Respect, kindness, honesty, courage, perseverance, self-discipline, compassion, generosity, dependability. Most parents want to instill these kinds of values in their children. Doing so will protect them from potentially negative societal influences and lay the foundation for them to become good citizens. We’re not fulfilling our responsibilities as parents if we don’t try to instill solid morals in our children.
Of course, this is often easier said than done. Teaching values takes time—a scarce commodity for many parents today. “Our increasingly competitive economy is creating an environment where Mom and Dad are spending longer hours at work and fewer hours with their children,” observes Gary Hill, Ph.D., director of Clinical Services at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.
As a result, outside influences like peer pressure and the entertainment industry—through the Internet, television, movies, video games and music—are having a greater effect on children, shaping their perspectives more than ever before.
What’s a parent to do? “You need to make time to be with your kids and make the time you have with them really count,” Dr. Hill urges. “Talk with them about what’s right and wrong, and what constitutes good behavior and what doesn’t.”
Have these kinds of conversations with your kids on a regular basis so that the topic of values becomes a completely “normal” one in your household. That way, in the future, if your children do face moral conundrums, they’re going to be more comfortable broaching the subject with you than with their peers. If you don’t address these issues with your kids, society will fill in the void, says Dr. Hill.
That may sound like a tall order, especially if most of your dialogue with your children revolves around “What’s for dinner?” or “Where’s the remote control?” Still, there are many ways to weave lessons about values into your everyday interactions with your children. Let’s look at 10 practical suggestions that will help.
1. Model good values
One of the most important things you can do is set a good example for your children. They learn from seeing how you treat them, overhearing your interactions with others and observing what you do in different situations throughout the day.
If you want your children to exhibit values like honesty, self-respect and compassion, then you need to show these qualities yourself. All the teaching in the world can be undone if your children watch you behave in ways that contradict what you’ve said.
Your kids won’t think it’s important to persevere if you’re routinely giving up on diets or exercise programs, or quitting college classes when they get tough. They won’t think it’s important to follow through on commitments if you back out on organizing the church fundraiser or fail to take them to the zoo as you promised.
They won’t think there’s anything wrong with lying if they hear you tell your boss you’re sick when you just don’t want to go to work, or if the phone rings and you tell your child to tell the person that you’re not home.
“If there’s a discrepancy between what you say and what you do, your kids are just going to ignore what you told them. But if your actions are consistent with your words, then your message is going to be reinforced,” stresses Dr. Hill. Your children will know that what you tell them to do is vital if they see that you always “practice what you preach.”
Of course, everyone falls short now and then. Maybe you had to cancel the trip to the zoo because you hadn’t really thought through all the other things you had to do that week. Acknowledge to your children that dependability—or whatever character quality trait you failed to live up to—is still important to you. Otherwise, they may get the idea that the reason you didn’t say or do certain things is because these things really don’t matter that much to you.
2. Apologize to your children when you make mistakes
When you fall short with your children, not only do you need to acknowledge your mistake, you also need to tell them you’re sorry. This shows them that you value and respect their thoughts, perspectives and feelings. You’re also modeling an important way to show respect to others, and how to accept responsibility for your mistakes.
It’s a lesson Janet of Oakland, California, had to learn one day. “I had just found out that the car repair I thought was going to cost $200 was going to be $2,000 and I was really upset,” Janet related. “Then my daughter came home from school and told me she got a failing grade on her math quiz. That was it. I started screaming at her and sent her up to her room.”
A few minutes later, Janet felt horrible. She knew she had overreacted and taken her frustrations out on her daughter. She also knew she needed to apologize. “I’m sorry,” Janet told her daughter. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you like I did.” Her daughter’s look of relief told Janet she’d done the right thing.
Several days later, Janet’s daughter was playing a board game with her brother. When she started losing, she threw the game board into the air and stormed out of the room. Several minutes later she reappeared to tell her brother she was sorry. “I don’t know if she would have been so quick to apologize if I hadn’t apologized to her a few days earlier,” says Janet.
When you apologize to your children, you instill a desire in them to do the same when they make mistakes.
3. Use everyday experiences as a springboard for conversation
Almost every day something happens that can provide you with an opportunity to teach your children about values. Use these incidents as conversation starters. It could be an incident you hear about in the news, something you or your children do or something you and they observe someone else do. These can make great on-the-spot lessons.
If you read an article in the newspaper about someone’s heroic deed, you might ask your children, “What would you have done if you had been in the same situation?”
If you’re waiting in a long line at the post office with your kids and you observe a customer and the clerk arguing with each other, afterwards you could say to your children, “What did you think about the way that customer talked to the postal clerk?” Try to ask open-ended questions that will get them thinking about values.
You will find a lot to comment on within your family. For example, let’s say you overhear your daughter teasing your son about his new haircut. This can be a natural transition into having a discussion with your daughter about the values of kindness and respect.
