15 Everyday Strategies to Teach Your Child Values

Laura Markham's picture

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Wonder how kids learn values? Check out the previous Tip of the Week on How Kids Learn Values. Then consider these everyday strategies to help your child develop the values you hold dear. Here's how:

  1. Be aware of what you're modeling. It isn't what you say, it's what you do. If you tell the kids that soccer is about fun and skills and exercise and teamwork, but your first question is about who won the game, they'll learn that winning is more important than anything else. If you talk about honesty but lie about their age to get a cheaper ticket into the amusement park, it not only puts your child in an uncomfortable position, they learn that cheating is okay under certain circumstances.

  2. Help your child develop empathy. Empathy is the source of all compassion, and the only way kids can learn empathy is by being treated empathically, and by watching you respond to others with compassion and kindness.

  3. Talk explicitly about your values and why they are important to you. What IS integrity? Why is respectful behavior important in a church, synagogue or mosque? Helping children interpret the world is a crucial responsibility of parents.

  4. Talk about why you make certain decisions based on your values. Why are you voting for that candidate? In fact, why are you voting? And after you pull the curtain shut in the voting booth, let her help you vote.

  5. Label and reinforce expression of values. When you see your child demonstrating a value that's important to you, label it and recognize your child for it. "I noticed how kind you were to Ben when you tried to cheer him up." "I really appreciated that you were honest with me about what happened at school." "How generous of you to give one of your beanie babies to Latisha!" "You figured out all by yourself how to get the homework assignment you missed. How resourceful of you!"

  6. Resist lecturing. Most kids experience lectures as alienating. Instead, use discussions to strengthen your relationship with your child. Try asking questions to find our more about decisions he's making and the thinking behind his decisions -- and share your own views sparingly. He'll probably learn more from the process of articulating his dilemmas and noticing the moral implications of his choices than he would have from a lecture -- and he'll feel closer to you, too.

  7. Make it relevant to her world. Values seem almost theoretical until kids start talking about their own lives -- which, believe it or not, are chock full of values-laden decisions.

    • Is your 6-year-old allowed to break a date with a friend to accept another, much more exciting, invitation?
    • How much help should your 8-year-old accept from you on her school project?
    • Should your 10-year-old leave the neighborhood soccer team half-way through the season when he's recruited to join a more professional team -- even though he's the best player and his exit will definitely leave his team hurting?
    • Should your 12-year-old invite a girl to her birthday party who some of the other girls look down on, but whose party she went to?
    • Should your 14-year-old tell the teacher that some of the kids cheated on the test?
    • Should your 16-year-old do volunteer work she doesn't particularly care about because it will look good on her college application?

    Handling these decisions is what develops our values. Don't miss the opportunity to help your child grow by making conscious decisions.

  8. Model community involvement. Whether it's running for the school board or volunteering at your church, your kids need to see that you're committed to the welfare of the larger community. Help them appreciate how the invisible work of others helps each of us daily, and that the more blessings we have in our lives, the more responsibility we have to extend help to others.

  9. Volunteer for community service projects as a family, from coat drives to making desserts for a nursing home. My children needed my leadership and coaxing to be willing to volunteer at a local soup kitchen with me, but they ended up loving it and wanting to do it again.

  10. Encourage your child's initiatives that express budding values. When she decides to start a "Clean up the Park" club with her kindergarten friends, help her organize it in a way that's manageable and safe. The world is full of projects that kids have launched to make the world a better place. She has to start somewhere.

  11. Confront cultural messages about money. Responsible use of money is a value that is challenging to teach in this acquisitive culture. You'll probably need to start by getting clear about your own values around money. Is being a millionaire an appropriate goal in life? When he loses his cell phone should he pay for the new one? Is it okay for your child to spend all her bat mitzvah gift money on herself? Even if your family can afford to pay for college, should he work a summer job to contribute?

  12. Use discussion starters. Choose books to read and movies to watch with your child, with the express goal of building character. Of course, a careful choice is not enough, you also need to have a discussion about it. My kids tease me that I think every moment is a "teachable moment," but asking questions and doing a lot of listening always works better than lecturing, if you can resist.

  13. All kids should get an opportunity to contribute their own money to charity. Many families use a tripartite allowance. The lion's share is their own spending money. Split the rest in half and put it in two separate containers, one marked "Charity," the other marked "Savings." Savings is to help buy that bike, or to buy a present for someone else, or to help pay for the class trip.

    Charity (or Tzedaka, the Jewish equivalent that means restoring Justice), is to be given away to a worthy cause the child chooses. A good time to do this is their birthday, or the holiday season, but anytime is ok. Some kids will be moved by a news report of people in need and will pack off their coins to contribute. You might offer to match their contribution.

  14. Consciously teach and model good sportsmanship. Some people seem to be more competitive than others from birth, but all of us need to be taught how to be good sports. Your help will make it easier for your child to find genuine solace in a game well played, and to mean it when he says "Good game!" to every former opponent, whether he's lost or won.

  15. Communicate faith in being "on the side of the angels". Our children need to know that doing the right thing is not only the right thing to do, but the satisfying thing to do, deep inside, even when it costs us something -- and what hard moral choice doesn't cost us? To be the people we want to be, we need to believe things that may or may not actually be true: that most people are mostly good, that crime doesn't pay, that good conquers evil, that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all ... You can certainly add to this list. Every parent will have a different answer to the question most kids get around to asking: "Why does it matter what one person does, if no one ever knows?" My answer is, "The angels need our help."

Dr. Laura Markham
Aha! Parenting.com