This article is based on Episode 3 of the 99 Parent Podcast.
One of the most challenging things parents encounter is how to communicate values and ethics to kids.
If you’re like many parents, it’s done in a very informal way.
However, doing things in an ad-hoc manner can be problematic. When we don’t clearly state what’s right and what’s wrong, we end up leaving that up to the rest of society to do.
And a lot of times the lessons our kids learn from society aren’t the ones we want our kids living by.
Potentially Negative Influences
In today’s world, there are quite a few influences that pull our children away from being on the right path. Let’s look at a few of these.
Perhaps the biggest influence on our kids are their friends – and friends become more and more of an influence the older kids get.
In fact, the negative influence of bad friends is backed up by research. A 2013 National Institutes of Health paper states “one of the strongest predictors of delinquent behavior in adolescence is affiliation with delinquent peers.”
So unsurprisingly, who your kids hang around has a big effect on their behavior and even their value system.
The ethics of your kids’ friends can serve as a good influence, or be problematic.
Some kids your child hangs around may have been brought up with value systems that you flat-out disagree with. This can show up as such behaviors as stealing, fighting or lying. It may also show up in a subtler way, such as their work ethic.
There’s also a related problem here.
How to Know Kids’ Friends are Aligned with Your Values?
How can you, as a parent, know which of your child’s friends are good influences and which are bad influences?
You may suspect that some of your child’s friends are better influences than others through the occasional story that your child tells, but many times it can be very hard to get a read on how much your kids’ friends align with your value system.
Aside from friends, there are other influences that can really impact what your kids value.
The videos your kids watch on Netflix, YouTube, and TV also influence how they see the world and what they think is right and wrong.
When your kids see a YouTuber screaming about all these cool things they just bought, or behaving in a general obnoxious or self-centered fashion, just remember that your kids may subtly pick up this person’s behaviors and values.
Now, I’m not saying that kids should be sheltered from everything on videos or entertainment. Rather, that if kids haven’t had a value system communicated to them in a formal way, they could be overly influenced by some of the stuff they watch.
So, onto the next societal influence on our kids: commercials/advertisements.
Children are constantly hit by commercials they see in electronic entertainment: TV, videos, and video games.
Commercial messaging is designed to influence your kids to have a non-stop consumer mindset by constantly convincing them that they always need to buy more (or perhaps better stated, get your kids to tell you what to buy).
Counters to these influences
So we’ve talked about three influences on your kids – influences that as time goes on, may actually affect your children more than you do: friends, video entertainment, and commercial messaging.
It would be nice if we as parents had a formal way to instill our values into our kids. Without something formal though, it can be hard to communicate non-obvious values to them.
Let’s start off by taking a look at some traditional ways of values have been instilled in kids.
Parents as Examples
Since the beginning of time, the most powerful tool parents have relied on is to simply live the values they’re want to instill in their children.
Living ethically in a way that you want your kids to live is pretty obvious, however, it shouldn’t be the only tool in the toolbox.
Relying only on the absorption of values by osmosis can’t properly cover a lot of scenarios your kids will encounter. There will plenty of situations your kids will deal with that they’ve never seen you tackle or even talk about.
Many situations involving peer pressure fall into this category.
Let’s move onto the next thing parents have traditionally used to communicate values to kids.
Up until recent times, the bedrock for societies has been religion and the associated texts.
I’m personally not a religious person now but as a child, I’d go to church and Sunday school every week. When I hit my twenties I essentially stopped going all-together and now consider myself non-religious for a variety of reasons.
My wife is Buddhist. She spent her childhood and teen years in Southeast Asia. She grew up surrounded by Buddhist temples, and the influence of Buddhism permeated society. Now that she’s in the United States, she’s become less religious. So in that way, she and I are in a similar situation, although we come from different religious traditions.
I think as many of us have fallen out of religion, it has left a gap not necessarily in our own lives (although that may be the case), but in how we can effectively communicate values to our kids.
Even though I’m no longer religious, I do recognize the value in some religious teachings. There’s a lot of wisdom that has been accumulated over millennia, in particular, the ethical foundation that religions have traditionally provided.
However, I’m not suggesting that the non-religious among us suddenly become religious.
What I am saying is that since humans first started walking the earth, religion has served important functions in society, and the sudden de-religionization (if there is such a word), shouldn’t be considered a completely positive, even for the most ardent atheist.
