Parenting is a beautiful contradiction filled with effortless moments of calm and exhausting chaos. The bedtime story sweetness versus days when our children are quite literally running laps around us.
In the throws of a particularly hectic day I chatted with my sister.
“I can’t control my kids,” I uttered in an exhausted mommy kinda way.
“We can’t control our children,” she said. “We can only teach them several core values and hope they make the best choices.”
These seemingly simple words were a turning point for me as a mother.
Of course, I hadn’t meant I literally wanted to control my children. I meant that being a mom sometimes made my world feel out of control. The worries that accompany being a parent can at times feel overwhelming.
My sister, ever the insightful one told me to choose about five core values which represented us as a family. Any more would be difficult for small children to retain.
Obviously, as a parent, I had been teaching my children values but something about this clarifying concept felt oddly centering. As if I had a parenting plan that erased any doubt about the character-filled expectations we hold most dear.
I wanted to approach this with full family involvement and without distraction.
We had an upcoming vacation planned and I knew my children would have more down time. I hoped to make this a fun family exercise so I purchased a spiral notebook for each of us and bought pens and a few other things. This way my children would also have a permanent keepsake of what we decided represented our family best.
We then did the following three things:
1. We talked about the importance of values
We sat as a family and talked not only about values but of what they mean. Values are the qualities most important and dear to us. They are the principles by which we guide and live our lives.
We then asked our children what values they could name and we made one huge master list. The list began with kindness, generosity, honesty, loyalty, etc.
We gave our children examples of how we implement our values and we asked them to give us a few examples. For instance, lending someone a pencil is both kind and generous. Working hard at homework or a sport is commitment. Taking care of a pet is being responsible. Being there for a friend is considered loyalty.
And then of course, there is the receiving end of values. How does it feel when we are treated with kindness and respect? How does it feel when we know we can count on someone to be honest with us? Or when we know we can count on someone to be responsible in our lives?
We can feel either good or bad depending on how we are treated and this relates directly back to the values we live by.
2. We took a family values vote
Once we viewed the master list and had discussed them we voted on which five values we wanted to stand for. The principles we most wanted to describe and represent our family.
This was not an easy task. We explained to our children that values are a great thing and therefore, it is difficult to choose only a handful. We solved this problem by picking some values we felt had numerous meanings.
For instance, generosity can also be a form of selflessness, responsibility can also include commitment, and kindness encompasses many other wonderful values. Kindness is a form of generosity, empathy, selflessness, compassion, etc.
We also made it clear this was just our family’s ‘go to’ list. All values are still important and we can certainly live by them as well. This would be kind of like our umbrella in the world. Wherever we went we believed strongly in kindness, honesty, responsibility, generosity, and respect.
We also discussed the importance of respecting the values others live by.
3. We wrote our family values down
We opened our notebooks and wrote down the five values we selected as a family.
We decided to have a little more fun with it and come up with either an acronym for our family name or for the values we selected it. This would be an easy way to remember what was most important to us.
Our children decided to use our last name. It took a considerable amount of time playing around with it but they eventually chose - ORME - Our Relationships Mean Everything.
They then grabbed their pens and wrote it on the front of their notebooks.
We also encouraged our children to write down any other values they felt especially strong about.
This discussion was something our children truly enjoyed because we made them a part of the decision. And because it was made a little more fun by new notebooks and pens.
It was not only a foundational family exercise but an invaluable family experience. An added bonus? It drove the conversation for weeks afterward. It’s never a bad thing to discuss matters which build character and make us better people.
There are endless variations of this exercise.
You can turn this from one family meeting into a week or month of value hunting.
You can discuss values with your children and then ask them to spend the next week or month deciding which ones they find most important. At dinner time you can ask them what values they felt they used that day. You can also ask them if they were on the receiving end of any great values - did anyone sit with them as the new kid in school? Did anyone include them in a game on the playground? Did someone say something nice to them?
You can also be even more creative with the notebooks and pens. You can buy stickers or cut out magazine pictures that show acts of kindness or other values.
You can implement a few fun exercises within your own family. Ask your children to come up with ways to use your biggest core values with one another. Maybe one could offer to feed the dog for the other or do another chore. Maybe they could let their brother or sister pick the television show they want to watch.
Children love to do good things. And parents love to know they have instilled the foundational principles to help their children make the best choices.