect it, rather than a reason to get angry and punish.

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What’s the Challenge?

But sometimes it is not as easy as it seems it should be.
 

Parents Don’t Know What They Value

For one thing, parents aren’t always sure themselves what they consider to be important, what it is that they value. As the old adage says, “If you don’t know where you want to go, you are far less likely to get there.” It often takes conscious effort to get clear about one’s overall value system.

For example, if you are not clear that you want your children to show gratitude, you may miss opportunities to teach your child how he can express his sincere thanks when someone buys him a present.

 

Values Conflict with One Another

Secondly, our own values can conflict with one another. This internal values conflict can occur when a person is not clear about which value is more important, or when a person values two things at once which seem incompatible. Parents may feel an increase in stress, tension and confusion when they have with conflicting values and they may send mixed or confusing messages to their children.

For example:

  • A parent may want his child to be independent but also may want his home to be very neat – how does this parent respond when his seven year old wants to make his own breakfast but often winds up spilling the cereal and juice on the counter and sometimes on the floor?
  • Another parent may value honesty but also want her child to be popular – so how does she counsel her child when the child knows that a student who is part of the “in-crowd” was cheating on an exam?
  • If a parent values both obedience and independence, it will be best to clarify in what areas the child is to be obedient and where he may be independent.

    A parent may value obedience in health and safety matters and respect for human life, while valuing independence in the areas of self-care and handling responsibility.

A few other common internal values conflicts are:

  • curiosity vs. self-control.
  • neatness vs. creativity.
  • honesty vs. politeness.
  • being popular with peers vs. standing up for one’s beliefs or for an ‘underdog’.
  • focus on academics vs. focus on social life.
  • focus on social time vs. having family time.

 

Parents Conflict over Values

There may be disagreement between two parents about what is important and which traits to encourage in their children.

For example, one parent may want their child to be assertive and outspoken, while the other parent may prefer a child who is obedient, gets along with others and defers to the parent’s decisions.

Parents may share a value but still disagree about how to reflect that value.

For example, both may want their child to have high self-esteem but one may want a looser structure in the home to give more freedom for self-expression and the other parent may want more structure in the home to give a greater sense of security and safety through rules.

 

Values Change over Time

Values can and do change with time, age and experience. Some values become less important as others rise in importance. Parents may value different traits in their children at different times because they themselves are changing and because their expectations for different age children vary.

For example, when children are toddlers, some parents might wish the kids were less active and more obedient; as the children grow, these same parents might really appreciate their children’s energy, curiosity and initiative.

As children mature into adolescents, they frequently express their budding, but insecure, independence by rejecting their parents’ values. Although parents may strongly want their children to live according to their values, the teens’ job is to determine their own value system.

How and how much can parents of teens control their children’s values without running the risk of pushing them in the totally opposite direction?

For example, do you forbid a shaved head and torn jeans or do you allow your teens freedom to experiment with different values?

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Transmitting Values: Benefits and Pitfalls of Different Approaches

Now that you know why it is important to be clear about your own values and to communicate them to your children, you may be asking how you can do that effectively. There are four approaches that parents can use to pass on their values.

One of the ways to differentiate one from the other is to consider:

  • how directly the value is transmitted
  • how involved the parent is in the transmission.

Being aware of these two dimensions can help you to best implement each of the approaches. Each one has its place in passing on your values to your children and no one approach used exclusively is as effective as using all in combination.

 

Moralizing

What is Moralizing?

Moralizing involves preaching and teaching.

Parents are very involved with this approach to passing on their values, and the values are very directly transmitted. This method is used more often when children are young and parents are directly teaching children how to behave.

 

The Benefits of Moralizing

Moralizing is most effective when done in short spurts, not in long preachy lectures: you can give short impassioned sermons when insisting that certain behaviors reflective of a value are upheld. By doing so, you are communicating very clearly what you value.

Parents may effectively impose values on children by focusing on a few key issues – this can have the desired impact without bogging the child down.

For example, one area many parents feel very strongly about is respectful and kind treatment of others. You may want to give short, clear and stern “lectures” if your children call other children names.

