Values are a pretty darned touchy subject to bring up these days when it comes to raising children. Values have gotten a bad rap because of how they are discussed in politics and as they relate to religious beliefs. When most people hear the term values used, they often think of the hot-button value issues that are regular fodder for cable news, talk radio, and the blogosphere. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
There are three things I believe about values.
First, we Americans share far more values than those on which we disagree. When I talk about values, I’m talking about the ones that America was founded on and that have made our country great, for example, respect, responsibility, compassion, fairness, the list goes on.
Second, there is nothing more important to raising healthy children than values. They are the foundation of all that children come to believe and who they become. Values act as the sign posts in the direction that your children’s live head.
Third, it’s not my place to tell you what values you should believe. Given my small soapbox here, I will tell you that you should, first and foremost, be teaching your children healthy values. Without positive values, you are leaving your children thoroughly unprepared to survive and thrive in a time when popular media dominates their lives.
Here I will focus on more practical ways they can learn values from your direct interactions with your children.
One down-to-earth way values are expressed is through the rules, boundaries, and expectations that you establish in your family. Each of these prescriptions is based on the values that you hold and the messages you want your children to get about values, for example:
Putting school first, or
Being physically active
Unfortunately, many children see rules, boundaries, and expectations as limitations placed on their freedom by their parents without rationale or purpose. When you explicitly link your values with these directives, you show your children the reasoning behind your dictates (you’re not just being an overly strict parent!) and they can then see the values underlying the restrictions. Don’t just simply “lay down the law,” but rather explain and discuss how the limits you place on them are related to your values and how they benefit your children.
Setting limits has real implications in your children’s involvement with popular media. When you don’t allow them to, for example, play violent video games or spend hours with social media, and you also explain to them the rationale behind your decisions, you’re communicating to them that you don’t value these activities. Your children may not like your decisions, but at least they’ll know that you have real reasons for them.
Consequences of Values
Perhaps the most powerful way to help children understand the importance of values is to discuss with and show them the consequences of healthy and unhealthy values. A valuable lesson for them is that if they act in valued ways, good things will happen, and if they act according to bad values, bad things happen. Examples of this relationship can include good effort in school results in good grades, being compassionate to others causes others to respond in kind, and being caught lying results in punishment and a loss of trust.
An unfortunate obstacle to teaching children about the consequences of living by one’s values is that acting on good values is not always rewarded and bad values are not punished in our society. To the contrary, popular media often glorifies and rewards bad values. For example, domestic violence, drug use, and other bad behavior don’t prevent professional sports teams from paying talented, though clearly troubled, athletes exorbitant salaries. The recording industry persists in promoting hip-hop artists and rock stars despite rap sheets that continue to grow. Sadly, young people worship celebrities. It is these conflicting messages that your children receive every day that make your job of teaching healthy values so much more difficult.
A compelling way to foster your children’s understanding and appreciation of values is to talk to them about value dilemmas that they will face as they move through childhood and into young adulthood. For younger children, topics might include lying, selfishness, stealing, and cheating. Issues for older children can include sexual behavior and alcohol and drug use. You can also identify value breakdowns from popular media, for example, the poor behavior of actors, athletes, businesspeople, and politicians (there is no shortage of well-known offenders!), to help them understand that being rewarded for bad values not only doesn’t justify the values, it also has costs that may not be readily apparent to your children, such as loss of self-respect and admiration from others, threats to health, and lost opportunities.
Value dilemmas arise every day in your children’s lives. Either they are faced with dilemmas themselves, see them occur among their peers, or are evident in popular media. You should have your “radar” attuned to these dilemmas and use them as opportunities to educate your children about these quandaries. With younger children, you will want to emphasize the tangible consequences of the choices presented in the dilemmas, for example, what trouble they would get into if they stole a piece of candy that they really wanted. With older children, you can have more sophisticated discussions about self-respect, dangers to themselves and others, and implications for their futures, for example, what are the personal, social, physical, and criminal ramifications of drinking and driving?
Surround Your Children with Value-driven People
It can be exhausting and discouraging when faced with how ever-present, intense, and unrelenting popular media is. It can be frustrating trying to guide your children in the healthy use of technology when the world in which they are immersed has ideas to the contrary. One of the best things you can do to help your cause is to surround your children with value-driven people who will support your efforts and resist those of popular media.
This carefully chosen social world should be an extension of your own values that you hold and the value messages that you want your children to get. Like-minded people can be found in the communities in which you choose to live, the schools your children to attend, the friends that you and your children adopt, and the cultural, athletic, religious, and entertainment activities in which you and your children decide to participate.
This support envelops your children in a sort of value-powered “force field” that can help repel popular media when your children are outside your home. This shield acts to protect your children by keeping their immediate surroundings, relationships, and messages healthy even when the larger messages raining down on them from billboards, stores, television, movies, and the Internet are unhealthy. For example, if you don’t like your children to play violent video games, you’ll trust that the friends they visit will have a similar attitude.
Building a community of value-driven people means making deliberate choices about the world you want your children live in away from your home. Small changes can include finding a new sports league that emphasizes fun and participation over winning, a new piano teacher who is less demanding, or making the local mall off-limits to your children. Large-scale changes can include enrollment in a new school, attending a different house of worship, or not allowing your children to see friends who you believe are bad influences on them.
When you actively create a caring community, you accrue significant benefits for both you and your children. You’ll feel less alone and more supported as you attempt to teach your children healthy values in the face of the behemoth of popular media. Your children will feel less the burden to conform to the values imposed on them by a world that they know isn’t healthy. When your children leave your home, you and they will know they are entering a world that is populated by value-driven people who will assist them in making positive choices in the face of unrelenting pressure from popular media.
Jim Taylor, Ph.D., Psychology, has worked with young people, parents and educators for more than 27 years. Jim is the author of 14 books, four of which are parenting books. Jim has appeared on NBC’s Today Show, Fox News Channel, ABC’s World News This Weekend, and the major television network affiliates around the country. He has participated in many radio shows. Dr. Taylor has been an expert source for articles that have appeared in The London Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Daily News, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Outside, Men’s Health, and many other newspapers and magazines. Jim lives north of San Francisco with his wife, Sarah, and his daughters, Catie and Gracie. To learn more, visit www.drjimtaylor.com.