At a minimum, it has caused parents to overlook the necessity of formally conveying a moral structure to children.
Without the appropriate tools, answering the simple question: What is right and what is wrong can become pretty hard to answer.
Just a quick note before I continue.
I’ve been talking about the non-religious quite a bit, but I want to let the religious among you know that the tool I will introduce can be a nice supplement to your own religious teaching.
It doesn’t prescribe a specific value structure, it only provides a way to codify the values your family finds important.
So in short, the tool applies to the religious and non-religious equally well.
A Modern Solution: The Family Code
So what is this tool?
I call it a family code.
A family code is a single page that contains a list of value-related concepts that you want to convey to your children.
Basically, something that lets your kids know they are on the right track or the wrong track.
Along with this list can be more detailed information that gives your kids tips for living life.
So why does this help kids? Because it can give them a north star. A quick way for them to know if they are moving in the right direction.
A family code can serve as a lens through which they see the world. This will allow them to classify things as being morally right or wrong. In short, determining which things are aligned or misaligned with their values.
A family code can also prompt family discussions about difficult situations before they occur. This will help your kids to stand strong when they encounter those situations.
This is also a step in the direction of helping kids find a sense of meaning. I’d argue modern society has a sort of existential crisis in this area.
A family code also gives you a quick shorthand to point out ethical or unethical behavior in your children or others.
My Family Code
Not surprisingly, my own family has a family code which I’ll share a bit of here.
First, a quick note: this stuff isn’t coming out of thin air – much of our code is based on my own ethical structure which I acquired as a boy growing up in the Methodist church. Although I’m not religious, I can’t deny the strong effect that growing up in the church had on my moral outlook.
That being said, most people would probably consider a lot of our family code to be non-religious and contain values common to most human societies.
The fact that my Buddhist wife agrees with the code would seem to indicate that it is a nice blend of what we both value in life, given our different upbringings.
I’ve also incorporated psychological concepts – however, these are less value-based and have more to do with grit and perseverance (Although, I many people may consider those related to values.)
The first part of our code is the “values section”. This section covers what is right vs what is wrong in general terms.
Although I periodically tweak these items, this is what we currently have in the values section:
- Be a help, not a burden.
This reinforces the idea they should be responsible and pushes them to grow up. It’s very much related to self-reliance which we discussed in this article.
- Respect your parents and teachers.
- Be honest.
- Take responsibility for your choices.
- Respect, protect, and help your brother.
When I say brother here, I’m not meaning brother in the generic sense. I mean his literal brother. We have twin boys and I want to reinforce that special bond when I can.
- Treat others how you want to be treated.
Many of you will recognize this as the famous Golden Rule.
- Be thankful for the good things in your life.
There is not as much appreciation and thankfulness in our society as there could and should be. This is my attempt at keeping my kids grounded and having them keep the big picture in mind.
- Assist those who need help.
I have a second section of the code I call “mentality” This isn’t really stuff about right and wrong but are things for them to keep in mind when it comes to dealing with the hardships in life.
- Always know your target and aim for the sky.
I’m really talking about goals here, but as children understand the target better. Basically, I’m just saying know where you’re going and aim for something important.
- Push yourself and do your best even when you think life’s not fair.
I have this in here to prep them for one of the harsh realities of life – that life’s not fair. But it also says, even though it’s not fair, keep moving forward because that’s your best bet. From a psychological standpoint, I would say this encourages an internal locus of control. Focusing on those things in your control keeps you motivated and moving forward. Focusing on things outside of your control keeps you scared, anxious and frozen.
- Working hard is your best shot at hitting your target.
Again, reinforcing the internal locus of control. Plus I like acknowledging that nothing is guaranteed in life, but the more you keep trying the better your chances of succeeding are. Only those who give up guarantee they lose.
- Do what you think is right and don’t care what other people think.
This encourages them to believe in their own judgment and not be afraid to be individuals. I’ll be having a few podcasts on this subject in the future.
- You may not always be the best at everything but you can always be the one who’s trying hardest.
This statement may rub some of you the wrong way. But for me, it acknowledges the harsh reality that yes, you will encounter all sorts of people, some that better than you. That’s not saying that that should cause you to stop trying though. I remind my boys that if they develop a very strong work ethic they will bubble up near the top and that’s good enough for a good life.
- You can’t choose how to feel but you can always choose how to act.