 

Likewise, to instill a sense of responsibility in your children, if they shirk from doing their chores, you can teach briefly why it is important that they follow through with their commitments:

“I expect you to live up to your word.”

“In order for me to trust you, you need to do what you say you are going to do.”

“For our household to run smoothly, I count on you to do your chores.”

 
To instill a sense of gratitude in your children, you can teach them how important it is to say thank you when you do something for them; if they complain that your efforts are not enough, you can tell them:

“When I go out of my way to take you to Sam’s house, I expect and want you to say thank you for driving me rather than complaining that we are late.”

 
You can teach them how to respond when they receive a present:

“Thank you so much. I love the red backpack. I can take it to school every day.”

 
Even if they do not like the present, they can express appreciation for the effort and thought the giver put into choosing the gift.
 

The Pitfalls of Moralizing

However, if moralizing or teaching is overdone, children may tune out their parents and may rebel (especially in the teen years) against being dictated to and lectured.

Also, preaching is less effective if children see that parents’ actions don’t match their words; that is, they don’t “walk the talk.”

If moralizing is the only method used to teach your values, children will not develop an internal value system, self-discipline or the ability to think for themselves because they have become accustomed to being told what to do and what to think.

 

Modeling

What is Modeling

Modeling involves parents acting in ways that demonstrate the desired values.

When modeling, parents are directly involved but the value is not taught directly.
 

The Benefits of Modeling

Modeling appropriate behavior is a powerful way to transmit values. The old adage “Do what I say, not what I do” simply does not work; children are more influenced by what they see parents doing than by what parents tell them to do.

For example:

If a parent wants her child to be respectful when talking to people, one of the best ways to encourage that behavior is to be respectful herself – when talking to the child as well as to other people.

If a parent tells a child how important it is to be neat and to take care of one’s possessions, but is sloppy herself with her things, chances are the child will emulate the parent’s careless and sloppy behavior rather than pay attention to what the parent says the child should do.

If a parent values honesty, but fibs about her child’s age to get a discount at the movie theater, the daughter will likely decide that saving money is more important than being honest. This puts a lot of pressure on parents to think about how they behave, speak and treat other people.

 

The Pitfalls of Modeling

If only modeling the behavior you want to see without giving children an opportunity to discuss the values that underlie the behavior, they may not understand the reason for the value or embrace the value fully. Left to themselves to interpret the value being shown by the behavior, they may miss it altogether, or the meaning may be diluted or confused.

Also, there are so many role models both face-to-face and through the media available to children nowadays, many of which may not espouse the same values as the parents.

As a result, children are often exposed to conflicting values through questionable role models. All the more reason for parents to be vigilant about directly transmitting the values they want their children to ultimately adopt.

 

Clarifying Values

What is Clarifying Values?

Clarifying Values uses an educational process which encourages children to consciously identify, understand, question and create their own value systems.

Through the process of clarification, a value is directly transmitted through parental involvement. Parents actively express their own values but do not impose them directly on their children. Children are encouraged to focus on the process of determining a value and can acknowledge their own values and choose between alternatives.

 

The Benefits of Clarifying Values

When children openly discuss values, they are better equipped to understand them, argue against them, consciously integrate one value with another, understand why a value is important and perhaps accept it as their own.

Children are taught how to think about and evaluate a value; they are not taught what specifically to think.

For example, if you want to teach your children to help those in need, you can ask them:
“Why do you think it is important to help less fortunate people?”

“What would happen if people did not extend a helping hand to those in need?”

“What categories of people would you consider to be needy of assistance?”

“What specifically can you do in your life to help these people?”

“Are there times when you think it is right to focus on your own needs over those of someone else?”

“What might be some of those situations?”

 

The Pitfalls of Clarifying Values

With young children use very simple discussions. As they mature, you can make the discussions more nuanced, complex and sophisticated.

 

A Laissez-Faire Approach

What is a Laissez-Faire Approach?

This approach allows children to forge their own values, the belief being that no one value system is right for everyone.
 

