So what values will children growing up in the 21st century need to thrive? Perhaps surprisingly, my answer is the same values that have enabled children to thrive in previous generations: respect, responsibility, hard work, integrity, compassion, just to name a few. The increased presence of popular media in no way changes that calculus. To the contrary, more than ever, solid values are what will help children resist the unhealthy messages from the media.
You can, of course, do your best to shield your children from the corrosive values of popular media by limiting their exposure. This attempt will, as they become more immersed in school and the larger social world, become increasingly fruitless. You can’t just sit back and play defense when it comes to values. Popular media is just too powerful and omnipresent. You need to take your values directly to your children.
Unfortunately, many people have lost touch with what values are and their place in their families’ lives. They think that values are lofty ideals that have little connection with their daily lives. Yet, values should be woven into the very fabric of your family’s lives. You can show your children how values are reflected in the activities in which they participate, who they interact with, and the choices they make. For example, finishing a school project on time, taking out the garbage, and reading with a younger sibling all express positive values of discipline, responsibility, and caring, respectively.
Values are Your Family: Create a Family-value Culture
Everyone needs and wants to be part of a culture. Belonging to a culture offers people a sense of identity, feelings of connectedness, shared values, and support when faced with the challenges of life. Children will seek out a culture that is most present in their lives and that provides the most rewards. You can protect your children from popular culture by creating a “family-value culture” that has an equally powerful—but positive—influence on your children. A family-value culture that your children are raised in precedes the presence of popular culture and can fill the need for a culture in your children’s lives.
Simply talking about values is not enough. You must express your family-value culture in all of the ways that your children can learn healthy values. Most important, you must believe deeply in and be wholly committed to your family-value culture. Values can’t just be what you say, but rather you must be a walking, talking, feeling, acting, living expression of your family-value culture.
Values Are You: Make Sure You Walk the Walk on Values
For the duration of your children’s early years, you are their most powerful influence and role model. Everything you say, feel, and do sends your children subtle, yet influential, messages about your values. Because of this impact, you must ask yourself whether you are “walking the walk” on your values.
The question of conveying values to your children is further complicated by the fact that what you think you are teaching them is not always what they are learning from you. This disconnect can occur because your actions may not always be clear to your children. This is why you should not only make sure you’re living a life that expresses your values, but periodically ask yourself whether your actions clearly express the values or whether your children could misinterpret them. Also, ask your children what value messages they are getting from you, for example, you can ask them, “Why do you think Daddy (Mommy) works so hard?”
Values are Discussions: Talk to Your Children About Their Values
“Talk to your children” is perhaps the most commonly offered recommendation from parenting experts, yet it may also be the least adopted, particularly when it comes to values. Whether because of a lack of clarity of what their values are or simply a lack of time and energy, many parents don’t sit down and have this all-important discussion about values with their children.
Talking to your children about values can occur in a spontaneous or structured way. Your family’s daily life is filled with value lessons waiting to be taught. Having your antenna up for these opportunities allows you to spot them immediately and use them to teach your children about values. You can also make value discussions a part of your family-value culture. For example, you might designate one dinner per week to the discussion of a particular value.
Talking with your children about values and your family-value culture also communicates to them that values are important to you and should be important to them. It also gives them an opportunity to learn more about values. This “value education” provides children with the foundation from which they can further explore values and make healthy values their own.
Values Are Emotions: Let Your Children Feel Values
Emotions have a persuasive influence on whether children act in valued ways. Some experts believe that emotions, such as empathy and guilt, are inborn and serve an adaptive purpose by helping to ensure that people behave in ways that benefit themselves, their families, and their communities.
Some emotions restrain children from acting badly. Fear, for example, is a visceral deterrent that makes children uncomfortable when contemplating immoral behavior. Guilt causes feelings of regret and shame after children have violated a value. Because children don’t like to feel bad, they are less likely to act against their values again.
Other emotions encourage the expression of certain values. Emotions such as inspiration motivate children to act morally because they connect valued behavior with this “feel good” emotion. Following ethical behavior, children experience other emotions, such as pride and satisfaction, which further reinforce their moral behavior.
Values Are Choices: Let Your Children Make Decisions about Values
Values provide the compass that children can follow in the choices they face and the decisions they make in their lives. When faced with competing options, for example, whether children will lie or tell the truth to their parents, their values and the related emotions will dictate what value choices they make. Children who understand values and connect positive emotions with those values have a much better chance of making value-driven decisions—consider their options, weigh the benefits and costs, and make a choice that is consistent with their family-value culture—rather than ones based on self-interest or in response to the urgings from popular media or peers.
The notion that values are choices means that children must, in the end, choose the values by which they want to live. All of the ways to create a family-value culture I have discussed encourage your children to think critically about their values and to make decisions about the values they choose to adopt. Recognize that your children will periodically make bad choices and act counter to your values. Use these opportunities to help your children learn more about their values, why they made a poor decision, and how they can make better choices in the future. For example, if you catch one of your children in a lie, you can ask several useful questions:
This discussion, accompanied by appropriate punishment (yes, it is essential that they learn that their actions have consequences!), helps your children understand why they made a poor choice and see the consequences of the bad decision, and shows them why they should make better choices in the future.
Values Are Social: Let Your Children Interact with Values
Values are influenced by the reactions that children get from others in response to their behavior. Value-driven behavior that is rewarded with social praise and validation will be internalized. Actions that are in conflict with positive values which are punished socially will be discarded. A problem is that children are vulnerable to social influence from many sources, including those that are unhealthy. Peer pressure often interferes with children adopting healthy values. For example, in some schools, children who study hard and have educational goals are ostracized, and those who are “slackers” are admired. Popular media exerts a similar influence. For instance, advertising, from fast-food and soft drinks to clothing and technology, convey the message that buying certain products will make children popular and winners, and if they don’t, they will be losers.
The pressure to conform and be accepted will grow substantially and your children may feel compelled to make choices based on their need for acceptance. Your best defense against this social influence is instilling positive values at an early age, so your children will recognize bad influences and unhealthy values, and not feel the need to adopt values and act in certain ways just to be accepted.
Fortunately, you aren’t alone in your efforts to protect your children from social influences that convey unhealthy values. Siblings and extended family members, friends, teachers, coaches, and clergy can all reinforce your value messages and have a significant influence over what your children come to value. To ensure that you maximize the influence of positive others on your children, I encourage you to actively create a “community-value culture,” comprised of your closest social circle that envelops your children with a “value-powered force field” and supports your family-value culture.
Values Are Experiences: Let Your Children Encounter Values
The best way to instill values in your children is to immerse them in activities that reflect and express your family-value culture. For example, when your children participate in charitable work, the arts, or sports, you’re not telling them that they will be learning about values. Instead, they are experiencing your family’s values, interacting with others who share your values, accomplishing goals that are consistent with your values, and experiencing positive emotions connected to those values.
Value-driven experiences are most influential on children when they have to “get their hands dirty.” For example, although donating money to a charity can certainly teach the value of giving, children aren’t really able to connect fully with the meaning of those values because they can’t see the end result of their actions. In contrast, spending a day in a home for the elderly, for example, connects the value of giving with an immediate beneficial result and causes children to feel deep emotions—empathy and kindness—which lie at the heart of children “buying into” the values.
Values Are Life: Let Your Children Live Values
The real power of values is how they are expressed in the minutiae of your family’s daily lives. Anything value-related that you do with your children in your family’s daily life, for example, doing household chores or reading to them, are small but powerful messages that communicate your family-value culture to your children:
You want to show them that these apparently small acts are actually significant deeds that reflect your family-value culture and are the stuff that value-driven lives are made of.