January 27, 2018

3 Ways to Teach Core Values to Your Child

All parents want their children to grow up to be happy. After that, the list varies, but at the top of most, you’ll find another common wish. At heart, we all want our children to also be good people.

Just as you can’t teach a child to be happy, it can be difficult to consciously teach them to be honest, empathetic or industrious. You’re also pushing against some pretty powerful forces, like television, peer groups, and social media, when it comes to sending a clear message about what it means to be a decent person.

The good news is that despite all the other voices and influences in your child’s life, most adults still acknowledge that their values came primarily from their parents. That means we’re constantly passing our values along to our kids, whether consciously or not. The bad news is that if we don’t pay attention, we could be sending out all the wrong messages.

Here are some ways that you can be more mindful of what you are teaching your children, and help them build their own set of core values and character strengths.


Frame the Dilemma

Most parents find themselves directing or constraining their children’s behavior many times a day. Sometimes, you’re stopping them from doing something unsafe, but more often you’re actually enforcing one or more of your own deeply held values. Insisting they keep their promises, like going to baseball practice when they don’t feel like it, is about being dependable and trustworthy. Sharing toys teach children to be unselfish and think about the needs of others. Making them finish their homework, without completing it for them, instills honesty and perseverance.

If you think about it, these are all little moral dilemmas that you’re constantly resolving on behalf of your child. Next time a conflict comes up, try talking with your child about the values underlying the problem. Let them practice making good decisions for themselves. For example, if your child doesn’t want to visit grandma, talk about how not coming would make her feel before you insist he gets in the car. Help him frame the problem, in this case breaking a commitment vs staying home to watch television. Inevitably, it’s going to turn into a discussion about duty, compassion, loyalty, and respect.

Live Your Values

Early lessons about values are the ones that will shape your child’s character, and they’re going to come primarily from observing how you behave. Telling your child to say “thank you” and express appreciation for the thoughtfulness of others doesn’t mean much if you don’t do it yourself. Talking about the importance of learning new things gets lost if you focus only on grades. A child won’t learn to be self-reliant and resourceful if you don’t allow them to make a few mistakes along the way. Be aware of the message you’re sending when your own behavior doesn’t live up to the values you’re trying to impart.


Be Sparing with Rewards

Children become accustomed from a very young age to being rewarded for good behavior. Praise is very important, but exchanging treats for demonstrating important values isn’t always a good idea. In the end, our values define who we are and what we believe. They are worthy even if there’s no immediate personal benefit to holding them.

If your child shows compassion for a friend or makes good on their promise to help you with chores, name the value they’re expressing and acknowledge their behavior. Thank them for their honesty, diligence, self-sacrifice, fairness, or whatever other value prompted them to make you proud.  As they get older, your children won’t associate demonstrating sound values with personal gratification and will come to accept that being “good” has its own rewards.


Imparting core values is ultimately about modeling the things that you think matter most and talking to your children about why they’re important. Be mindful of what your behavior says about the kind of person you are, knowing that your children are watching closely. If you can name the values that drive your decisions and lead by example, your child will have all the “teaching” they need to grow up to be the good (and happy) adults you so want them to be.


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