Instilling Values

There are many events that happen to parents that leave them wondering if their children will ever “mature.” This feeling is often created by a child’s behavior that does not reflect that the child has integrated or “owned” the values that the parents hold important. An example of this is when kids act indifferently to their responsibilities. “Cut the lawn” is followed by “Don’t worry, I’ll get to it.” The parent reminds, again, and the child puts off and so forth. The repetitive ignoring of responsibility shows no appreciation of the basic value of taking care of one’s responsibilities. This type of situation contributes to the deterioration of the parents’ sense of reassurance about their child’s maturity.

Most people have a core group of values in common. This makes a civilized society possible. These basic values include honesty to self and others, good effort, respect for self and others, productivity, pride in accomplishment, enjoyment from the company of others, fairness, helpfulness, concern for the common good, and so forth. Values are the basis for our behavior.  

How do parents know that their children have integrated parental values . . . or that they will use them? One of the most important, and one of the most difficult, tasks of parenting is making sure that your children have observed, understood and integrated into their lives basic values of living. Much of this parenting work of providing values is completed by the time the child reaches age eleven or twelve. A variety of measures accomplish this, including modeling, lecturing, telling self-anecdotal stories, correcting, role playing, guiding, discussing, story telling, guided reading and so forth. It is important that parents take stock of their efforts here, making them somewhat systematic and purposeful.

As children enter their adolescence they must be given progressively more responsible choices in their lives. This is usually difficult for most parents because it calls for trust. This trust must be resilient because often the child will not make the “best” decision that we (as mature adults) might have chosen. Parents need to understand that this is a process that occurs over time and through many trials. Parents must be consistent and creative in offering continuing opportunities for the child to make decisions based on the child’s emerging values. Especially with adolescents it is important that they be allowed to discover their internal values (most likely these parallel the parental values). This takes patience and persistence on the parents’ part for errors in judgment and under-standing are bound to occur. But if individuals are ever going to “own” the values, those individuals must feel that the values are personally right, right for them, by them. Without this ownership, one only follows values because they please or displease someone else. If so, when that other someone is not around (or is not likely to find out) then the values become meaning-less and do not have relevance in guiding behavior.

Having values is primary . . . but basing one’s judgments on those values is key. It is important to help children learn to think about their values before they make decisions on their actions. Once parents have done their best to expose a child to their values and have explained the values in their own lives, the next step is the exchange of ideas that helps the child observe his or her use of these values. Parents must be willing to let the child react. This should be a gradual process that may have many starts and stops and reassessments by the parents. It is helpful for parents to openly relate how they make various decisions based on their values. Children must become aware of the utility of values in everyday life. Discussions about events, the child’s decisions and why he or she made such choices help accomplish this. These discussions can occur about potential actions and decisions (a planning mode) or in retrospect (an evaluative and learning mode). A most important aspect of these discussions is that they should not be lectures by the adult, but should be explorations of the thinking and judgments of this child. Pose questions like “I wonder why . . . ?’ “What would have happened if . . ?” “Were there other possibilities?” Give examples from your past (both positive and negative). Children often think that adults have all the answers. As adolescents, it is important for them to understand that some decisions are better than others and that if one course of action does not work out, make a new decision. Give your experience with statements like “A similar situation happened to me once and I . . . and the result was a disaster, but I . . . and .. . .” Allow the child to reflect on your statements. Children need to develop their self-critical skills and must accept for themselves what the controlling values are.

Personal satisfaction is based in personal values and the willingness of individuals to stay in touch with their values. The parenting challenge is in transferring those values to one’s children. From this transfer and from the children reacting to their own values comes the reassurance that parents seek that their children will eventually take care of themselves. Making decisions based on good values is not automatic but is a skill learned over time. Doing what is right (most of the time) according to our values is the basis of maturity.


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