Values must be intentionally taught

Joni and Karl had three children ages 7, 9. And 11. They loved their kids and enjoyed spending time with them. However, Joni and Karl both noticed that their kiddos frequently told lies, did not complete their chores, and embellished their school performance. When Joni and Karl would confront them about these falsehoods, their children failed to confess but instead continued to make up new stories in an attempt to cover their previous lies. This confused and concerned Joni and Karl. They wondered why their great kids would not practice being honest, or at least when they were caught, take responsibility for their actions.

Today most people don’t usually connect the idea of values with children. We generally think of children as free spirits, innocent, curious, blank slates, or dependent, to name a few. Yet values are something that most parents want to teach to their children. However, many parents struggle to see how the values that they hold as adults can be communicated to their children in a practical and effective manner. This generally leads parents to put off teaching values until their children are older, more mature, or begins to exhibit behaviors that show a lack of values.

‘Values’ is a word that may be difficult for some families to define in today’s fast-paced world. Values are the ideas and beliefs that we use to evaluate situations, make decisions and choose our actions. Values are the guideposts to measure what is right or wrong, what should and shouldn’t be done, and what is appropriate and not appropriate.

Sadly, waiting to teach values is will be problematic. Children are developmentally prepared to learn values throughout their lifetime. The key is to teach values in a developmentally appropriate way. Teaching values can begin around a child’s first birthday and continue, without stop, until late adolescence. Learning values early means children have time to really understand the depth of what the values mean rather than just the external action. Furthermore, learning early allows them to receive feedback from parents to solidify their understanding of the values the family it trying to impart.

When children understand both the behavior and the value behind the behavior, they are more likely to practice this behavior independently. There are many children that behave one way when parents or adults are present and in a very different way when they are unobserved. One reason this happens is because children see their ‘good behavior’ as something that is necessary in front of adults to receive praise or avoid discipline. However, the child doesn’t understand that the ‘good behavior’ is the embodiment of an important value. A disconnection between the appropriate behavior and the values behind those behaviors can make children seem unpredictable and lead them into trouble.

An important aspect to raising value-driven children is to be explicit in explaining both the behavior and the values behind it. This process becomes more and more complex as children grow, but each step is the building block for the next.

Here are some practical examples to help you get started:

When children are small, they learn best by example and are watching their parents for patterns to mimic. Therefore, parents can “talk out loud” as they perform certain behaviors so their small children not only see what they are doing but put words to the purpose of those actions. An example could be a mother saying, “I’m picking up all my supplies now that I am finished working so this space is ready for someone else to use,” as she clears away papers and letters from the coffee table. In this simple action, the mother is showing and saying how her action demonstrates responsibility, respect for others, and sharing. Together the action and the description give the observing child an explicit behavior and the motivation behind that behavior.

As children grow up into school age, parents can start to use appropriate vocabulary to give names to the values they are displaying. School-age children are concrete thinkers and learn best by taking in information through their senses. With school-age children, parents can teach values by helping children link their personal experience to the desired behaviors and then give them opportunities to practice. For example, when a child is judging another child’s athletic ability, his father might say, “I understand that you would like John to play soccer better at recess but remember that you have been playing soccer a long time and John just started. Do you remember how other kids said mean things to you when you missed a goal shot? I know you wouldn’t want John to feel that way because of something you said. It may be better to support him, so he feels more confident.” While being empathetic to his son’s views and feelings, the father is purposefully connecting an experience in his son’s past to a current event to help learn empathy, kindness, and patience.

When children reach adolescence, they develop abstract thought that allows them to think about and evaluate ideas and topics that they haven’t yet encountered in real life. This means that parents can start to talk about abstract concepts like love, injustice, rights and obligations. Furthermore, parents can guide their teens on the appropriate ways to evaluate these issues based on the family’s values. For example, parents can allow teens to choose the music in the car and then talk about the lyrics and what they mean. Lots of popular music makes references to sexual acts, drug culture, or violence. Parents can use the music to open a conversation to learn what their teens think about the themes of the music. Then, based on their response, parents can guide them towards or reinforce the values that reflect the family’s views.

In the end, the teachings of early life set the framework for the teachings behaviors desired during childhood. The learned behaviors during childhood set the stage to discuss how those behaviors are carried out into larger life during adolescence. Together, all these activities propel children to learn values in a deep and meaningful way that will guide them into adulthood.

It is never too early to begin teaching values. The key is to make sure that they are being taught in a developmentally appropriate way in each stage. Naming what values are important and being clear about teaching them throughout the life of a child is the best way to raise value-driven children and adults.

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