A generation ago, a few very vocal men with strong opinions co-opted the phrase “family values” and created a campaign to convince the world that kids could thrive in only one type of household. As far as they were concerned, it was the traditional midcentury nuclear family with a stay-at-home mom and a working dad—or bust.
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They were wrong, of course. Science tells us that families can blossom in all kinds of circumstances. The question isn’t whether your family structure looks exactly like mine, or if you follow a particular religion, or whether your mother-in-law indulges the kids with extra sprinkles on their ice cream on Saturdays. The question is: What do you think makes for a good human? That is, what are your unique family values, and how can you parent in alignment with those values more often than not? Decades of psychological literature and contemporary neuroscience have established that’s good enough.
Whenever you have a parenting question, you can take a breath and ask yourself: What do I value? What does this family value? Am I parenting in alignment with my values? That’s easier said than done, perhaps, but it gets a lot easier when we sit down and define those values. Getting clear about our own unique family values also makes us less susceptible to passing political campaigns and social-media obsessions that can make us all feel like we’ll never quite measure up.
What does your family value?
We all have values, whether we’ve articulated them or not. We all bring our individual histories, dreams, and priorities to our parenting. When we don’t define our values, however, we and our children are much more susceptible to peer pressure, social-media influence, and the extremes of group thinking. With clear values, we can make decisions with more confidence and clarity.
Defining values as a family also serves to remind us that we don’t necessarily have to keep up with the neighbors or do the things they do; we can simply assume they’re working within their own value systems and different values are part of what make our communities diverse.
While each family member might have their own individual values as well, it’s important as a unit to feel like you’re all on the same page. If your child was bullying another child at school, for example, an established core family value of empathy will help you explain to your child why bullying isn’t acceptable. So, the first step is to become conscious of your values so you can start living with more intention and integrity. Living with integrity means that you’re an integrated person—that, more often than not, your actions are aligned with your core values. Your outside and your inside make sense, they are integrated.
Family values can evolve and change over time, of course, so we’re not talking about setting anything in stone. We’re just talking about creating guidelines that make sense to us in a world full of noisy and often conflicting opinions. Fiona Mendoza came to me, concerned that her son was picking up racial biases at his new school. As we got to talking, I said, “It sounds to me like you really value social justice.” Fiona shrugged. “Doesn’t everyone?” In fact, not everyone would put that at the top of their value lists; some might prioritize general kindness, academic achievement, or teamwork building.
Spend a couple of days thinking about your parenting values and start writing them down. Ask your spouse or parenting partner to do the same. Do you admire hard work above all else? Kindness? Intelligence? (There are truly no wrong answers here, and that’s the reason there is no one-size-fits-all in parenting!)
For some, focusing on three to five values will feel straightforward, but if the exercise sparks a lot of ideas, go with it. Make a long list. Fill a whole page in your journal, if you can. Think about a big choice you made in your life and what drove you to make that choice. Those motivations likely included your values. Think also about three people you admire. What do you appreciate about them? How do you want your children to describe you when they’re talking about you to their great-grandchildren? Think about what makes you feel most authentically yourself. Maybe you’re in your zone when you’re immersed in natural beauty—even if you don’t get into the forest very often; if so, jot down “nature.” When you think about your goals—your real goals, not your for-other-people goals, your own deep goals—what values align with them?
Once you’ve brainstormed your values, read over your list and see if you notice any themes. Can you combine any of your values into broader concepts? Do any of your words or phrases represent stepping stones to an even more fundamental ideal? Maybe you’ve listed military service because you deeply value citizenship or courage. If you’ve listed college, ask yourself whether you see it as a path to self-sufficiency, as reflective of a love of learning, as simply a networking tool, or just because it’s what everyone else in your family has done. Maybe when you mentioned money, you can see that on a deeper level you value comfort or ease. If so, name those underlying values.
Try to distill what’s most important to you in three to five key words or phrases. If you’re a single mom with an infant, these are your family values. If you’ve got more than one person over the age of five in your family, it’s time for some discussion. Ask your spouse or parenting partner to do the exercise, too. Compare your notes.
A great activity in this regard is to ask your kids to list what five things they would guess each of their parents holds most dear. If you’ve decided you value honesty, safety, manners, and empathy and your kids think you value money, good grades, and compliance, take that in— without any judgment. This is information. Maybe good grades do belong on your list. Or maybe you’ve just gotten into the habit of sweating the small things that you don’t fundamentally care about.
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Ask your children to list their own core values. A kindergartener might say they value ice cream—and maybe you can help them broaden that to “yumminess” or even “delight.” Older kids might surprise you with their self-reflection. When everyone in the family has identified their core values and narrowed those down to three to five key words or phrases, have a meeting to compare notes. Where do your core values overlap? Where do you differ? Write each word or phrase from each family member’s list on a separate square of paper and start shuffling. See if you can group these values into themes. As you develop your deck of shared values, remember: each of you get to keep your own values, too.
Excerpted from THE 5 PRINCIPLES OF PARENTING: Your Essential Guide to Raising Good Humans. Copyright © 2024, Dr. Aliza Pressman. Reproduced by permission of Simon Element, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.