The Benefits of a Laissez-Faire Approach

This approach is more appropriate for older children who already have some basic values in place that the parent finds acceptable. It is best used in small doses and when the parent feels that the child has attained a certain level of sound judgment.

In its favor, a child will more strongly adopt those values that he determines for himself, independent of outside imposition.
 

The Pitfalls of a Laissez-Faire Approach

Although many parents use this approach, it is not very effective in instilling the values you want to teach, because it does not offer enough guidance. Parents are not involved and the teaching of the value is very indirect or non-existent.

Children and teens still need guidance in developing and evaluating their own value systems, and they depend on the significant people in their lives for help. If a laissez-faire approach is the only or dominant means used to transmit values, it can be felt as abandonment by the child and might leave him vulnerable to outside influences that do not encourage the development of a healthy value system.

When a parent assists a child in clarifying values and engages in the process of discussing values with his child, then the children have a framework to develop their own sound value system, even if it is not identical to the parent’s beliefs.

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What to Do

  • Take the time to think about what behaviors and traits you would like to see in your children. Knowing what you consider important and paying attention to how you can communicate that to your children will allow you to be more intentional in passing on those values. The exercises in the next section of this article can help you to get clear about your values and those you would like your family to have.
  • Consciously develop a values hierarchy to deal with your own internal values conflicts. This can be very difficult: it is not easy to determine exactly the relative importance of different values. Again, you can use the exercises in the next section to prioritize your personal values.
  • If you are aware that your child is not demonstrating a value that you think is important, use the situation to help your child learn how to exhibit that value.

    For example:

    If your child hits his sister because she took his toy, help him to consider what he could do instead of hitting, and use the situation as an opportunity to build empathy (“How would it feel to you if. . . .”). You can acknowledge that your child is trying to behave in a way that does not come easily to him.

    If your child asks repeatedly when you will be finished with your chores so you can take him to his friends, you can comment that you see that he is struggling to be patient and that you know that is difficult for him.

  • Recognize and use teachable moments in everyday life as opportunities to instill values in your children.

    For example:

    If you are watching a television program with your children, discuss the hurtful, negative, unkind behavior of the characters, as well as the positive traits and behaviors.

  • Involve your children in charitable work you do at your place of worship or in your community.
  • When you see your child behaving in a way that reflects a value you want to instill, call attention to it by labeling it. Having the behavior acknowledged and linked to an important value is a powerful teaching tool.

    To your son who shared his favorite toy with his sister, you can say, “I see you willing to share your favorite toy. That is what I call real generosity.”

  • Use a balance of all three of the direct ways (teaching, modeling, clarifying) mentioned above to impart your values. This will give you the greatest chance of having your children develop a strong ethical value system and internalize your values; perhaps not during their teen years, but before and after!

    For example, in instilling the value of helping those in need, over time and in various situations, you can:

    • tell your child why you think that it is important to help others:
    • model charitable giving, i.e: helping a neighbor who has just come home from the hospital;
    • ask leading questions to help your child think about the meaning of helping those in need;
    • give them some leeway to either accept and act upon the value or discard it (if they are older and safety is not involved.)
  • Share your family stories that demonstrate values you want to instill. It is inspiring to children and deepens their sense of identity.

    “In our family, people have been generous, courageous, and able to survive tragedies . Did you know that when Grandpa came to this country… ”

  • Remember that it takes time and practice before your child will internalize some values and live by them. Be patient and be hopeful.

The more conscious parents are of the values they wish to pass on to their children and the more they know about effective ways of transmitting these values, the more likely it is that their values will be communicated and adopted.

This process occurs over time, as children are not able to understand or incorporate some values for a long time. But children will benefit from having parents who work to transmit their values in a patient and nurturing way.

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Exercises to Help You Get Clear about Your Values

Because knowing what you value is such a crucial part of healthy and effective parenting, we are including a number of exercises that will help you to consider your values.

You can prioritize the things that are most important to you – “What do I consider important, and which of these values is more important to me?” and you can become clear about what traits and behaviors you value in your children and would like them to own and demonstrate.
 

