How to pass on your values

Building a community for your children


Matthew Tripodi


Henry Sawyer wants his daughter, Jasmine, 2, and son, Caleb, 9 months, to be happy and healthy. The 37-year-old environmental consultant and his wife, Tanya, a computer programming analyst, work hard to provide the things that their children need.

But material goods don’t rank high on the list of things they want to give their children. For the Sawyers, it’s more about values.

“Without values, they really wouldn’t be able to love and have successful relationships, friendships and marriage,” says Henry.

Raising respectful, responsible and well-behaved children is more difficult than ever, according to a survey by New York-based Public Agenda, a nonpartisan and nonprofit public opinion group.

In fact, 65 percent of parents are struggling to teach children good values, according to the survey.

Parents are also worried about who their children spend time with. More than 75 percent of parents surveyed said they worry about the negative influence of other kids.

If these are the top concerns, then parents are faced with the challenge of not only making sure that their own values come through, but that they surround their children with people who share those values.

These anxieties arise from the perception that society glorifies the bad and downplays everything wholesome and good. Add to that a decrease in family time, and the combination seems to undermine efforts to raise successful, well-balanced members of society, say parents in the survey.

So, what is the key to success? How can you can ensure that your children have your values?

William Damon, a father of three, says there is no magic formula. But he believes establishing a community that supports the values you want your children to have is one of the most important jobs of parenting, albeit not one every parent thinks about. 

“One thing that makes a difference is how successful parents are in creating a whole community around their child, [one] that cares about the child and takes a responsibility for giving the same moral message to the child,” Damon says. So, a parent’s job is not only to raise children, but to raise up a community around those children, adds Damon, who is also a developmental psychologist and director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence at Stanford University. 

A child’s community can be as large or as small as you allow it to be. It’s your child’s friends, those friends’ families, your extended family, teachers, the principal, neighbors, coaches and those at your church, synagogue or mosque. It’s all the people in the places where your child spends time.

The saying “‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is an understatement,” says Cherrsse Ruffin, a Chicago resident who has two boys. “Without family, church, teachers and principals, you have no one to reiterate what you’ve taught them at home.”

Henry Sawyer’s wife, Tanya, agrees. “We need the village, we need the help,” she says.

Community begins at home But before you can build a community, you have to build a home, Damon says. Because the best way to pass along values is by example.

Tanya Sawyer thinks so, too. “I think a lot of children pick up on what their parents do,” she says.  

Leading by example is never easy. It requires vigilance and consistency, according to Damon. Parents have to be willing to first examine their own behavior and make improvements. Whether it’s little things, such as forgetting to say, “Thank you,” or losing your temper, children will remember your actions more than your words, Damon adds. Patience is required, as is constant and consistent guidance.

According to Damon, embodying positive values is particularly helpful in teaching young people—especially during the early years when children commonly imitate actions before understanding their importance.

Mistakes will happen—despite parents’ best efforts and intentions.

Such as the dad whose 18-month-old son screamed “Stupid broad!” each time he was buckled into his car seat.

It took some thought and re-examination, but the father finally remembered screaming “Stupid broad!” when a female driver cut him off on the highway. “I didn’t even realize he was listening to me,” the dad says.

Always remember—if a child is there, his mental recorder is running.

But a mistake is an opportunity to teach a child, Damon says. There is never a problem with a parent telling a child, “I made a mistake and I’ll never do that again,” he advises.

Doing that shows children that everyone—even adults—can make mistakes, and everyone deserves a second chance.

At age 2, Jasmine already understands that saying “Thank you” is important to her family. She even reminds people when they forget to say the magic words.

Beyond the home But children can’t stay at home forever. And new environments, cultures and beliefs can easily collide with the values you have worked so hard to teach.

That’s where teaching children flexibility is critical, Damon says. Children have to understand that other families have different values. While each family is different, all families have rules for children to respect and maintain.

Louise Orr, a respiratory therapist in Chicago, is a single mother with three daughters, Kristi, 14, Marcia, 13, and Stephanie, 7. Orr attends church with her children, monitors what they see on the Internet and TV and keeps an eye on their friends. “If I trust an environment and [then] I find out they’re not on the same page as I am, they’re outta there,” says Orr.

While it’s important to avoid negative environments, it’s also important to encourage positive ones. If you think about which organizations and groups reflect the values you want your child to have, you can strategically plan where you want to spend time.

Sign up for classes or volunteer. Giving back to the community is a great way to help children understand family values because they see first- hand how their actions affect others. And local service organizations are always looking for volunteers.

