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How To Hand Down Your Values


Mike Kilen


Identifying values is the essential first step in teaching them, says Heath, whose first section of her recently published book provides lists of values and behaviors that can guide parents in uncovering what they really value.

“I have found that parents use their values as guides when making all those decisions parents have to make. Their values give them direction,” says the developmental psychologist from Haverford, Pa., who founded The Parent Center at Bryn Mawr College and wrote Using Your Values to Raise Your Child to Be an Adult You Admire (Parenting Press Inc., 2000).

She includes two pages of words, attributes that readers circle to help them identify their values, such as accepting, cautious, conventional, creative, self-disciplined. Or they can use a list of behaviors that match up with the values. If you check off “Speaks out about illegal or immoral practices” it may mean you value courage.

“Parents are identifying their values as opposed to what some writer’s values are,” she said.

Once identified, parents have opportunities to teach their values in everyday situations. Take any situation and brainstorm ways to deal with it. Choose to use those ways that will teach your values and make a plan of action with them. You will need to take into consideration the child’s needs, ages, and temperament.

An added challenge is in working within the environment of the larger society’s values.

“In some ways parents have to work hard to keep society’s values at bay,” Heath said. “If you define a value as something we spend a lot of time pushing, then the way the media pushes violence it’s almost as if we value it.

“You also find a lot of conflicts between parenting partners if they have different values,” she said. The trick comes in implementing the plan to both of your values and then agreeing on a method.

For example, a father might value obedience but the mother may insist that teaching the child to think for herself instead of blindly taking orders is the better way to implement the value. The couple needs to come up with a plan on how to get the child to think for herself, which results in obedience.

Parents cannot expect children to arrive at the conclusion the parents want that would result in obedience. If they do, they are not letting the child think through a situation, they are fooling themselves, and they are putting the child in a bind. Parents often resolve this conflict of values between obedience and teaching decision-making by looking at the situation. If the situation is dangerous the child must obey. In other situations, such as a 4-year-old figuring out how to have a good time with a visiting friend, they can be encouraged to think through a problem.

A husband may desire order in the house while the wife values the child’s creativity, which often means a mess. Finding a way to satisfy both becomes a values discussion. People must realize that values can clash. An example of a clash of values: If you value honesty and your child tells a visitor that he has a big nose, how does that fit in with your value of social graces? One’s values need to be prioritized, combined, thought through.

Many of the values can be summarized with a challenge all parents face: Teaching your child how to care. That is a value that must be taught regularly, Heath says. To care is to think about what another needs and how to help that person obtain it. It is not just a family trip to feed the homeless but a discussion of why people are homeless and how to help them change conditions.

Caring takes time.
When Hall lay on the bed with her daughter looking at the ceiling, she learned of her world, what was shaping it. She listened and cared about it and learned what was important to her.

“You have to go the extra mile to be part of your teen-ager’s life,” said the San Antonio nurse practitioner who provides primary care and specializes in counseling children and adolescents in a pediatric clinic. “You have to be willing to go to the funky concert, and drive them everywhere, so you can observe and subtly influence their beliefs and values.”

When she goes to a concert, for example, she offers her daughter and their friends an opinion on what may be raunchy lyrics, even if it is unpopular with the group. “She may tell me later that she couldn’t believe I would say that in front of her friends. But I just tell her that’s what I think and why.”

The family had the same debate over lyrics at home. When Hall questioned one song, her daughter insisted she simply liked the rhythm. Mom didn’t like what the song was saying. Dad said he agreed with daughter, that the rhythm simply felt good. Mom gave in and let them have their opinion but pointed out the words and why she objected.

“But some of the best lessons she got were from the debate between us,” Hall said. “The most important thing is to be honest and not to be afraid to state your opinion or take a stand.”

Hall’s workbook, written with Kathryn Kvols, is a tool to help in those debates—without heavy-handed dictates or punishments. “Punishment breeds fear and anger—a desire to get back at the authority figure,” she says. “There are many effective ways to teach a child what you want her to learn with a goal of creating internal motivation.”

Instead of grounding a child for lying, present the behavior as a choice the child made, with consequences. It is more effective if the situation (with the parent’s help) does the teaching and the child gets to learn how her own actions hurt her.

Carefully choosing the language you use with your child creates an atmosphere of mutual respect. If you’re teaching the value of orderliness, instead of saying “Go clean your room!” you may say “You’re so good at cleaning things. Why don’t you go clean your room and make it a place you’re proud of?”

“The more we can do to help them think through these values, and the more we model respect, the greater the chance that they will take on the values as their own and take a stand appropriately,” Hall said.
Those values lessons are deemed so vital, and often lacking, that schools are also picking up the slack.

“It’s a big move in education now,” said Dick Peters, an associate professor of education at Cornell. He doesn’t believe in reciting a laundry list of virtues, however. He teaches his students to include the great stories of literature and history in their teaching, which is a subtle way of passing on society’s values. He said the most important of these values today, which he finds lacking, is postponing gratification and being aware of our duties in a democracy.
As in most values, it comes down to caring—about our families and society. Parents pass on those values by the way they handle each day, in the little events of life.
The opening example in Heath’s book is a 3-year-old who opens a gift from grandma and shows her deep disappointment by saying “I already have two” and then crying.

Do you value caring, suggesting the child rethink and maybe give grandma a hug because she feels bad? Or do you value getting in touch with feelings, and soothe the child’s disappointments? Or maybe you value both and acknowledge the child’s feelings while encouraging her to think about her grandmother’s.
How the parents respond, wrote Heath, will pass on those values to another generation.

Mike Kilen is a Des Moines Register staff writer.

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