There are certain values we'd love for our kids to have. But how do we go about teaching them? Experts offer ways to instill important values as they grow.

By Alana Bracken
November 24, 2020
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Parents always hope to instill big picture values in their kids as they grow and explore the world around them. While teaching values like honesty or respect may feel like daunting tasks with a young child, these lessons can gradually be taught through small but intentional moments.

Here are common values many parents strive for and how experts recommend you approach each of them with your little one before they hit the double digits.

1. Honesty

When acquiring values, kids typically learn by what they experience. For developing a truthful disposition in your child, your best tactic is to model honesty as much as you can.

"There's nothing that compares to modeling values," says Donna Laikind, MS, LMFT, a psychotherapist in New York City and Fairfield County, Connecticut. "If they see a parent dealing with people in an honest way, dealing with people in a dignified way, that's the best lesson you can give."

Even at a young age, kids absorb your actions like a sponge, so every white lie said in confidence can feed a lack of honesty. While telling the truth can sometimes lead to uncomfortable situations or conversations, this aspect of the lesson is part of the point of teaching this value to your child—honesty isn't always easy, but it's worth the trouble.

With young children, particularly toddlers, lying can be a common way that they try to avoid punishment for behavior they know is bad. It's important to approach these conversations calmly, giving them the opportunity to be truthful after telling a lie. If they own up to their actions, you can still reinforce this value through verbal appreciation for their honesty, even if you need to dole out consequences for the misdeed.

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2. Accountability

Accountability for one's actions is a crucial value for a child to learn, as it sets the expectation for how they should act in everyday life.

"Parents have an unspoken contract with their kids about their behavior. It's important that kids know ahead of time that if there's rules that they break, there will be consequences," says Laikind.

Accountability finds roots in the parent-child relationship, but its true test begins at school age, when kids must take ownership of their actions without a parent always guiding the way. When this transition happens, Lauren Ford, Psy.D., a pediatric psychologist in Los Angeles, emphasizes that teaching values is more complex than setting the expectation of right and wrong.

"Simple values of education is not enough," she says. "What is more important than instilling values on a case-by-case basis is teaching kids how to problem-solve in alignment with their values."

Concepts like moral reasoning, or what to do when faced with an ethical dilemma that contradicts your family's values, can feel a little complex for younger kids. However, as your child matures into grade school and beyond, understanding the reasoning behind their values helps hold them accountable when faced with peer pressure and more complex problems.

3. Curiosity

Many parents can attest that around age 4 their kids start asking big "why" questions. While some are as innocuous as, "Why is the sky blue?" toddlers can quickly venture into the philosophical, such as, "Why do people hate each other?"

For Jana Mohr Lone, Ph.D., director of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children, feeding that curiosity is a crucial component to understanding values more completely. "I don't think we really introduce philosophy to children. We introduce the nomenclature, but they're already asking these questions," she says. "We're just providing a space to do it with each other and helping them to get better at [evaluating these questions]."

The Center for Philosophy for Children offers family programs during which parents and children can ponder life's big questions together. However, Dr. Mohr Lone also notes in her book, The Philosophical Child, ways to approach these big why questions on your own with your child.

"Don't feel like that you have to have the answers, and even if you think you do have the answers, don't be too quick to share them," she says. "If we can drop for just a moment the role of authority and advisor and be a co-inquirer with them, it really does add another dimension to your relationship."

She emphasizes that both you and your child can learn a lot from bringing curiosity to the table, as you can offer an outlook based on your life experience, while they can see things in a more open and imaginative way.

4. Respect

Learning respect is a particularly vital value to guide your child when they reach the classroom. It relates to tasks as simple as waiting one's turn to speak as well as more complex concepts like understanding world views that are different than theirs.

When Dr. Mohr Lone approaches philosophy with students—whether in a grade school classroom or even with her son's preschool class years ago—she is always inspired by how eagerly children listen to each other's opposing views. When the question, "What do we think happens when we die?" came up in a fourth-grade class, a conversation ensued in which some kids had strong religious beliefs, others took more atheistic views, and many were unsure but willing to explore possibilities.

"They were able to listen to each other," says Dr. Mohr Lone. "And many kept saying, 'Everyone has their own way of seeing this, and it's interesting to hear how other people see it.'"

