“Family values” can be a loaded term – but, political associations aside, they’re also an important bedrock of parenting. Whether they’re explicitly stated or not, every family has its own set of beliefs and ideals. Those who make an effort to define and live out the family values they want to shape their home’s culture are investing in their family’s happiness and their kids’ future.
Think of family values as a compass: They should serve to guide you, your partner, and your kids toward the kind of people you want to be and, ultimately, the kind of life you want to live. Establishing a well-defined culture can help each member grow in character and make decisions, ultimately creating a happier family all the while preparing kids for a successful transition into adulthood.
To get the ball rolling, therapist Courtney Conley, EdD, suggests asking yourself some simple questions: What’s most important to you and your partner? How do you want your children to interact with others? What do you want your family to be known for?
Once you decide on a set of 5-10 values, write them down and keep them on hand and visible as a concrete reminder. Psychologist Tamar Chamsky, PhD, suggests promoting family buy-in by having your kids create the document with you, whether they color, cut out and glue magazine pictures, or spell out words. Then, decide together where you want to display the document.
Writing down family values is a great way to remember what’s important to you, but remember what’s really important is that your kids hear you talk about them and see you act on them. “Family values are taught when children can see their parents in real life demonstrate those values, even when it is hard,” says therapist Stacy Haynes, Ed.D.
One way to do this, according to Chansky, is using the values as reminders when you correct behavior. “Because I say so” or “you should” can create shame, while pointing back to the values makes growth a collective endeavor. For example, when your kids are fighting, you could say, “Remember, we use kind words in our house.” After a while, instead of explaining the value, you’ll be able to ask them, “What’s the family approach about this?”
The values you choose will ultimately be as unique as your family – but some values are universal and applicable in every household. Here are eight family values to consider, according to child development experts.
Laura Froyen, PhD, a family and child development expert and parenting coach, says kindness should make the top of the list for families who want to define their values, because it sets the stage for many other important traits like generosity, empathy, compassion, and equity.
Emphasizing the importance of kindness can help kids build positive relationships both inside and out of the home, and down the road, to make decisions that consider other people’s well-being. Modeling kindness to your kids can also help them see how good it feels for someone to be kind, which encourages them to mirror it in other interactions.
2. Self compassion
Kindness isn’t just about being nice to others. According to Conley, it’s also important for kids to learn how to be kind to themselves. One way to do that, she says, is developing a family culture where making mistakes is okay, but negative self-talk is not. You could also model to your kids the importance of self-care when you’re feeling strained.
For example, on a hard day at work, take a break to do something you enjoy, and explain to your kids that nobody is perfect, and sometimes our minds and bodies need rest sometimes to refuel. Helping your kids practice self-compassion, Froyen says, will ultimately help them be more effective at practicing generosity and compassion toward others.
Integrity, or doing what you say you’ll do, is another important skill your kids will need to function well later on in life. According to Froyen, being able to depend on others and themselves will help them move into adulthood with confidence.
Parents can demonstrate integrity by following through on promises. For example, if you tell your son you’ll read him a book after your meeting, do everything in your power to do that instead of answering emails or hopping on another call. If you don’t follow through, acknowledge it and apologize. “It’s important for kids to know what it feels like to be around someone who keeps their word,” says Froyen. “You’re creating a blueprint for their future relationships.”
When they have a chance to contribute in meaningful ways, Froyen says kids will feel like important members of the family – which will also promote positive family relationships and better behavior. Home in on the value of responsibility by helping your kids succeed at contributions they enjoy, whether that’s cleaning up toys at night or feeding the dog every morning or, for older kids, doing school work.
A sense of responsibility also helps kids own up to mistakes and make an effort to repair them. Say your older child hits your younger one. When the value of responsibility is instilled, the older kid could identify their role in hurting the younger sibling, and hopefully become more empathetic along the way.
5. Mutual Respect
If you want your kids to respect you and others, start by instilling a value of mutual respect – everyone respects everyone. Practically, that could look like respecting your kids’ boundaries when they tell you to stop tickling them or listening to, and implementing, their ideas for what to do on a weekend. The idea is to show your kids what it feels like to be heard and considered, so they can do the same for other people (including you). “When your kids feel respect from you, they’ll also know how to give that to others,” says Froyen.
Honesty is a core component of positive relationships in your family and your kids’ success in other areas, from school to friendships. Froyen says being honest as a parent, whether you admit when you’re wrong or share your own struggles in age-appropriate ways, also teaches your kids they can tell the truth, even when they’re afraid of the consequences. The skill of honesty can also help keep your kids safe – when they feel like they can be open with you about what’s going on, they’ll involve you in their decision-making process.
An ability to roll with the punches is an important part of dealing with unexpected events in life (like, say, a global pandemic). April Brown, therapist and founder of The Heard Counseling, suggests including flexibility or adaptability as a value to help your family adjust to change. This value will not only help your entire family deal with last-minute changes in plans; it’ll also equip your kids to come up with creative strategies to make the best of difficult situations later on in life.
To make positive strides against issues like systemic racism, kids need to understand the basic concept of fairness – and to see it modeled in everyday life at home. Froyen suggests emphasizing fairness in simple ways – for example, when your kids are playing with toys, make sure everyone gets a turn. These lessons might seem small at first, but they’ll go a long way in shaping how your kids treat others later on. It’s a simple but crucial value that all families should emphasize.