It amazes me when truly terrible ideas enjoy broad and enduring popularity. One of those surprising ideas is about the way we teach our children values.
Some years ago one best-selling book recommended that every family teach a new value each month of the year. So far so good. Children need to be taught values and how to enact them. They do not learn life-affirming, healthy values by accident.
The book recommended that, after the children had an opportunity to practice the value, they gather at Sunday dinner and each nominate him- or herself as the exemplar of that value. Each child would then describe what he or she did during the past week to exemplify Love, Unselfishness, Kindness, etc. Mom and dad would select a winner and give an award.
The Fatal Flaw
It sounds simple enough. But can you see the problem? The child who gets the award most often will be the one who sells himself effectively—and who also is good at embellishing or enlarging stories about his or her virtues. If you think carefully about that particular practice you realize that it is not focused on teaching the intended values but on teaching the art and science of self-promotion. That may be okay if you want all your children to go into politics but we should not imagine that it is a good strategy for teaching values.
The irony is most keen if the value were humility. Imagine each family member nominating her- or himself as most humble!
And there is another problem. This strategy teaches children to declare they have displayed a value so that they can gain recognition and reward. But what happens when they discover that life does not reliably recognize and reward those values? What happens when other people offer rewards to throw out those values? This life offers abundant rewards for bad choices.
Rewards should not decide our behavior. True character honors timeless values regardless of rewards.
It’s easy to see that commonsense is not always good sense. When a book about teaching values is written by someone trained in business rather than human development, the result may teach business values more than healthy moral development.
A Better Way
So how can parents cultivate values in their children? What does the field of human development recommend?
1. We must live our values. Our actions do speak louder than our words. For example, we cannot teach kindness with a whip. We cannot teach patience in a rush. We cannot cultivate self-control by being dictatorial. Even outside of our relationships with children, we cannot teach what we do not live.
Our values show up in all the decisions of life from the way we treat others to how we behave when things don’t go our way or how we invest our time and the conversational topics at the dinner table. Every word, every act tells our children what we value.
Our traditions speak volumes about our values.
If family members rarely gather and tend to go their own ways or live in their own electronic worlds, we are saying that our family values autonomy over connection. When we build conversation and shared activities into regular traditions, we demonstrate that we value connection.
Children need to see us learning if we want them to become learners. We must show empathy and kindness to children if we want them to be compassionate people. We must honor commitments if we want our children to do the same.
2. We should talk about our values including the quandaries that come with them. Like the dinner conversations described at the beginning of this article, our family has a mealtime tradition. Every Sunday at dinner we invite family members and guests to share their best experience of the day. Since we are church-goers, many of the stories are about the experience of the sacred. Maybe a hymn lifted one of us or a talk or lesson inspired us. Maybe seeing a cherished friend warmed us.
This practice is not about celebrating ourselves but about celebrating the noble and uplifting all around us.
It encourages each of us to be mindful of the good and it connects us to each others’ hearts. It is a practice that has enriched our family for almost 30 years.
One way of helping all of us be more aware of goodness is to talk about the noble deeds of people around us. At the dinner table we can tell about the kindness and goodness we see in coworkers, classmates, and neighbors. It is clear that looking for and celebrating nobility will impact our children differently from conversations in which family members are finding fault with people around us.
Of course no one of us is perfect. Our aspirations are far ahead of our performance. Rather than deny or ignore that reality, we can acknowledge it. We can apologize to family members when our actions have not matched our professions. We can acknowledge that we are still working to be the people we aspire to be. We can ask for the same mercy and patience that we are striving to show them.
3. We can involve the family in service. We can demonstrate our values by organizing our commitment into projects. My gentle wife, Nancy, is very aware of widows and has often organized our family to help them with visits, yardwork, painting, and taking them out to dinner. I have organized contractors and our family to help repair houses for struggling families whose homes were in disrepair. We have also worried about people we know who don’t have a place to live. On occasion we have had some of those distressed friends live with us. We have been enriched by the experiences.
Each of us can find ways to serve. Children learn from our examples but they also start to feel the inner rewards of serving.
It feels good to do good.
That’s a vital discovery for every person young or old.
Values aren’t something commanded and imposed by parental decree. They aren’t created through bribery with superfluous rewards. They are more like plants we cultivate in the garden. They grow and flourish when we show patient commitment and earnest effort in living lives filled with solid values. And by helping our children discover the lasting blessings that come from developing honorable character.