Parents are generally eager for their kids to adopt a strong set of values that can help them succeed in life. Recent research shows that parents from a wide variety of cultures, socio-economic and religious groups all ranked the values of responsibility, hard work, helping others, good manners, independence, creativity, and empathy for others as important values they wanted their children to have.
These values take time for children to develop, but even very young children can start to practice them. Simple instructions and a little mentoring can help them learn to use table manners or start to help around the house. As they grow older, they can learn important values of hard work by completing their homework or learning persistence as they develop their talents. Parents who find natural ways of motivating and encouraging these hands-on experiences can help children learn essential values.
As most parents have learned from experience, these values have to be instilled over time in order to last. If they are forced, children may only feel resentment. Plus, coercive tactics used to enforce these values often backfire. While it can be tempting to use strategies such as guilt-tripping, physical punishment or raised voices, these forceful tactics usually work only in the short-term and can then be discarded when children are no longer monitored by their parents. Since teaching values in these harmful ways can limit children’s inner motivation to act and apply these values, the big question remains: How can parents teach values they wish their children to develop without going too far?
Not surprisingly, most adults and children find lectures alienating. If a child’s homework didn’t get done or they didn’t share, they may need a conversation (two-way), rather than a lecture (one-way) to do better next time. Take time to understand the situation, try talking through the situation together—and hold off on the lecture.
This way to teach values involves your child in a more organic way. It includes asking questions that encourage them to articulate and think about their personal views and the reasons behind their actions. This starts with you. Maintain a sense of curiosity rather than adopting a threatening attitude as you ask them about their choices. Make suggestions of alternative paths to their same goal to help them see how a good value or better choice might have been wiser. Discuss situations outside of a disciplinary setting where you listen more than you speak to gain valuable insight into your child’s perspective.
When children have a chance to notice the natural consequences of their actions and reflect on their own experiences in a supportive conversation, they might listen longer next time and be more interested in your point of view. In fact, this trust-building conversational style might even have them wanting to know more about how you navigated similar challenges when you were young. These kinds of powerful authentic conversations can promote better parent-child communication, open the door for future teaching opportunities, and keep children from feeling you are forcing your views on them.
Show Consistency in Your Own Behavior
Children watch you more closely than you realize, and they are more likely to follow your lead when you show them the way. For example, if you yell at your children to tell them to quit yelling, they will likely notice the irony. Psychologist Dr. Robin Stern, suggests that this consistency between what you expect of them and how you act can either send a consistent or inconsistent message. In essence, the best way to teach a child how to live, is to show them how to live through your own actions.
Demonstrating the values you are trying to teach your children is not always easy, but it is important for your kids to see these values being used in day-to-day scenarios rather than just talked about in abstract ways. Then, if you mess up, you can also model the kind of repair attempts you hope they will make. Dr. Stern goes on to suggests you turn that moment of weakness into a value-teaching moment, like apologizing to a spouse for being short with them and explaining it to your child: "I was feeling really sad that Daddy had to work late tonight, and I took it out on him. I'm sorry I acted that way. I want you to know that I also apologized to Daddy for not being patient with his work schedule." In these every day ways, your child can more clearly see how the principles and values apply and better internalize these values themselves.
Recognize the Difference between the Big Stuff and the Small Stuff
Children need as many, if not more “yes’s” than they need “no’s.” Even as toddlers, they want some measure of control in their little worlds—even if it is picking the purple pajamas over the green ones tonight. Increasing abilities and maturity do not change the fact that they want to choose friends, make decisions about their class schedules, or decide to play the trumpet rather than the flute. Many of these decisions are not a matter of “principle,” but simply individual “preferences” where one choice does not have any particular moral impact over the long term.
Dr. W. George Scarlett encouraged parents to not lose sight of the larger context. He taught that if a child is generally being guided and taught in appropriate, healthy ways, then a poor decision here and there on issues of lesser importance isn’t going to be detrimental to the child’s development. On the other hand, taking every opportunity to assert “moral authority” can confuse the issue and turn what could have been an opportunity to value a child’s autonomy into a seedling for resentment and eventual oppositionality.
In short, even if you have a strong preference and share your opinion, you might decide that in matters of lesser importance to allow your children to exercise their autonomy and make the decision. Allowing them to have such experiences will make it more likely that they will respect your right as a parent to make the “swing vote” on more serious issues.
Respond Well to Mistakes
It is normal for parents to panic when they see their child acting in ways that are not consistent with the values they hold dear. While it can be discouraging to see your child make a mistake, your response in these sensitive situations can impact how your child believes you see him or her. Of course, no parent is perfect and there is no perfect formula for how to respond in the face of surprising and disappointing decisions your child may make. But, as you work at responding in ways that reflect your core values, you just might transform your child’s poor decision into a growing experience, for both you and your child.
Being mindful about how you respond to your child’s behavior and decisions will help you to transform your child’s mistakes into memorable value-teaching moments. For example, if your child stayed too long at a friend’s house, you could be empathetic, listen, and hear the child’s side first. Then, you can share the value of responsibility as you enforce the prior agreed-upon consequences for coming home late, if applicable.
In summary, a more challenging but far more effective way to teach your kids good values and help them become the people you hope they will become is to model that behavior for them, including the way you correct and discipline them. As you strive to make the home a positive place where values are observed regularly, you can take comfort in knowing you are giving your children the best parenting possible. And that eventually, those values will become engrained in them and be their guiding roadmap for raising your grandchildren.