By: Nina Malanay
There is nothing more that a parent wants than to see her children grow up to be kind, decent, compassionate human beings with a firm set of morals, ready to take on the world. Helping children to acquire values such as honesty, respect and gratitude is oftentimes considered by many to be just as, if not, more important than teaching math or reading skills because of the long-term impact the acquisition of positive (or negative) values has on our children. Every parent wants to instill the right values in their children – values that they will take with them well into adulthood and become the foundation of everything your child will come to believe and shape who they become.
However, this is often easier said than done. With today’s parents trying to keep up with the demands of work, marriage and the daily rigors of raising a family, it is very easy for outside influences like peer pressure, social media and the entertainment industry to have a greater effect on our children and define their sensibilities more than ever before.
The good news is that research shows that children who forge strong emotional bonds with their parents are better able to filter their world – their experiences, the opinion of their peers, and the choices they make – through the values their parents taught them. When supported by a good self-esteem and a warm, nurturing home life, children are more able to withstand the negative influences of society and acquire the values their parents are trying to instill in them.
The bad news is that teaching values, especially to young children, takes time and patience. It isn’t something you can teach by sitting with your child one afternoon or talk about during one of your family dinners. Teaching values is a dynamic process that develops over time and evolves as your child grows.
So at what age should parents start teaching values to their children?
It should begin as soon as your child becomes aware that his actions affect others, usually at around 18 months of age. Start by verbalizing basic principles and standards of behavior you expect from your child. Short, simple phrases like “No hurting” or “Sharing is good” communicates to your toddler the patterns of behavior that you hold important.
By the time children are 4 years old, most of them already know the basic values and have formed simple concepts of right and wrong – that lying is wrong, or that sharing is good. Often, because they already know values, they tend to just parrot back what parents and persons of authority want to hear. There appears to be a stark disagreement between what children know as values and what they do in real life. For example, children know that lying is bad, but they sometimes tell a lie to avoid getting in trouble with authority. Children know values; the problem lies in living by those values.
So what do parents need to do to make sure that children actually imbibe the values we want them to learn, instead of merely knowing them? Here are some practical ways to raise your child with the right values.
1. Model the values you want to see in your child.
Very simply, children learn values by observing what you do and by drawing conclusions about what you consider important in life. They learn from seeing how you interact with them and how you treat others. If you want them to acquire values like honesty, perseverance and compassion, then you need to show these qualities yourself. Likewise, be aware of what you are modeling. For example, if you teach your child that sports is all about teamwork and perseverance but your first question after a game is about who won, then you are sending the message that winning is more important than anything else. Regardless of what you purposefully teach them, your actions will always speak volumes about what you really value, and they will come to imbibe the same value system that you do.
2. Explicitly communicate the values you hold dear.
As parents, we need to spell out the values we believe in and explain why we consider it important. We need to continuously articulate our values to our kids and as we apply those values to our daily lives. Each action and decision becomes a reflection of the values we embrace. It may help to create a values statement for your family – a list of general principles and standards of behavior that are rooted in the family’s beliefs and values. Print this out or frame it and hang it in a visible area in your house to provide your family with a sense of what you stand for as a family.
3. Nurture your emotional relationship with your child.
Parents who prioritize their relationship with their child raise kids who are emotionally nurtured are more likely to respond compassionately to others. Because their love tank is full, they have more compassion to give, which is the foundation of values. Because they spend quality time together, kids have more opportunities to observe their parents live by the values they espouse.
4. Show that values help them achieve goals.
To make the teaching of values more relevant to your child, show him that having certain traits and behaving in a certain way will help him achieve his goal. Show him that being courteous and polite will make people like him or want to help him. Let him see that persevering in a task even if it is difficult will help him reap the rewards later on. Show him that cooperation and working together as a team gets things done faster. When children see how values help them in life, they are more likely to see the importance of learning them.
5. Praise your child when they exhibit good values.
When you observe your children doing something good, let them know you are pleased with their actions. Sincere praise goes a long way in affirming behaviors you want to reinforce. Point out specific actions and behaviors that your child does so they know exactly what behaviors they should keep doing. For young children, praise can be more effective when phrased as nouns instead of verbs. For example, instead of saying, “It was so nice of you when you helped your sister”, say, “You are such a helper! You helped your sister pack away the toys.” When our actions are viewed as a reflection of our character, we tend to internalize it as part of our identity, and over time, it can be a part of us.
6. Use daily experiences as teachable moments.
Teaching values may seem mostly theoretical, but the daily family experiences can provide you with an opportunity to teach about values and how they relate to everyday life. Use the day to day incidents as a spring board to initiate a conversation with your child. Talk about an incident you hear about in the news, or something you or your children did. Ask questions about the person’s motivation behind what he did (or didn’t do). Talk about consequences and alternate outcomes of each situation and use such incidents to reiterate the values you want to instill in your child.
7. Share your personal experiences
When we try to look back at our past experiences, we may think about some that taught us important values and life lessons. Share these stories with your child, especially those that show how you made good choices that were consistent with good values. Talk about a time when you returned a wallet instead of keeping the money for yourself, or the time when you worked really hard to achieve a goal. Reassure your child that sometimes, the decision to choose to do the right thing may seem more difficult but that staying true to the values you believe in builds character.
8. Hold your child accountable for her mistakes.
Our children may make mistakes and get into trouble once in a while. Avoid the temptation to rush in and fix the problem. Let her be accountable and accept the consequences of her actions. If you rescue your child every time she makes a mistake, she won’t learn to take responsibility for her actions. They need to know that bad choices result in unpleasant consequences.
9. Don’t let your child take the easy way out of difficult situations.
If your child commits to something, make him follow through on that. Encourage him to finish projects they start even when things become too hard, tiring or boring. Don’t allow them to quit. Instead encourage them to persevere despite the difficulty.
10. Monitor TV and Internet use.
Teaching values to young children can be a lot less complicated if there isn’t anything to be unlearned. Exposure to negative values in the media should be minimized, if not completely avoided. Computers and televisions should be placed in areas where you as parents can easily monitor and guide your children on the shows and websites they view. Make it a point to watch shows that promote positive values as a family. Co-viewing can be an effective way to filter what kind of values your kids are exposed to. If there is something that is not in line with your family values, bring it up with your kids and encourage a healthy discussion about it.
11. Use fables, virtue stories, and videos to teach values in a way that is fun and interesting to your child.
Choose books that promote positive values and spend some time reading these books to your child. There are also videos online that are geared towards developing and strengthening values. These videos are geared specifically for children and are aimed at promoting character formation among children. Just be sure to pre-screen any video or book you choose to show to your child so that you can also be prepared to explain the values and answer questions that they may have.
12. Be attuned to the value dilemmas that your child faces.
Every day, children are caught in a tight spot and are faced with dilemmas that challenge their moral integrity. As a parent, you need to be aware of these dilemmas and use them as opportunities to educate your child. Constantly reiterate to them the basic principle that if they act in accordance with the right values, good things will happen and if they stray away from the positive values taught to them, bad things will happen. Especially with younger children, emphasize the tangible consequences of the choices present in the dilemmas. For example, persevering in school work results in good grades, or being caught lying results in punishment or a loss of trust. Guide your child in making conscious, well-thought out decisions, because knowing how to handle these dilemmas is what develops our value system.
Raising a child with the right values may seem like a formidable task for modern parents. It can be disheartening and you may feel like your influence is so limited compared to the influence of the bigger world. Without a doubt, the outside influences we have to contend with are powerful and ever-present — in social media, the entertainment industry or even our immediate community. But as your child’s parents, you are in the best position to teach your child the right values – the very values this broken world needs more of.