How Do Kids Learn Values?

Laura Markham's picture

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"To educate a person in mind and not morals is to educate a menace to society."
- Theodore Roosevelt

Some psychologists think values are impossible to teach, and it's certainly true that telling kids to be more honest, or diligent, or considerate, doesn't work any better than telling adults to be. But if values are impossible to teach, they are too important to leave to chance.

In recent years, some schools have tried to add moral development to their curriculums. But schools have a tough time teaching kids values because they intervene too late, not to mention in too much isolation from the rest of the child's life. Worse yet, they are often at odds with what the child is learning at home about values.

Because the truth, of course, is that we do teach values to kids, daily, every minute of their lives. The question isn't whether to teach values, only WHAT we are teaching.

"But how do kids learn values, then?"

The way children learn values, simply put, is by observing what you do, and drawing conclusions about what you think is important in life. Regardless of what you consciously teach them, your children will emerge from childhood with clear views on what their parents really value, and with a well-developed value system of their own.

"I've heard that peers are more important in shaping values than parents nowadays."

Of course, parents are not the only source from which children learn values, and peers certainly influence your kids, especially when they're teens. And teens do need to begin thinking for themselves and developing their own world view. But research shows that the stronger your relationship with your child, the more her world -- including the opinions of her peers -- is filtered through the values she's picked up from you. Not to mention that if she has good self-esteem and a warm home life, she is more likely to pick friends who are more in sync with those values.

"We do talk about values with our kids, but I worry about the messages they get in the media, about appearance and money being all important."

TV is an effective teacher. While some TV -- especially public TV -- has very positive social messages for young children, most TV -- especially commercial television with advertising -- teaches values antithetical to what most parents want for their kids. It certainly helps if you don't have another voice in the household spouting antithetical values, and studies show that TV does have a negative effect on kids' values around sex, violence, acquisitiveness, race, and gender.

Schools, religious institutions, peer group, TV, movies, books and other media are all strong teachers regarding values. But no matter how strong those cultural forces, most teenagers point to their parents as the source of their values.

"You're talking about views on things like race and gender being values. I thought values were things like honesty, or being compassionate toward those less fortunate."

Values include both what you hold dear -- such as family, or education, or democracy, or equal dignity for all people -- and what you think it is important to be -- such as compassionate, or tolerant, or honest, or non-sexist.

"Ok, so they're learning values one way or another. How do we teach them consciously?"

Values in most families are rarely discussed. We assume our children will develop values automatically, like magic. Teaching values starts with considering what our values are and finding ways in daily life to discuss -- and live -- them with our children.

Of course, this is complicated by the obvious fact that what humans say they believe, and what they actually do in practice, are often different. People don't always act on their expressed values. What your children will do when faced with difficult choices will depend more on who they are, than on what they say they believe.

"So what matters most is who my kid is? What does that mean? We all have good and bad inside us."

True. And acting from the "good" inside us is more likely if anger, low self esteem, and generally feeling bad about ourselves doesn't get in the way. Kids who are cherished and attended to are more likely to respond lovingly and empathically to others, even from an early age. Which is why children who have been raised empathically are more likely to treat others empathically.

But that doesn't let us off the hook. We still need to articulate our values to our kids -- not just once, but over and over in the course of daily life.

"The list of my values could be very long!"

True. Values guru Michael Gurian enumerates ten moral competencies that all humans need: decency, fairness, empathy, self sacrifice, responsibility, loyalty, duty, service, honesty, honor.

Martin Seligman, the Happiness expert, says that happiness is a result of developing character strengths that sound a lot like Gurian's but also include humility, self control, love of learning, industriousness, leadership, caution, and playfulness.

Linda and Richard Eyre, the Mormon values gurus, add to the list courage, peaceability, self-reliance, dependability, chastity, respect, love, unselfishness, and mercy.

Regardless of your own personal list of what you value most, I'm not encouraging you to reel it off to your child. The words won't mean much out of context. But you can help your child to develop the values you want him to have. Check out the following Parenting Tip for some everyday strategies to encourage your child to develop the values you hold dear:

How to Raise a Generous Child

Dr. Laura Markham