In my line of work, that of therapist who works predominantly with children, adolescents, and families, a question I often get asked by parents is “how do we talk about this stuff with them?” ‘This stuff’ includes the dangers of the world, family secrets, bad news, changes…really anything important that parents fear will either upset their child or be difficult to discuss.
Note of caution: This sounds easy. It is not.
You may be asking what that has to do with talking to your kids about values…which are arguably more positive than those talking points listed above; however, the mechanics of thorough, deep, and dyadic conversations with your children about good topics are the same as those about bad topics. So, here we go:
Step 1: Take some time to think about your reactions to what you want to discuss with you children (in this case values, but in other cases it may be something you have very strong emotional reactions to). Gain awareness of your biases about the subject, your emotional trigger points, your deeply held beliefs. Think about the message you want your child to hear from you. Formulate it in your mind, making sure it is running around your head in an age appropriate way. For example: “when you love something or someone, or want to spend your time doing something, that shows you value it or them” or “if you were the nicest person in the whole world, what would you be like? Oh, you would help others? That means you value helping” would be more appropriate for a child than the Webster Dictionary definition of “a value represents your principles or standards of behavior.”
Note of caution: This sounds easy. It is not. Make sure you set aside time to really reflect prior to talking to your child. (This is EXTRA important if talking about subjects that are emotionally charged for you.)
Step 2: If you have a partner in parenting, you two should both do step one and then come together to discuss as a couple. You do not need to agree with one another completely, but you do need to have the same message for your child. It’s also helpful to not be blindsided by your partner’s differing views on the subject in the midst of trying to address it with your children. This is by no means saying you can’t discuss differing views with your children (in fact, I greatly encourage that!)–but that is much easier to do after you have already hashed it out with your parenting partner.
Step 3: Set aside a time to talk with your child about the subject. Nobody likes being brought into a serious conversation without a heads up….even kiddos! Something as simple as, “Hey bud, today after school, we are gonna have a family discussion about living our values” could be enough, or if you already have established family meetings you can discuss it during that time. For children or adolescents who are often on the defensive, something as simple as “I had a thought yesterday and I want to hear what you think about it. Let’s talk about it tonight as a family” could work. Make sure you pick a time that works for everyone and is adequate enough for the topic, without the possibility of being cut off by an activity. For example, don’t discuss a big, emotional topic before the start of the school day, if you can help it.
Step 4: Give your children a chance to define values themselves before you provide your definition. When individuals buy-in to an idea, a project, or a decision, they are much more likely to actively participate. This is also true for children. Your child has grown up in a society where the word “value” is everywhere. It is helpful to understand their worldview of the topic, both so you can challenge mistaken assumptions, and so you can speak their language. If you child says “a value is something I spend time doing” you can use that as a jumping off point for discussion, “Okay, great start! What do you spend your time doing?” This allows you to get to the heart of their value while using their words. “I spend my time playing with my friends” will then tell you they value friendship without you having to ‘correct’ them on the exact definition of values. This is helpful in other situations, such as having children define death, divorce, stranger danger, bad vs. good friends, etc. when beginning some of those more difficult discussions highlighted above.
Step 5: Validate, validate, validate. This is a vastly underused skill by not only parents, but people in general. This is where, regardless of what your child says and whether or not you agree with it, you acknowledge that it is how they feel in the moment. For example, my son has been known to say, “I don’t like your or love you” when he is angry with someone. A validating response could simply be parroting his statement “You don’t like me or love me right now” or could address the underlying emotion “You are pretty mad at me right now.” While you may have many other things you want to say in that moment, they can wait until after your child feels heard. Often validation takes the emotional re-activeness of you child down several notches, while attempting to refute, challenge, or lecture raises it. In terms of values, your child may say something like “I value my dolls” or “I value my dog.” While these may not be things you value, or you want your child to value; they are, in fact, what your child currently holds as valuable in their mind. A validating response is, “You really like to spend time playing with your dolls” or “You value your pet, he makes you happy.” More often than not, simply validating their statement will lead to further conversation that is more in line with where you, as the parent, were hoping to go.
Step 6: Check for understanding. As you talk with your children, chances are the conversation will move quickly and erratically–especially if you have multiple children all trying to be heard. As you go, take mental or physical notes and return to murky, unfinished lines of conversation. Make sure you really understand each of the children’s definitions of values and their personal lists of what is valuable. Ask them if you have it right. If you are losing their interest, checking in and getting it completely wrong is often a fun way to bring them back to focus. Something like this works well with little kiddos: “Okay Jay. Let me know if I’ve got this right; you value sleeping upside down while eating popcorn?” With adolescents, in a teasing voice, “So, you value family and want to spend every waking moment hanging out with us, right?” may work better. **Caution: when using this technique to maintain attention, you need to know your kids and use what works for them!**
Step 7: Come up with a plan. There is no reason to have serious and/or difficult conversations with your children if there is not end result. In the case of talking about values, the obvious end result is then to find a way to live the values. In the case of some of the more difficult dialogues, it is often for a behavior change to occur or a level of understanding and insight to begin to arise so the plan would be how the child will display those changes/awareness in a certain time frame and what the parents role will be in following through. Make the plan something your family WILL achieve. Don’t reach for the stars at first, take small, measurable, easily attainable steps so everyone feels successful.
Step 8: Allow time for questions. Children like it when life is predictable; so any change, as small as it may seem to us can feel overwhelming to them. When we discussed values, my children were worried living the values would be hard and extra work. Take the time to talk through their questions and their worries and to gently challenge some of their misconceptions. I strongly urge families to use as much transparency and honesty as they feel comfortable with when engaging their children in difficult dialogues. Children often sense discomfort and discontent and will make up their own stories for why these feelings are within the home AND often these stories are worse than the reality.
Step 9: When applicable, remind each other about your plan. When at a decision crossroad, such as “should we go to church today” or “should we grab pizza on the way home”, remind one another of your discussion of values and whether that falls into a value. If you had a plan based on changing behaviors or gaining awareness, acknowledge when such changes are occurring and praise your child and yourselves.
Step 10: Review your progress frequently. Remember to come together as a family regularly to check in on your progress. Are you meeting your goals? Does everyone feel supported? Is this plan making positive changes for you and your family? There is no point having difficult discussions and creating plans if you are not then checking for progress and redirecting as needed.
Any big conversations you need to/want to have with your children? Did you find any of these steps helpful? Comment below and feel free to try to discuss values with your children following these 10 simple steps.
Ashley E. Poklar, M.Ed, Postdoctoral Psychology Fellow