Family Values

"Family Values" seems to be a catch-all term used haphazardly by the media to imply that values in families are lacking in our society today. A "return to family values" further implies that we've gone astray from some old-fashioned yet fundamental truth. Perhaps, it hints, if we "simplify" our lives, reject the complexities of our current society, perhaps even find a log cabin in the woods somewhere and live as a family of hermits, we will recapture - for ourselves and our children - something that is lost yet essential to family life.

I would argue that family values have not been lost at all. Indeed, if we were to gather a random selection of people, all ages, genders, cultures, and religions and ask them what their fundamental values were, they would probably agree on some common themes. They would say they value freedom, kindness, shelter, food, and relationships. For the most part, they would profess not to believe in hurting others unnecessarily, in murder or theft. Furthermore, this random group would also probably be living by those values that they profess to hold dear.

No, I don't believe that we have to "return to family values." Rather, I believe that we need to recognize the values that we do have. We must help our children articulate those values. Finally, we must sensitize ourselves and our children to the way in which society actually tries to lure us into false or negative values and away from the ones mentioned above.

How do we manage this? And why is it even necessary to do so? The truth is that 60 or so years ago we wouldn't have had to think about this so carefully. Children were surrounded by people who role-modeled basic values such as the ones described above, and most kids didn't stray too far from what they learned in this manner. Today, however, our children are exposed to many values via television and the internet that are not ones most people hold in common with one another. The media's main goal is to sell products, therefore many television shows, commercials, and news programs limit their programming to sensationalized, violent, and / or tantalizing stories and characters that may capture our interest without promoting good values.

In this way, our children see values modeled that they wouldn't have seen 60 years ago. They see murder, seduction, rudeness, theft. They've witnessed fictionalized as well as non-fictionalized characters take pleasure in being rude to others, physically and verbally abuse loved ones, gleefully rob others of their freedoms or rights. Often these characters do not suffer the consequences of their actions, leaving children with the impression that there is excitement and even glory in behaviors that the average family does not believe in.

For this reason, it's necessary to be more deliberate in the way we impart values to our children. We must admit that most children spend far more time in front of the television or on the Internet than they do with their parents or other relatives. This is the first, and most important change we have to make: helping to balance our children's lives so that the values-modeling and messages that they receive come mainly from people, not the media. This means, simply, that parents must spend more time with their children. Because many parents work full (or more than full) time, they might need to be creative in figuring out how to do this. Perhaps it means dedicating a half-hour a night to read to or with your child. Maybe it means teaching your pre-teen or teen to cook so that becomes time spent together. Folding laundry with your child might represent a time that you can ask your child or teen about their day. Even cutting down on one of your child's (or your own) extracurricular activities in order to spend time together would be more valuable in the long run to their life than the benefit gained from that activity.

But spending time with our kids is not the only thing we must do in order to balance the negative values that infiltrate our children's consciousness. We must also routinely engage our children in meaningful, non-judgmental conversations. The key components here are the words "meaningful," and "non-judgmental."

All too often the conversations held by parents and children are maintenance oriented - "get your backpack," "did you finish your homework" or even "how was school." These statements and questions are not aimed at improving your relationship with your child. Rather they maintain a semblance of order and / or keep parents abreast of the "facts" in their children's lives. "Meaningful" conversations, on the other hand, are similar to the ones you would have with a friend, partner or spouse. Talk about art, world events, music, a movie you both saw, a book you're interested in or that your child is reading. And really listen to what your child has to say back to you. From ages 2 - 18 children have ideas and opinions about these "adult" topics and will readily share them with their parents IF they are not being judged.

That brings us to the second key component of parent - child conversation that imparts values: "non-judgmental." If your sole intent when you listen to your child is to correct him on "the facts" or criticize him in order to change his ideas, then all too soon the conversation will become a monologue with you talking and your child tuning you out.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, the way to impart values is not by criticizing the values your child says that he believes in. Rather, the best way to get your values across is to stop lecturing, start listening, and find ways within your conversations about art, literature, sports or anything else to both role-model values and articulate the values that you believe in. It is then that you will begin building a strong foundation upon which your family values can grow and thrive.