If your children are with you at the grocery store and the cashier hands you a $10 bill for change when it should have been a $1 bill and you let him or her know, that’s the ideal time to discuss the value of honesty.
Even if you’re not always the best example, you can use that to tell your children, “Well, I shouldn’t have gotten so upset when that other driver took my parking space.” True, it might sound a little awkward at first to have these kinds of conversations. However, the more you do it, the more natural it becomes.
4. Read the Bible with your children
Plan some Bible studies with your children, each exploring a different moral virtue. You might do a study one week on honesty or gratitude, and then the next week read what Scripture has to say on compassion, gentleness or generosity. Help your children see that what you’re teaching them about right and wrong is not simply your own ideas, but comes from God’s Word.
You may also want to do some Bible studies with your children, each devoted to a different Bible figure. Focus on how he or she exhibited particular character strengths when facing different circumstances and tests.
There are certainly many Bible heroes you could discuss, but for starters, you could turn to the story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50) for some wonderful lessons on honesty, courage, kindness and unselfishness.
Isaac and Rebekah’s story (Genesis 24) is ideal for teaching the virtues of kindness, hospitality and helpfulness.
Go to the book of Ruth to read about Ruth’s loyalty and dependability towards Naomi, and the generosity and kindness of Boaz towards Ruth.
The story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11 Acts 5:1-11  But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession,
 And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
 But Peter said, Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?
 Whiles it remained, was it not your own? and after it was sold, was it not in your own power? why have you conceived this thing in your heart? you have not lied to men, but to God.
 And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things.
 And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.
 And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in.
 And Peter answered to her, Tell me whether you sold the land for so much? And she said, Yes, for so much.
 Then Peter said to her, How is it that you have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried your husband are at the door, and shall carry you out.
 Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband.
 And great fear came on all the church, and on as many as heard these things.
American King James Version×) is a sobering springboard for a discussion about honesty, and the story of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:16-34 Acts 16:16-34  And it came to pass, as we went to prayer, a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination met us, which brought her masters much gain by soothsaying:  The same followed Paul and us, and cried, saying, These men are the servants of the most high God, which show to us the way of salvation.  And this did she many days. But Paul, being grieved, turned and said to the spirit, I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And he came out the same hour.  And when her masters saw that the hope of their gains was gone, they caught Paul and Silas, and drew them into the marketplace to the rulers,  And brought them to the magistrates, saying, These men, being Jews, do exceedingly trouble our city,  And teach customs, which are not lawful for us to receive, neither to observe, being Romans.  And the multitude rose up together against them: and the magistrates rent off their clothes, and commanded to beat them.  And when they had laid many stripes on them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely:  Who, having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks.  And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises to God: and the prisoners heard them.  And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed.  And the keeper of the prison awaking out of his sleep, and seeing the prison doors open, he drew out his sword, and would have killed himself, supposing that the prisoners had been fled.  But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do yourself no harm: for we are all here.  Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas,  And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?  And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved, and your house.  And they spoke to him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house.  And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway.  And when he had brought them into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house.
American King James Version×) can teach some valuable lessons on self-control, dependability and justice.
When you’re finished reading a Bible passage, talk with your children about specific values being taught by the story. But don’t do all the talking. Ask your children what lesson they think can be gleaned from the story. See if they think there are principles that can be applied to our lives today.
5. Share your personal experiences
Most of us can look back at our past and think of a lot of experiences that taught us some valuable lessons. Be willing to share some of those stories with your children, especially those that illustrate how you made choices that were consistent with good values.
You might tell of a time when you stood up for your convictions rather than going along with the crowd, befriended a classmate at school whom everyone else was teasing, turned in a lost wallet rather than keeping the money for yourself, or worked really hard to achieve a particular goal. When you tell each story, describe why it was such a moral dilemma, how you came to make the decision you did, and how everything turned out.
You may also want to share some stories where you made bad choices and had to learn some lessons the hard way. This is especially effective with older children, who may very well be facing similar moral struggles right now. Try to help them learn from your mistakes so that they don’t have to suffer the same consequences you did.
6. Hold your children accountable for their mistakes
Your children may get themselves into trouble now and then. They might break the neighbor’s window playing baseball, perform poorly on the job and get fired or disobey school rules and receive a detention.
You may be tempted to rush in and immediately try to “make things better” for them by going to the principal and asking him to take away the detention, or by paying for the broken window yourself, but don’t. If you rescue your children every time they make a mistake, they won’t take responsibility for their actions. They need to know that bad choices result in unpleasant consequences.
Melodie of Richardson, Texas, shares the story of when her 12-year-old son, Chas, accidentally broke his friend’s computer monitor when he tossed a metal ruler at it. “Chas was sitting in his friend’s bedroom, and playing around with the ruler like it was a paper airplane,” she recounted. She and her husband insisted on buying the family a new computer monitor, and they were going to make Chas pay for it.
