A person’s values are their principles, standards of behavior, or beliefs about what is important in life. Values are what ultimately define each of us. Our values guide every decision we make or don’t make, which is why it’s important to instill good values in our children. Studies show that people who have positive values are generally happier, more successful in their relationships with other people, and more likely to contribute positively to their community.
Why It’s Important for Teens to Understand Their Values
Many of the decisions made during adolescence have the potential to impact your child for the rest of their life. Your teen’s values will influence his/her decisions in choosing a college and career, developing a solid work ethic, picking friends and romantic partners, spending their free time, and accepting responsibility. As a result, it is worth your effort to help your teen define and understand their values, and the potential consequences of their decisions, so that they can make good choices when you’re not around.
By the time your child is a teenager, they begin evaluating and establishing their own values, and they don’t always match their parents’ values. This is a normal part of development as adolescence is the time for young people to think for themselves, become more independent, and develop their own world view. As a parent, you should understand two major things about your teen’s developing values: 1) your teen does not have to adopt the same values as you to still have a strong ethical character, and 2) your teen may reject certain values now, only to embrace them later.
How Teens Learn Values
Here are a few tips on how parents can help instill good values in today’s youth:
Role Model. There is no single better way to teach than by example. Children of all ages learn by imitating, and they are very skillful at picking up the differences between what you say and what you do. Here are some examples:
- If you want to teach honesty, be honest. Don’t lie about why you’re turning down a commitment, because your children will learn that it’s okay to lie in some cases.
- If you want to raise a grateful person, then focus on your own blessings. Don’t complain about your boss, neighbor, house, etc., but rather look for the positive in every situation.
- If you want to teach kindness, demonstrate it in your daily life. Talk about how your decisions affect other people and be considerate in the way you treat others.
- If you want your teen to be persistent, then make sure you finish your own projects. Don’t give up when things become difficult.
- If you want to teach good sportsmanship, model it. Compliment your teen whenever they embrace fun, learn new skills, and support teamwork in a sport, rather than focusing on whether they are winning games.
These are just a few examples of how your everyday life is your teen’s lesson plan.
Encourage Empathy. Empathy is the foundation of compassion, and it is learned through: 1) watching you respond to others with kindness, and 2) practicing serving others. Look for daily opportunities to help others by recognizing and meeting the needs of your friends, neighbors, and family members. In addition, expand your teen’s concern beyond those they know by volunteering as a family (e.g. serving a meal in a soup kitchen) and performing simple courtesies (e.g. holding the door open for a person in a wheelchair or a mom with a stroller). If your teen wants to launch a project to help others, offer your assistance!
Find Teachable Moments. In daily life, we are offered numerous examples of values played out in real life – these are your chances to initiate a values discussion. If you are watching the evening news and see a story about someone who rushed into a burning building to save someone, you can talk about courage. If you had to make a difficult decision in your own life, talk about what values guided your choice. If you see a child at a local grocery store treating a parent or another adult disrespectfully, you can ask your teen what went wrong in that situation. Look for these opportunities to ask your child about the experience and share what you think is pertinent. However, to make sure you don’t turn your teen off to your message, be sure to avoid the mistakes of 1) lecturing (ask lots of open ended questions instead), and 2) only talking about values when your teen makes a mistake.
Compliment Good Values. Parents should praise behavior that expresses values. Make sure you recognize and compliment your teen when he/she is: honest even when it is hard, kind to a friend, respectful to you, generous with their time or money, a good sport during a game, or persistent through difficulties. Children tend to rise to the level of their parents’ expectations, so be sure to expect positive things from them.
Many teens want to “do the right thing” but sometimes they struggle to find the courage. Teens not only need to develop values; they need to develop the skills to be confident in standing up and taking action for what they believe. Parents must teach their teenager skills to: 1) be assertive, 2) manage negative emotions in a healthy way, 3) solve problems and conflict, and 4) resist peer pressure. Without these vital life skills, teens cannot act on the values they hold.