K-State professors address challenges of teaching values to children
By Jessica Clark
From the moment parents leave the hospital with their newborn in tow, they are teaching values.
Child development experts at Kansas State University say teaching values to a child, along with meeting basic needs, begins at birth and continues throughout a child's life.
"Relationships in the first six years of life are extremely important and set the foundation for teaching values to children," said Charles Smith, professor of family studies and human services. "Learning positive social values begins at this time and is an ongoing developmental process."
"The early years of one's life are prime for learning values -- the child's future actions are based on these underlying values," said Bronwyn Fees, assistant professor of family studies and human services. She said it is important for parents to understand that values develop over time and teaching values to children is a continual process.
Teaching values to children first requires determining which values contribute to positive social behaviors.
"Some families may consider money or deception to be an important value. By narrowing down what we would consider an important value into positive social values such as consideration, honor and trustworthiness, we exclude negative values that some might hold as important," Smith said.
In American culture, autonomy and independence are often highly valued.
"For young children, this means learning to value one's self as a person, to function confidently on one's own and to make age appropriate decisions on one's own," Fees said. "For very young children, the foundation for these skills is a strong, trusting, supportive relationship with an adult who is consistently tuned in to and responsive to the child's growing and changing needs. Parents can offer developmentally appropriate choices for the child to support his or her growing autonomy and independence."
Although there is no one right way to teach positive social values to children, there are some guidelines. One way to instill values is to give your children consistent messages, clearing up any confusion about what behaviors are desired, Smith said.
"Parents should be aware of the examples they are setting because children are always learning by example. For the same reason, parents should also back up what they say by what they do," Smith said. "If you want your children to be courteous, you should be courteous and set a good example."
Smith said parents who have strong relationships with their children make even more powerful models.
"If the relationship is strong, the child will admire the parents; the child will want to be like them and model after their behavior," he said.
Socializing children to adapt and function positively in the social environment using learned positive social values is one of the most demanding and challenging roles of a parent, Fees said.
"Parents who both work outside the home may experience fatigue and will sometimes have to overcome it to set a positive example for their children," Smith said. "They may also be subconsciously guided by their own childhood experiences and may struggle to do things differently with their own children."
Another challenge parents may face is working together as a team to decide on what values they consider essential and how they will teach them to their children.
"Because values are so deeply set in each of us, it is often hard to come to an agreement on what values to instill in our children. Spouses should view their role as parents as a partnership and learn to give and take in decision-making," Smith said.
"To teach values, it is helpful if parents make a conscious effort to identify the values they wish to have the child learn and then create a social and physical environment that supports their goals," Fees added. "Parents should make an intentional effort to model, discuss, or in other ways, help the child learn these values."
Other sources, besides parents, may be a source of information about positive social values such as television, peers and music. Fees said parents should monitor what the child is exposed to and, when necessary, set restrictions on television or other sources that do not support the agreed upon values. Fees also suggests parents discuss their decisions with the child at an appropriate cognitive and emotional level.