The cost of a new monitor was $140, and Chas didn’t have that much money. His parents’ solution was to come up with $140 worth of extra chores for Chas to do around the house to pay them back for the monitor.
“We know Chas broke the monitor accidentally, but he still needs to learn that in life, you can make some costly mistakes when you’re being careless,” Melodie says. She didn’t want to just “fix the problem” for Chas, as he wouldn’t have learned from his mistake. She figures that the next time Chas is with his friends, he’ll exert more self-discipline and not get into trouble. But most kids won’t learn to do that if they never have to “own up” to their mistakes.
7. Don’t let your children take the easy way out of challenges
Along the same line, you should require your children to finish projects they start, even if their endeavors get tough, tiring or mundane.
Suppose your son begs to sign up for football and then wants to quit after two weeks of practices. Perhaps your daughter signed up for French class but a week later she wants to drop it when she discovers how much the teacher expects students to work and achieve. For the most part, you should not let your children get out of these kinds of commitments (there are exceptions, of course).
If your kids committed to doing something, they need to follow through on that. You don’t want them to become quitters. Encourage them to finish the projects they start. In the process, they’ll develop perseverance and responsibility.
8. Involve your children in encouraging and helping others
Encourage your children to help others whenever they can. It’s amazing how helpful they can be to others just through simple acts of kindness, such as making get-well cards for people who are sick, befriending shy or new kids at school, opening the grocery store door for a mom pushing a stroller or making some small talk with the elderly lady sitting by herself at the park.
Try to motivate your children to do these kinds of things. Be on the lookout for people who might need help and lead your kids to reach out to them.
You might also want to get your children involved in a more formal type of service project. That might include visiting nursing homes, helping the local food bank with collecting donations of canned goods or getting involved in a community service organization.
This is not only a great way to serve others, but your children have the opportunity to develop and practice virtues such as generosity, kindness, compassion and respect. “They’re getting to experience first-hand what it’s like to help others,” Dr. Hill says, “and that’s very satisfying.”
9. Monitor television viewing and Internet use
When it comes to teaching your children values, there will be a lot less “unlearning” that needs to be done if you minimize their exposure to wrong ideas in the first place. Granted, you can’t shelter them from everything, but you can and should limit their exposure to television and the Internet.
Consider putting computers only in areas of your home where the whole family congregates together. “You don’t want your kids surfing the Web on a computer in their bedroom where you can’t see what they’re looking at,” Dr. Hill warns. If your children do have computers in their bedrooms, install parental controls so that they’re not going to sites you don’t want them to see.
Televisions, too, should be placed only in areas in your home where the family is together—not in kids’ bedrooms.
Barb of Lake Villa, Illinois, has just one television for her family of five, and that’s in her den. “When we watch TV, we all watch it together, and we make sure it’s a show that’s not promoting bad values,” she says. “If my husband or I see something on TV we don’t like, we bring it up with our kids right then and there, while we’re watching the show.”
“Co-viewing,” as this is often referred to, can be a very effective way to filter what kind of ideas are coming into your home and to be aware of what values your kids are being exposed to. If something questionable comes up on a program, don’t be shy about offering your comments during the show or even turning the show off if necessary.
After you’ve watched a television show, talk to your children about what you just saw. Were there any moral lessons to be gleaned? What kind of character qualities or weaknesses did these people have? Did the characters’ actions reflect good values?
10. Applaud good behavior
When you observe your children doing something good, let them know you are pleased with their actions.
Thank your children when they clean their rooms without being asked or they do their homework without grumbling. Acknowledge what a good job they did when they finished a seemingly grueling school assignment. If you walk into the living room and notice your children playing nicely together, tell them how wonderful it makes you feel to see them getting along so well.
“Sincere praise goes a long way in reinforcing behaviors you’d like to see more of,” Dr. Hill says. Point out specific actions your children did that were good, so they know exactly what behaviors they should keep doing. “It was nice to see you smiling and talking so politely with Mrs. McDonald at church,” communicates more to your son about what he did right than simply saying, “You were a good boy at church today.”
Communication is the key
The bottom line is that you need to communicate with your children. Talk about what they did right, what they did wrong, how to make better moral decisions, what character traits God wants to see in us, and why you’ve made certain choices in your own life. Granted, it takes time to have these kinds of conversations, but you’ll find the results worth the investment.
“Don’t let yourself get so busy that you stop having ‘real’ conversations with your kids,” urges Dr. Hill. It sounds cliché, but children do grow up very fast. Depending on their age, you may have them living in your home for just five or 10 more years. “You need to use the time you have with your kids very wisely,” concludes Dr. Hill. “Make sure you build time into your schedule for consistent, quality, face time with your kids—while they’re still kids.”