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How To Hand Down Your Values


Mike Kilen


In the river of malls, video games, song lyrics, and movies that our children float down, emptying into an ocean of violence, consumerism, pessimism, and sexism, it’s no wonder that Helen Gough Hall ’70 finally took to a quiet place with her daughter. Every night they lie in bed and look to the ceiling. The conversation surfaces, unforced, without agendas.

It started when her daughter was 11. She was ready for battle, as every issue was a power struggle and another chance to distance herself. Nothing else was working.

“I just laid down with her at bedtime. She talked her heart out for 20 minutes,” Hall said. “I learned what I needed to do. So now I lay down with her 20 minutes every night before she goes to sleep. My goal is to listen and be there for her, rather than to preach and turn her off. For six years it has been a time for honesty, closeness, and connectedness.”

Hall’s daughter is now 17. In those moments of mother-child connection, they have learned about each other. What Hall believes her daughter has learned is what she values.

Teaching values to our children can be as hard today as trying to single-handedly build a dam to stop that river of dubious influences.

Hall and two other alumni, Harriet Frye Heath ’49 and Maren Tonder Hansen ’74, have tried to help parents with books that, among other things, focus on how to pass on to your children what is important in your life—your values.

It’s a challenge.

“I think we have lost track of teaching values and the importance of modeling values. We got so busy,” says Hall, co-author of Redirecting: Parenting Guidelines, A Mini-Guide For Cooperation Between Children and Adults (International Network for Children and Families, 1992). “We get hung up on things that don’t matter. Really, there isn’t enough parental presence in kids’ daily lives. And parents simply have a lack of guidance about what to do. They are going by the seat of their pants or the way their parents raised them. And yet there is a wealth of well-researched information on discipline and teaching values effectively.

“Your actions speak much louder than your words when it comes to values—when you expound on the value of keeping agreements and honesty, your words will fall on deaf ears if you are not honest and committed in your agreements or promises with your child.”

The challenge is more profound today because parents have become the sole source of values for their children, says Chris Carlson, a sociology professor at Cornell. In prior generations, a community of friends, neighbors, and extended kin took it upon themselves to help raise the children with values. Society has also placed added pressure on parents with a climate of suspect messages that are increasingly out of parents’ control, from violent movies to the Internet, he says.

Teaching values to your children, those principles by which you live your life, first involves discovering what you value as parents.

Hansen began having dreams during her first pregnancy that sparked her to jot down the lessons they taught her, which eventually became MotherMysteries (Shambhala, 1997), a look at her three pregnancies and early child-rearing.

“Women say bearing a child is the most important thing that happens to them in their lives,” said the Santa Barbara, Calif., psychotherapist and Unitarian minister. “I wanted to intricately understand that psychological and spiritual experience.”

What she learned is how to listen to her body, mind, and spirit to find the feminine values to pass along to her children. She said our culture is heavily weighed toward masculine values of competition and economic ascendance.

During the pregnancies with her children, now ages 15, 12, and 7, she got in touch with the values she called feminine: Taking time for family and friends; emotional touching; and an awareness and caring about the future, not just of your baby, but of the planet. “These values,” says Hansen, “are archetypal instincts stimulated by motherhood. Mothers have the opportunity—and perhaps it is a responsibility—to represent these values in a culture which desperately needs the wisdom of the feminine.”

Once they are identified, it becomes a challenge to focus on them, even for the experts.

“I kept wanting to have it all—a full-blown career and family—but that didn’t work well for us,” she said. “I kept discovering that I needed to slow down, center the family, and attend carefully to where we are.”

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