Respect during these philosophical conversations in the classroom and beyond can have larger implications in real world applications as a child grows. All parents want their kids to carry certain values, but Dr. Mohr Lone notes that it's also important for kids to learn how to respect those who see the world a little differently.

"There are a number of contrasting ways of seeing the world that all have very good reasons and are valuable," she says. "I think it's important for our kids to absorb that you can hold a very strong view and can still accept that someone might see it very differently, and their way of seeing it might also be valuable."

5. Empathy

The ability for a child to understand and connect with the feelings of another person helps build the foundation for strong relationships in their lives, which is why empathy is often a core value for families. For Dr. Ford, addressing this concept with her 2-year-old son requires a more concrete approach.

"The way we talk about empathy is through play," says Dr. Ford. "If he throws something, for example, and it hits me or a stuffed animal, we say something like, 'Ouch! That hurt me,' and wait for him to respond."

Playtime can be a valuable opportunity for teaching a variety of values because it offers a child a social setting to creatively explore their sense of self and how they interact with others. By approaching these more abstract concepts in a fun environment, a parent can ingrain important lessons in an approachable, low stakes way.

In the pursuit of conceptualizing empathy for her son, Dr. Ford doesn't demand he say sorry, but rather guides him to see his actions had an impact on somebody else. "We're trying to provide in vivo coaching and experience to help him understand what empathy even means, so he's thinking about himself and his effect on other people," explains Dr. Ford.

Empathy only becomes more important as a child gets older and makes friends. Beyond building relationships with others, this value contributes to conflict resolution—being able to see another's side of an argument and find a solution.

Even more so, children can see the power in their actions when they do something kind for another. Practicing empathy as a parent—whether through acts of service or interactions with your own child—can instill a sense of positive purpose to this value.

6. Determination

For many, the concept of determination is often misconstrued as being bold—a trait that is reserved for the outgoing and adventurous. In reality, this value instills the ability for children to encounter situations with the resolve to try their best, even if they feel nervous or intimidated.

One of the biggest obstacles for a child's determination is a helicopter parent, experts say. If you do everything in your power to help your kid succeed, you unintentionally sacrifice the lessons they can learn when they fail. Determination thrives in the wake of acknowledging failures, as it allows a child to take ownership of their actions and build the fortitude to succeed in the future.

"The sense of self in which you are responsible for your own actions and that you're capable of succeeding is crucial for life," says Laikind. "If you think you can only do it when your parents do it for you, that's going to show up later in adulthood."

While determination is built out of failure, it is important to find a balance between discipline and praise when instilling this value. While not every effort deserves ample praise, those with room for improvement can benefit from ongoing support, even if it involves gentle feedback.

7. Open Communication

As a parent, one of the most important values you can instill in your family is open communication. It allows a child to freely express their wants, needs, and concerns in a productive manner, as well as build strong relationships with you as a parent.

Dr. Mohr Lone found this to be the case raising her three sons, who are now in their 20s. She particularly found value in opening the conversation to more philosophical concepts. "Because of all those conversations we had early in life, there's this mutual respect and openness between us that has been true always—even through those bumpy teenage years," she says.

Even if a child is shy, valuing effective communication at home can set them up for success in grade school and beyond. An introverted personality is not necessarily a negative, but as a parent, you should explore ways for your kid to communicate their needs in their own way. Whether it’s checking in on how their day was after school or engaging in a subject that excites them, there’s always an avenue to foster connection. 

"It's important to do a reality check when that child is in preschool to find out if their lack of socializing is really anything that's holding them back," says Laikind. "If not, then allow the child to be shy, that's OK."

Your child’s teachers can offer insight into their successes and shortcomings both academically and socially. Touch base with them, especially when parent-teacher conferences arise, if you worry about your child’s ability to communicate outside your family bubble.

Most importantly, effective family communication means providing the space for kids to evaluate what matters to them. It can also help you discuss your collective values, and as a result, maintain them throughout their lives.

"What I see in all of [my sons] is they all think very carefully about what they want to do in their lives," says Dr. Mohr Lone. "They developed a lot of confidence that their judgments about things were of value, and they could convey them in ways that are compelling. If we understand our values more fully, we can act in accordance with them."

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