The Salvation Army often needs children and families to help sort food for the homeless, as well as organize school coat and food drives, says Cliff Marshall, an agency spokesman.

Leslie Bluhm, president and co-founder of Chicago Cares, a local nonprofit volunteer agency, says that each month the group designates “family- friendly projects,” that help teach citizenship and teamwork.

“You’d be surprised how much they can grasp about what they are doing and how they’re helping,” says Bluhm. Chicago Cares puts the projects together and provides supplies. Volunteers need only to show up.

When people give their time and use their hands to make a community better, the rewards are lasting, Bluhm explains.

“Writing a check is extremely important, but it is not a substitute for getting out into the community to see what’s really going on,” adds Bluhm, whose 6- and 7-year-old boys have been volunteering for more than two years. “They really look forward to it. There’s a lot of satisfaction seeing that you can bring about change.” 

Another challenge for parents is the school community. While the sense of community starts at home, it is solidified in school, says Melissa Field, director of Education and Parent Relations at La Petite Academy, a school for children between the ages of 6 weeks and 12 years. 

It’s easier to monitor children in elementary school. But things can become more complicated in middle school or junior high. The older children get, the more time they will spend in school—often the largest pool of values a child will encounter.

But the basic idea is the same: Know where your children are and who they are with. Talk to the other parents. Talk to the teachers. Communicate by phone, by e-mail, by note or by volunteering your time.

And always remember that, as a parent, you are your child’s best advocate. Marshall and Cherrsse Ruffin’s two adopted boys, Willie and Demetrius, came from abusive families and had problems in class, such as talking out of turn and being loud.

But the Ruffins were proactive, calling conferences with the teachers and principal to develop a plan with common goals. Willie and Demetrius received consistent and constant messages at home and at school. The problems resolved themselves.

Henry Sawyer believes there are always challenges in parenting. But rather than give up or give in, he says, “It’s better to ask, ‘What can I do to solve this?’ ”

No matter what the values are of those involved, it’s a community effort, and according to Henry, people still need to help out. 

Mommy, why do some people have two mommies?” your toddler asks. Maybe he’s heard the controversy over the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants or the PBS television show “Postcards from Buster” in which some stations would not air the episode that features two moms. Or maybe it’s something else. Either way, you’re not sure how to respond.

Experts agree that parents should teach—and practice—tolerance, though they suggest different strategies for instilling this key value in children.

“Many Americans have complicated feelings about gay parents and it’s hard to suggest one approach,” says Dr. Aisha Ray, co-director of the Center for Early Childhood Race, Class and Culture at the Erikson Institute in Chicago. Ray says parents are often uncomfortable talking about sexuality and project their own discomfort onto children by dismissing them as being too young to understand. But, she adds, children are emotionally and cognitively able to process these issues.

The key is to use language children can understand. Children don’t need lengthy answers at a young age, says Ray. Explaining that a family has two daddies who love each other just like your daddy and mommy love each other is sufficient.

Aimee Gelnaw, executive director of the Family Pride Coalition, an organization that advocates rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families, suggests parents tell their children there are all kinds of different families.

“Answer children directly and use their lives as a template for understanding,” she says. “Children don’t inherently question or value one [family] over the other.”

Dr. Bill Maier, vice president and psychologist-in-residence at Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs-based, conservative Christian organization, suggests parents coming from a conservative Christian viewpoint balance respect with religious values.

He also suggests that parents engage older children in a dialogue to explore what they believe. Children look to their parents for a sense of what is right and wrong. “It behooves us to share our values in a balanced, nonjudgmental way,” he says.

Teaching tolerance in general should start early. Ray says research proves that children as young as age 2 can recognize racial differences, and by 4 can make attributions based on those characteristics.

“Children are very young when they absorb social values,” Ray says. Parents should actively respond to racial slurs, homophobic comments and other language and stress these words are hurtful.

Remember, too, that actions do speak louder than words. Much of what children learn comes from how they see their parents react to others. Ray suggests parents first examine their own attitudes and actions.

For example, a parent who scolds a child for staring at a disabled person isn’t teaching a child politeness. Ray says staring is a normal response of a child trying to understand the world. What that child hears is the parent’s discomfort and that something is wrong with having a disability.

“Parents have to rehearse in their own minds what is the best response,” Ray says. “If we really want to develop tolerant children, we must actively display tolerance and acceptance and teach children we are all the same.” Meg Shreve


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