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10 Simple Ways to Teach Values to Your Kids

by Lisa Beach
(adapted from Cultivating Character: Growing Responsible Kids)

   Parenting can be tough. Really tough. Raising kids in today’s world seems like an incredibly difficult challenge in the face of continually sliding cultural standards and lack of values. Of course, a variety of complex reasons lie at the heart of moral decline in our culture, including toxic media, material affluence, lack of good role models, and other factors. In fact, much of our culture actually counters the values you’re trying to teach your kids. But rather than debate the causes, I want to provide a game plan for moving in a more positive direction.

   If you’re willing to plant the seeds of character in your kids and persistently nurture them – regardless of the obstacles or societal pressures you encounter along the way– then your family will reap incredible rewards down the road.

    At the heart of SPARK Parenting lies the critical mission of instilling values in your kids. You want to help your kids cultivate a strong character that stands up to peer pressure and some of the negative cultural influences that challenge them on a daily basis. You want your kids to grow up to be honest, responsible, respectful, kind adults. And the best place to learn about values is at home, because values are truly a personal issue. What you want to teach your kids and what your friend wants to teach her kids might be two honorable, but very different, set of values.

   So where do you begin? Start by asking yourself two questions: “What kind of family do I want to create? And how can I achieve this through my parenting?” All good parents want the best for their children and expect the best from their children. But great parents go a step further by taking a concerted effort to instill in their children important values such as honesty, kindness, respect, service, tolerance and responsibility. Without intentional effort, instruction and guidance from a loving adult on a consistent basis, kids don’t simply develop these values by themselves, at least not to the extent you’d like to see.

   Rather than grumbling about the lack of respect, integrity, or responsibility you see in today’s kids, focus on teaching your own kids these values. If you want different results, you simply need to do different things. But simple doesn’t always mean easy. It takes a lot of hard work, patience, and persistence to proactively build a positive family culture. Proactive means taking responsibility for your choices, your life, your happiness. The opposite of reactive, proactive means proceeding with a plan. This article, adapted from my upcoming book Cultivating Character: Growing Responsible Kids, provides you with a general plan to teach values to your kids.

   You might want to intensely focus on teaching one value for a month or so until your kids understand what it means and get familiar with the “language” of that particular value. For example, one month you could focus on teaching responsibility by talking about it at dinner, reading books about it, watching movies about it, modeling it, providing opportunities for your kids to practice it, etc. Then next month, you switch gears and focus on teaching respect, using similar techniques and some new ideas to keep it fresh.

  Regardless of which values you want to teach your kids, use the ideas below to help you jumpstart the character-training process in your family.

  1. Talk about values. Fill your home with conversations about responsibility, respect, honesty, kindness, determination, gratitude and other values important to you. Use positive words to encourage these values in your kids and specifically point out when you see them demonstrating a particular value. For example, “Thank you for telling me the truth about who spilled the juice. I appreciate your honesty.” Share your beliefs about specific values. For example, explain why you value responsibility, how you live out responsibility in your daily life, ways your kids can practice responsibility, how they benefit by being responsible, etc. Make “values conversations” a normal part of your family life.

  2. Model the values you want to teach. As a parent, you provide the biggest lesson of all because your kids see and hear how you behave every day. Modeling value-based behavior truly makes the biggest impression on your kids. While talking to your kids about values is both necessary and valuable, showing them what values look like (through your words and actions) packs a more powerful punch. Remember, kids often learn things by mimicking what they see and hear others do. If they hear you constantly stretching the truth, they’ll come to believe that lying is okay. If they see you volunteering at an animal shelter every month, they’ll understand the importance of compassion and service. Kids soak up your actions and reflect what they experience, day in and day out.

  3. Take advantage of teachable moments – times when life just happens and you use these unexpected events or circumstances to teach your kids a valuable life lesson. For example, when you get too much change at the grocery store, demonstrate honest, responsible behavior by returning the extra money. Explain to your kids that keeping money that isn’t yours is like stealing. And further explain the impact it would have on someone else – keeping the money could get the cashier in trouble with his employer. Another example: When your 5th grader promised to study for a test with her friend, but now another friend comes knocking on the door ready for a bike ride, explain the importance of being trustworthy, dependable and considerate. Situations like these pop up all the time, so when teachable moments occur, capitalize on them. Of course, you can’t just sit around and wait for these teachable moments to pop up. You’ve got to intentionally take time to create your own learning opportunities as well. (You’ll find nearly three dozen ways to teach responsibility — many of which can be adapted to teach other values — in Cultivating Character: Growing Responsible Kids.)

  4. Praise values-based behavior when you see it. When your kids play together without fighting, point out their kind, cooperative behavior. When your kids do their chores without being reminded, recognize their responsibility. In other words, catch them being good. Describe the good behavior in detail so kids know exactly what they’re doing right. Specifically name the virtue when you see it so kids develop the language of good character. For example, you can point out the self-discipline it took for your son to do his homework first, even though the neighborhood kids came knocking at the front door begging him to shoot some hoops. Or you can applaud your daughter for being accountable when she admits she made a mistake instead of making an excuse. The more you encourage good behavior, the more you’ll likely see it repeated.

