I love it when Bill Bennett the author of The Book of Virtues tells the story about his wife yelling downstairs during bedtime with a hearty, "Hey, how about some of those family values up here?" Bennett relays this in a playful and light-hearted tone, but I get the point.
How do we know if our kids are catching our values? Especially when you're the kind of person who is often distracted exporting your values in your work or your neighborhood or your blog for that matter?
Jean Illsley Clark, one of my favorite parenting experts, theorizes that children decide between ages 6-12 which parental values they will take as their own. They do this by testing the waters, obeying rules and sometimes breaking them, often as an experiment to see which values really fit. Unfortunately for parents, kids can't always explain to us why they do what they do, but that doesn't mean that we can't quietly make real life arguments for what matters to us the very most.
Since I'm smack dab in the middle of 6-12 year old parenting right now, here's what I'm doing to help my kids understand what's important to me. I hope you'll add to my list in the comments below.
Tell stories. Even though I've been involved in helping immigrant women escape unfair and abusive work environments here in the US for the last few years, Madeleine recently confessed she had no idea what my work was exactly or why. I spent the next few weeks telling bedtime stories from real life about the women we know and the adventures we'd shared on their journey to a better life. Madeleine enjoyed these stories immensely and it gave her a great framework to consider her own perspective.
Leave your kids out. While your toddlers and preschoolers can most of the time be cajoled into doing anything you're enthusiastic about, your bigger kids might be a different story. I think it's okay to not insist that your kids go with you to help your neighbor or volunteer at the animal shelter because it gives them a chance to observe the value at a distance without the pressure to perform.
Invite them back in. Once you've given your kids some space to say no honestly if they don't want along for the ride, make it a point to create circumstances where they have a genuine place to contribute. Sometimes it takes kids a while to warm up to a new service opportunity and then they don't know how to say they really would like to go, too.
Turn up your radar for other values outside your own. My kids may or may not grow up with a love for strangers or immigrant rights, but these experiences may be the gateway to other causes or concerns that are equally valuable. The point is to encourage any and all displays of kindness, thoughtfulness and genuine concern whether that manifests itself in wanting to help make snacks for friends coming over or wanting to do a good job in school. Compassion and responsibility in all forms is good, so I say go with it.
Walk it, don't just talk it. You can tell a hundred stories or give a hundred speeches at the dinner table about what's important and why, but in the end it's what you actually do and how you do it that your kids will learn by heart. If you're not sure what's coming across, ask your kids what is most important to you--they'll be happy to tell you.
What values do you hope your kids take from you? I'd love to hear your big ones in the comments below.