Children discover parents' values by observing how you spend your most precious resources -- time and money.
Are the hours in your day filled with work, TV, shopping, and home maintenance? Because these activities require so much time and energy, they can lead kids to see them as "what our family values most."
Make sure that how you spend your time is balanced with what you hold dear. If it's important to you that your children read, they should see you with reading material in your hands more often than the remote control. If you want your kids to be physically fit, get out and get moving yourself -- and invite them to come along. If organized religion is important to you, attend worship services regularly and insist that they do too. If you place a high value on education, be a lifelong learner yourself. Do you want your kids to respect the environment? Be a faithful recycler. Law-abiding citizens? Obey the speed limit. And don't be afraid to set rules that reflect your values: "In this family we eat dinner together."
Kids take cues from how you spend your money as well. After the basics, where does your money go? The way you spend your dollars should reflect your values. Each purchase sends a message.
Every parent stresses some character traits more than others. One parent might teach kindness above bravery, another independence over politeness. It's tricky. We want our children to be assertive but not aggressive. We emphasize politeness but don't want our kids to be used as doormats.
When you see a child display a trait you admire, point it out. "Jason (the neighbor boy) found a ten-dollar bill on our driveway and promptly brought it to me. That shows integrity." If you walk into your kitchen and find your older son placing a bandage on his brother's bloody knee, seize this opportunity to define compassion. "How compassionate -- you're helping your brother who's hurt."
Don't hesitate to underline your own virtuous actions with words: "I'm taking Mrs. Cunningham a casserole because she had surgery last week. This is a kind thing I'm doing for her."
And when you see your children display vices, take the same approach but in the negative. "I saw you take a dollar from your sister's purse. We don't steal. Put the money back."
To help reinforce your values, create positive habits with preschool children, then engage their intellect with information during the elementary years. Don't be shocked when your teenager rebels against your values. It's natural, and usually only temporary.
Keep your parenting antenna alert for stories in the newspaper, on TV, and in your everyday life that illustrate the virtues you admire or the vices you abhor. Don't go overboard lecturing. Your approach should be low-key yet intentional, insistent but subtle. It's a difficult balance. It takes practice, but you can do it. Without values to guide them, children flounder; they're left to soak up the values of pop culture. If you spend your valuable time and energy instilling values in your children, they'll know that they are valued too.
Efforts to teach values in the schools are often greeted with the retort, "Whose values?" Today's character education movement is built on the premise that there are some underlying qualities that are so broad that they transcend religious, political, and cultural differences.
"The controversy is eliminated if you just explain clearly what you are doing," says Sharon Banas. A teacher in the Sweet Home school district in Amherst, New York, Banas spearheaded the character education movement in her community. "No parent is going to say, 'But I want my child to be irresponsible or disrespectful.' " Her district's approach to education made a wider impression; in July 2000 New York Governor George Pataki signed a law that, in part, requires character education to be taught at all grades statewide.
Character Counts!, one of the many approaches to character education, incorporates "Six Pillars of Character" into the life of the school: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. A program of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina del Rey, California, Character Counts! is based on the belief that "there are enduring, universal moral truths which distinguish right from wrong and define the essence of good character," explains director Sharon Darrow.
Deborah Spaide, a Connecticut mother of five, felt so strongly about the importance of giving kids the opportunity to be of service to others that she founded the Kids Care Clubs which teach kids charity -- what she calls "hands-on love" -- by involving them in projects which put them in contact with people who are homeless, handicapped, elderly, or poor.
If you would like character education to become a part of your child's school experience, talk about the issue with the PTA or members of the local school board. Get the ball rolling by drafting a positive proposal calling for a meeting of parents and staff who want to work at making character education a part of the life of the school. These organizations can help you get started:
Sweet Home program Contact Sharon Banas, c/o Sweet Home Middle School, 4150 Maple Rd., Amherst, NY 14226. Phone 716-250-3102.
Character Counts! 4640 Admiralty Way, Suite 1001, Marina del Rey, CA 90292-6610. Phone 310-306-1868.
Kids Care Clubs 382 Smith Ridge Road, South Salem, NY 10590. Phone 914-533-1101 or (voice mail) 203-972-6601.