by Harriet Heath, Ph.D.
The sun is glinting off Dyer Bay and Harriet Heath's berry pie is fragrant in the oven as the psychologist enjoys the last few days of her Maine vacation. Dr. Heath is entertaining old friends tonight—but between baking and setting the table, she's taking a few minutes to talk about values. Nothing gets this educator more passionate.
The author of the recently released Using Your Values to Raise Your Child to Be an Adult You Admire (Parenting Press, Seattle, (800) 992-6657, $16.95), Dr. Heath doesn't believe values are the same in every family—nor does she think they need to be.
"Most authors and authorities apparently feel their personal values will be—or should be—the very same ones held by all the parents they address," she points out. Too often, she observes, such authorities don't consider asking parents what their values are. "I resent some 'expert' deciding what kind of people my children should be," says Dr. Heath, and she promises parents that she won't tell them what they should be teaching their children. "That's your business," she smiles.
Nor will she even suggest that instilling values is a short-term project. In fact, she says as much in the introduction to her book: you can't teach your kids values with a quick-fix formula. Dr. Heath doesn't believe that modeling your values is enough of a lesson, either. "Yes, you have to 'walk the talk,'" she agrees, "but you have to do more."
How much more? Start by identifying your own values, Heath believes. We all have them, she contends, although some of us may not have thought much about how these values can be applied in everyday situations.
Once you understand what your values mean to you, and you're prepared to use these values in life, Dr. Heath encourages parents to communicate the values. Yes, you'll demonstrate them—but that's not all. You'll think about what knowledge your children need to implement certain values and you'll look for opportunities to teach both these values and the necessary skills. For example, Dr. Heath notes, a toddler or preschooler may be delighted with a baby sister—but he'll have to be taught how to show his affection.
"Too often, we see the first child throwing a toy on a baby or hugging the baby too vigorously and we assume the older child is jealous. But I think we simply haven't helped the child understand how to treat a baby," says Heath, herself the mother of three.
The psychologist emphasizes that children must be taught the concept behind the behavior. We may stress the importance of honesty to children, but we don't always explain how to combine honesty with tact. As a result, kids may make comments that are honest—but inappropriate for the time, place or audience. From her own childhood, Heath recalls how her mother taught the value of both honesty and kindness.
"Aunt Suzy didn't have to be told her hat was atrocious, even if it was. Instead, we were encouraged to admire its color." Teaching problem-solving skills is an integral part of learning to live your values, the psychologist insists. This can be especially important when you're teaching your children to be friends with each other.
"The older child who complains about a younger brother or sister being 'stupid' needs help understanding and articulating his or her feelings. Parents need to ask this child what he or she is really trying to express. Maybe it's a problem from school, maybe it's a problem with a friend, maybe the older sibling is simply tired of the younger child hanging around."
Teaching problem solving has another advantage over modeling behavior: it allows kids to handle any kind of situation, even those you are unable to anticipate and prepare them for. But once you've taught your kids all this, you have to teach yourself to trust them.
"You cannot tell your children to evaluate values—and then demand that they pick your values," she emphasizes. Instead, Heath says, you must have faith in the foundation you've given your children; you must recognize that they have the right to question and even reject your values. This is very hard for some parents to accept, especially when adolescents seem to question everything. It is even difficult for parents who themselves have turned away from their parents' values.
Whether or not your teenagers question your values, you must remain an important guide as these young adults consider values. Don't preach, cautions Dr. Heath, but listen to your kids' questions, talk with them (not at them) about these concerns, provide background information--and tell your kids why you believe as you do.
Dr. Heath herself has tested parental values—and seen her own children test her values. It was hard for her minister father to see Dr. Heath question his Methodist faith, although her mother was confident that their daughter had internalized the most important values. And despite her own concerns about safety and education, she wouldn't allow herself to intervene in her children's career choices—even when her son set off for the Alaskan bush before finishing college. "I would have been upset, however, if I'd seen the kids accept dogma without evaluating it," she said.
Dr. Heath says she finds cults "especially scary" because their leaders often use techniques such as sleep deprivation and an inadequate diet to keep young people from being able to think clearly.
The psychologist reminds parents that values aren't as fixed as we'd like to think. What may seem right today may not be acceptable in 10 or 20 years. "Most of us will always agree that honesty is important, but we may demonstrate it in different ways," she says. "As our children question values, we parents may be developing new insights. If we can do this, we can dialog with our kids as they grow." And that, Harriet Heath emphasizes, ensures that we continue to grow, too.
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