  5. Reward values-based behavior. Like adults, kids sometimes need more than just a pat on the back for motivation. As kids mature, they’ll develop the internal reward of feeling good about a job well done. But while they’re still young, they often need external motivation in the form of rewards. Whether you use a sticker chart, point system or a spontaneous catch-‘em-being-good approach, occasionally using rewards gives kids tangible recognition for acting responsibly. You can reward kids with something tangible (like an ice cream cone) or something intangible but equally good (like special one-on-one time with mom or dad). (Cultivating Character: Growing Responsible Kids provides readers with an exclusive SPARKParenting.com website link to dozens of creative reward ideas.)

  6. Don’t rescue your kids when they make mistakes. Often, the best learning opportunities come in the form of mistakes. When the stakes aren’t high, let your kids mess up. Then let natural consequences teach the values lesson, as long as the consequences don’t involve issues of health or safety. If your kids forget their lunchbox at home, then they have to solve the problem they’ve created. They could skip a meal, borrow the money from a teacher or pay for a school lunch with their own money. If, instead of putting their toys on the back porch, your kids leave them out in the yard and they get ruined in the rain, don’t run out and buy replacement toys. If your kids lie to their friends – and they get caught in their own lie – let the matter run its course without butting in. (While you can always offer advice, avoid trying to fix all your kids mistakes.) If you play Superhero every time they mess up, your kids will never learn the values you’re trying to teach them. When kids learn from their mistakes, they’re more likely to make a better choice next time. The key (and this is a hard one for my husband and me) is to avoid the temptation to lecture. You can talk about the choice/consequence, but let your kids figure out what they did wrong and what they could do differently next time to get a better result. If they really don’t know, guide them or, if necessary, spell it out for them. But sometimes all you need to do is just sit back, relax and watch the light bulb moments occur as your kids figure it all out.

  7. Help your kids hone their decision-making skills. Give kids choices whenever possible, but limit the choices to just two or three options. This helps establish parameters while giving your kids some degree of control. And make sure you can live with any of the choices offered. Even two-year-olds can decide whether they want to drink milk or juice or whether they want to wear the blue jacket or the red jacket. Plenty of decision-making opportunities exist for kids, and the more kids practice, the better they get at making good choices. Fast forward five to ten years when your kids face the choice of caving into peer pressure and trying drugs or resisting peer pressure and saying “no thanks.” You don’t want that decision to be the first real one they make. Let kids practice decision-making (and thus build their character muscles) when the consequences won’t destroy their lives.

  8. Set boundaries, follow through and be consistent. Kids need boundaries in order to become a person of character. Clearly and specifically talk about the values you expect your kids to exemplify – honesty, respect, tolerance, etc. That means you need to set rules and enforce them consistently. Follow through with any consequences, and whenever possible, let natural consequences teach the values lesson. For example, if you’re trying to teach your kids responsibility by giving them age-appropriate chores, make sure you provide a consequence for not doing their chores. Do what you say you’re going to do, and do it every time – even when you’re tired, busy, sick, cranky or running late.

  9. Make it fun. Whenever you can, teach values in a fun, memorable way. For example, when you’re teaching your kids about their responsibilities such as chores and homework, show them how to make a task more enjoyable. For example, putting dirty clothes in the hamper might seem like drudgery, but it becomes fun when you turn it into shooting practice by putting an indoor basketball hoop above the hamper.  (You’ll find dozens of fun ways to teach responsibility — including activities, games, crafts, family read-alouds, conversation starters, journaling ideas, movie nights and more — in Cultivating Character: Growing Responsible Kids.)

  10. Believe in your kids. If you think your kids can handle something, they’ll think the same thing. Set high (but realistic) expectations for your kids and they will live up to them. Clearly communicate these beliefs and high standards to your kids so they know what’s expected of them and that you believe in them. For example, “In our family, we always tell the truth.” Focus on your kids’ strengths rather than their weaknesses. Point out their talents and gifts, and help them build on these positives. On the contrary, set the bar too low for your kids and they’ll live down to your expected level of mediocrity.

   Although raising kids with good values lies squarely on your shoulders, you don’t need to travel this road alone. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. So, go to the village for reinforcements. Tie into any character education programs your local schools might be using. Get active in your church, temple or synagogue. Get your kids involved in outside activities that reinforce the values you teach at home, such as Boy/Girl Scouts, Awana, YMCA or Boys & Girls Club.

   Prepare yourself for the long haul, because teaching values for a one-month time frame isn’t a quick-fix solution. You’ll need to continue this process for many years, repeatedly emphasizing the importance of values, modeling them yourself, giving your kids plenty of opportunity to practice these values and praising your kids when they demonstrate these values. Eventually, with lots of gentle guidance and practice, your kids will develop their own inner voice that will serve as their moral compass.

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