Sometimes my kids are feeling lazy, or sad or whatever. But they still have things they are responsible for getting done. And the best way to get out of those rotten moods is to keep moving.
Life Wisdom Section
And finally, I have an extra bonus section in our family code called “Life Wisdom”. It really isn’t part of the code but it’s really a section where I dump of a bunch of helpful tips that I think could help my boys at some point.
You may not want this section since it isn’t really something that can be communicated in a single sheet of paper like the previous sections.
I’ve added the Life Wisdom section for a couple of reasons – first, it helps me clarify some ideas about life for myself and what I find important.
And, not to get overly morbid here, but another reason I added the Life Wisdom section is that I want to make sure they know my most important lessons in the event I die before they become adults.
This Life Wisdom section is very long so I won’t read much of it now. Here are a few examples of what I have though:
The first covers work ethic:
- Make your work and creations to high standards and you will go very far. People that take their time and do quality work stand out from the crowd. These people get good jobs, have a reputation for being reliable, hard working and people respect them. This goes for school work, job work, and your own projects.
The next items reinforce the idea of appreciation:
- You have been born in a safe, stable country to a good family which is a better position many other people on Earth. Appreciate your good fortune and don’t squander your opportunities.
- Rather than focusing on the things you don’t have, appreciate the things you do have and don’t take those things for granted.
And one more which uses metaphors kids to understand.
- A big challenge can be like a scary dragon to a knight. You can either run away the dragon or face it head-on and do your best. Face the dragon bravely and you will often beat it or at least learn from the experience. Run away and the dragon will only get bigger and stronger.
Right now, I have about 20 items in the Wisdom of Life section so I won’t go through all of them, but you get the idea.
How to Use the Family Code
Let’s now talk about how you may want to use your family code.
- In a weekly review. Ask your kids how they’ve been following the code lately. What have they been doing well? How have they been not living up to the code? How can they do better?
- Print it out, hang in the kid’s room or a public area in your house.
- Quiz your kids on how they did over the last day on the code on a rating of 1-10. After they give you a number, you could easily follow up to find out more.
- Assess how their friends stack up on the code. Periodically ask your kids how they would rate various friends on the family code (1-10). When doing this, don’t berate them or become overly negative for low-rated friends. Don’t tell them to just stop being friends with the low raters (that wouldn’t work anyway and could easily backfire.) Just use this as a starting point for a discussion and mention how important it is to have higher rated friends. Over time you may want to very subtly encourage them to spend more time with higher rated friends and less time with the lower rated ones.
- When they behave poorly (or well) you have an instant reference. When you observe your kids behaving in a certain way you could directly refer to it using the terminology of the code. You could even build on this like having a special award when you thought they did something above and beyond or just demonstrated the family code that made you proud.
One Way I Applied the Family Code
I’ll give you a quick story about this last point with my own boys.
A few months ago, they were up for belt testing in Tae Kwon Do. Before the actual testing, the kids were supposed to get in a line and practice punching and kicking.
Well, one of my boys was acting a combination of lazy and shy. I’m not sure of the exact reason actually, but he just didn’t want to get in line and do the practice drills.
He came over to my wife and I and wanted to sit with us. I told him to go back in line and he fussed and fussed. This went on for a bit until I brought up the code. I simply asked him “Are you living up to the family code right now?”
He stopped, thought about it for a few seconds, and trotted over and got in line.
So the family code worked.
In short, he had internalized those parts of the family code involving being brave and pushing himself.
Because these values were internalized, having the code, worked much better than me pushing and nagging him to get back in line.
This is just one of the many times our family code has proved highly beneficial.
Making Your Own Family Code
So the question is, what should you put in your Family Code?
Sit down and just start brainstorming. What’s important to you? Think about not just how you want your kids to behave but what kinds of people do you want them to be?
You can break things up into three sections like I did or just do one, or split it up however you want. The important thing is that you clarify these things so your child has a good compass to help lead them through life.
Also – I’ve created a tool that can help you develop a family code. Just follow this link and you’ll be presented with a series of questions about what your family values. Afterward, you’ll get a family code you can print out, post in your home and give to your family members.
Use a Family Code to Give Your Family a Focus
A family code can be very powerful, especially in today’s world. Kids are bombarded with all sorts of information from the Internet and friends so it’s important that they get proper guidance from you to help them with that.