How To Talk About Values to Your Kids

Put the brakes on bratty behavior early by explaining the real meanings of respect, caring, and sharing.

Talking About Values, p. 1

All parents want their children to learn right from wrong, but values won't develop on their own. They need to be taught. When we catch our kids lying or being disrespectful, it's an opportunity to help them make a better choice. Simply saying 'Don't do that!" or giving a complicated explanation won't leave a lasting impression. Here's some expert advice on age-appropriate ways to talk to your kids: Use these words to teach worthy lessons they'll take to heart.


Sticky Situation: During a game of Candy Land, you catch your 5-year-old skipping ahead to position herself for an unfair win. You've read about "letting little ones win," but still, you don't want to reinforce cheating.

Wise Words: Don't use the term "cheating." Instead, teach her to play fair by subtly pointing her in the right direction. Try saying:

  • "That's not a fair move. I'll let you play that way with me, but when you're with your friends, it might make them mad at you."
  • Or: "Imagine if nobody played a game by the rules. What do you think would happen?" -- Martha B. Straus, Ph.D., author of No-Talk Therapy for Children and Adolescents


Sticky Situation: Your dinner guests bring a gift for your 4-year-old. He opens it, drops it on the floor, and walks away without saying 'thank you."

Wise Words: It's unrealistic to expect a preschooler to understand the value of gratitude, and your guests probably know this. Don't make a big deal about it. Simply say:

  • "Justin, please come back here. You forgot to say "'thank you' to the Smiths for bringing you a present."
  • If you prefer to let it go until later, that's okay too. You might bring up the subject at bedtime: 'In our family, after receiving a gift, we say 'thank you.' " If your son says he didn't like the gift, counter with: "The Smiths thought you would. But even when we don't like a gift, we say, 'Thank you for thinking of me.' " -- Chick Moorman, author of Parent Talk: How to Talk to Your Children in Language That Builds Self-Esteem and Encourages Responsibility


Sticky Situation: After dinner, you ask your 6-year-old to help clear the dishes. He flatly refuses.

Wise Words: Ask him to stay seated, then say:

  • "Everyone pitches in to make the family work, and now you're old enough to help out too. But if you don't want to clear the dishes, let's make a list of things that would be helpful, and you can choose what you want to do."
  • Or: "Helping people makes their lives easier. Can you remember the difference it makes when I help you put your toys away? Now you can help me." -- Bonnie Harris, author of When Your Kids Push Your Buttons and What You Can Do About It


Sticky Situation: Your 3-year-old accidentally knocks over the block tower his 5-year-old sister just painstakingly built. He apologizes tearfully, but your daughter holds a grudge. "It's too late!" she snaps.

Wise Words: Give your daughter a chance to vent before expecting her to forgive. Here's your opening.

  • "I don't blame you for being upset. You worked hard on that tower. But it was an accident, and your little brother isn't able to be as careful as you." If she still insists her brother did it "on purpose," ask her to remember a time she might have done something accidentally, like spilling her cereal.
  • And if her brother did intentionally knock down the tower? Discuss the benefits of forgiveness by drawing on your own experience: "I know when I accept someone's apology it makes me feel good inside. Do you want to try forgiving your brother and seeing how it makes you feel?" -- Paul Coleman, Psy.D., author of How to Say It to Your Kids: The Right Words to Solve Problems, Soothe Feelings, and Teach Values

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