Basic Life Values

Review the list of Life Values below; choose the top 10 values to determine what you consider to be most important in your life, put them into a hierarchy and choose the two that you value the most and the two that you value the least.

You can:

  • consider how you might express your top 10 values (what specific behaviors would demonstrate your top 10 values?)
  • have a discussion with your family about which values should become your family’s core values
  • encourage your spouse and family members to make their own lists
  • consider how your list may have been different 10 years ago

 

Achievement Assertiveness Beauty
Caring Challenging Work
Confidence
Ethusiasm

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Desirable Children’s Traits

Below is a list of behaviors that a child could demonstrate. Pick out the five that you admire the most and the five that you least admire. You can have your co-parent do this exercise separately and then compare and discuss each of your lists.

TRAITS MOST ADMIRED

  1. _____________________________________________________________
  2. _____________________________________________________________
  3. _____________________________________________________________
  4. _____________________________________________________________
  5. _____________________________________________________________

 

TRAITS LEAST ADMIRED

  1. _____________________________________________________________
  2. _____________________________________________________________
  3. _____________________________________________________________
  4. _____________________________________________________________
  5. _____________________________________________________________

 

  1. is very active, always on the go.
  2. takes whatever he or she wants.
  3. can throw & catch a ball very well.
  4. is a very beautiful child.
  5. has a smile for everyone.
  6. doesn’t want to be dirty or messy.
  7. can do “physical things” easily (i.e, run, climb, ride a trike)
  8. faces unpleasant situations (i.e, doctor’s shots) without flinching
  9. asks questions about everything.
  10. can do things a variety of ways.
  11. always turns out lights when leaving a room.
  12. gives toys away to anyone who asks.
  13. sees what needs to be done and helps without being asked.
  14. tells the truth even when it is to his or her disadvantage.
  15. always wants to do things by self.
  16. is tested as academically gifted.
  17. does what anyone says.
  18. lets another child bite him or her.
  19. doesn’t like activities interrupted.
  20. always thanks people.
  21. is always sought out by playmates.
  22. says prayers every night.
  23. can be trusted to leave tempting items alone.
  24. comforts a sad child at preschool.
  25. gets own snack whenever hungry.

From: Crary, Elizabeth,  Without Spanking or Spoiling

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Ranking Children’s Traits

Rank the personality traits listed below. Use 1 as the most important to you.

Note: The traits are the same as were presented in the Desirable Children’s Traits (above).

The numbers in parentheses indicate the corresponding statement in that exercise.

_____ ACTIVE – lots of energy, always moving (1)

_____ AGGRESSIVE – competitive (2)

_____ ATHLETIC – does well in sports (3)

_____ ATTRACTIVE – physically nice-looking (4)

_____ CHEERFUL – pleasant, friendly (5)

_____ CLEAN – neat, uncluttered (6)

_____ COORDINATED – physically coordinated (7)

_____ COURAGEOUS – stands up for own beliefs (8)

_____ CURIOUS – inquisitive (9)

_____ FLEXIBLE – resourceful, innovative (10)

_____ FRUGAL – conserves resources and energy (11)

_____ GENEROUS – shares with others (12)

_____ HELPFUL TO OTHERS – altruistic (13)

_____ HONEST – truthful (14)

_____ INDEPENDENT – self-reliant (15 & 25)

_____ INTELLIGENT – intellectual (16)

_____ OBEDIENT – compliant (17)

_____ PASSIVE – not aggressive (18)

_____ PERSISTENT – “finishing power” (19)

_____ POLITE – well mannered (20)

_____ POPULAR – liked by peers (21.)

_____ RELIGIOUS – respects God (22)

_____ SELF-CONTROLLED – self-restraint (23)

_____ SENSITIVE – considerate of other’s feelings (24)

From: Crary, Elizabeth,  Without Spanking or Spoiling

 

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For more information about values, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.

Without Spanking or Spoiling by Crary   Using Your Values by Heath   The Family Virtues Guide by Popov

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