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Joan E. Grusec Ph.D.

Teaching Values to Your Child

Which values make for the happiest people?

We all have a set of values (strongly-held beliefs) that influence how we behave. Parents play an important role in determining what those values are going to be for their children.

Different parents emphasize different values. For some, honesty and a sense of responsibility are especially important. For others, it is achievement and success. Other parents may have as a primary goal that their children value independence or curiosity or creativity.

What values do people have? And do they consider some to be more important than others?

The values people have and their relative importance have been studied extensively by Shalom Schwartz and his colleagues. They have found considerable similarity across a large number of countries in the values reported and the ordering of their importance.

Consistently, the values rated most important are trustworthiness, caring for others, and a commitment to equality, justice, and protection for all people and for nature. Consistently, the lowest-rated value is power—having control over people as well as having money, possessions, and social connections. Just above power is excitement and wanting to preserve cultural and religious customs. In the middle, between the higher and lower-rated values, are security, conformity, and achievement.

There are good reasons why values are ranked the way they are. Because we are social animals, we need to get along with each other. Being trustworthy, cooperative, helpful, and making sure that all people are treated fairly are good ways to avoid conflict and promote peaceful coexistence.

Power is rated lowest in importance, presumably because it harms group solidarity—people don’t like feeling that they are being controlled by others, so conflict arises. Achievement falls in the middle because people need to be motivated to work productively and solve problems.

Importantly, values involving caring for others and a commitment to justice cannot exist along with a value of power and dominance; we cannot be kind and caring at the same time as we control other people and their resources. Thus, as one value strengthens, the other weakens.

Joshua Clay/Unsplash
Source: Joshua Clay/Unsplash

What values do parents try to teach?

In 2014, the polling organization Pew Research Center asked American parents to select from a list of values what they thought were the most important ones to teach their children. These parents indicated that the most important values were being responsible, working hard, helping others, and being well-mannered, a list that overlaps quite nicely with Schwartz’s values of trustworthiness, caring for others, a commitment to equality, and conformity.

Are people better off if they hold certain values?

Are people happier, healthier, and more satisfied with life, as well as having a sense of meaning or purpose, if they have adopted one set of values rather than another? According to Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, intrinsic values—social responsibility, a desire for personal growth, and meaningful relationships—are more likely to be associated with happiness and well-being than are extrinsic values, such as financial success, physical attractiveness, and social recognition. This is because extrinsic values depend on external reward and recognition from others, whereas intrinsic values depend on feelings of personal satisfaction that come from one’s self rather than requiring others to make a judgment.

More support for the notion that values are associated differentially with feelings of well-being comes from the work of Lara Aknin and her colleagues. They examined the relationship between concern for others—donating to charity—and subjective well-being, using data that had been collected from more than 200,000 respondents in 136 countries; they found that both rich and poor people who said they had recently donated to charity were happier with their lives.

In another study, these researchers found that happiness increased when individuals recalled a time they had spent money on others rather than on themselves. As well, they were happier when they chose a gift for someone else as opposed to choosing one for themselves. This was true even when they did not know the recipient of the gift, and so there was no chance that their generosity would be reciprocated.

What are the best ways to help children learn values?

Whatever the values parents wish to encourage, the question is how to do it best. How do we teach specific values to children as well as make sure those values are translated into action? How do we get children to believe that they should respect others, do the best they can, and so on, and then act in accord with that belief? That is a question that has intrigued developmental psychologists for many years. And it will be the topic of future postings on this site.


Aknin, L. B., Barrington-Leigh, C., Dunn, E. W., Helliwell, J. F., Burns, J., Biswas-Diener, R., . . . Norton, M. I. (2013). Prosocial spending and well-being: Cross-cultural evidence for a psychological universal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104, 635-652.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Press.

Schwartz, S. H., Cieciuch, J., Vecchione, M., Davidov, E., Fischer, R., Beierlein, C., . . . Konty, M. (2012). Refining the theory of basic individual values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 663-688.


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Joan E. Grusec, Ph.D., is Professor Emerita in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto, Canada. Her research has centered on socialization in the family.


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