Bill Cosby said this about parenthood: “In spite of the six thousand manuals on child raising in the bookstores, child raising is still a dark continent and no one really knows anything. You just need a lot of love and luck — and, of course, courage.” When I was young and naïve, his words were funny but didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Oh, I had so much to learn.
As a professional educator, I approached parenting quite confidently — until I actually became one. I learned that Cosby is right. I needed dumb luck, a lot of love, and muscle-rippling courage. Courage to stand for what is right and what I believe. That’s hard to do with a child who raises the argument, “But so-and-so’s parents don’t care.” My response: “They must not love you as much as I do.” There are still the sighs heaving and eyes rolling, but they know the ground is firm where I stand.
When we base our parenting on unchanging values, we can more confidently and successfully raise children in today’s world. We won’t be perfect, but values-based parenting shines more light on that “dark continent” of raising children. Here are eight values that are common to strong families:
1. Choices and consequences
“You can’t pick up one end of a stick without picking up the other.” If we teach this value right, we also won’t use that stick to beat ourselves up. It means giving our children reasonable choices, and then letting them experience the consequences, whether good or bad. For example, I may say, “I’d suggest that you put away your bicycle, so it doesn’t get stolen or ruined by the weather.” If they don’t put it away and it gets stolen, I don’t go out and buy a new one. As young children grow, I help them take ownership of this value by designing the choices and consequences we can both live with.
2. Belief in our better angels
I always loved to go into my children’s bedrooms after they had fallen asleep. They looked like angels. I remember a greeting card that had a picture of a mother looking at her sleeping children with these words printed on the inside: “Don’t you wish they were really this sweet all the time and not just lying there charging their batteries?”
I do believe that all children are inherently good. It is what Abraham Lincoln described as “the better angels of our nature.” I want my family to think the same of me, especially after I have messed up. Don’t we all want others to believe we are capable of doing better and reaching our potential? We should look for, believe in, and foster the best in each child and teach them to do the same.
3. Hard work is good for you
Any boss will tell you: The employee that knows how to work will rise above the one with sheer talent but no work ethic. This is an unchangeable value in sports, music, or any discipline. The effort it takes to push against some natural resistance builds muscle and character. Don’t be afraid to teach your kids about work by making them work.
Six of the most powerful words in relationships are, “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?” Of course saying, “I love you” is important too, but those can be hollow words if we don’t let go of grievances. If we admit our imperfections to our family and commit to doing better each day, we show our children that they don’t need to be perfect either. Rather, we show that making mistakes and forgiving each other is one of the most profound teaching moments in life.
High on the list of what young adults look for in a partner is trust. It should be high on our list of values to foster in child rearing. Do they do what is right, no matter the consequences, the peer pressure, or if anyone is watching? Children learn this value best by watching us in action. Look for times when your child is honest, trustworthy and shows high moral principles. Whether that is sharing a toy or returning money they found, these moments should be celebrated.
My son signed up to be a paper boy when he was about 11 years old. After the first day, he was ready to quit. He’d get off the bus each day after school, fall on our front yard and wail, “I don’t waaaaaant to do the papers!” But I reminded him he had signed a year contract with the newspaper and had a responsibility. I’m not going to say he whistled a merry tune as he skipped down the street flinging papers on his route for the rest of the year, but we worked through it. He learned more about how it feels to finish something and do it well than about delivering papers.
7. Serve Others
There are few things that have a greater effect on raising a good child than teaching them to do good to others. The Golden Rule needs to be experienced in order to develop charity and appreciation for what we have. We develop this value by participating at community service events, but also by helping those we know in personal, private ways. My children have often served our friends by taking food to someone in our neighborhood who is sick, mowing an elderly neighbor’s lawn for free, and babysitting for a tired new mom. Help your child identify the joys of this value by asking, “How does this make you feel right now?”
We may not love what our children are doing at the moment, but we can still love them as people. In fact, in the moment of misbehaving, children are probably displaying a lack of feeling loved. In her book Positive Discipline, Jane Nelson stated, “Misbehavior is based on a mistaken belief about how to achieve belonging and significance.” Understanding when a child feels a lack of self-worth and lovability should fill us with compassion to reach out with even more love during those times. It’s easy to love a lovable child. The true test of raising children with the value of love is loving them without limits.
With a little bit of luck, a lot of love and courage, wecan raise strong families. After reviewing this list, what values are part of your core family beliefs that you practice daily? Certainly these eight values are not exclusive. Are there others not on this list that you would include? As we examine and strengthen common parenting values, they transcend time, place, family structure, and social culture. They define what is best in “family.”