Communicating Values to Tweens and Teens

Communicate Values and Their Importance

Parenting books and articles often highlight the importance of teaching our tweens and teens values. But what exactly are ‘values’? Why are they important? And, what is the best way to teach them?

At their most basic level, values are the guiding principles that give us a sense of what is right or wrong. They are those hard to define notions that we hold dear and that guide the decisions we make.

Consider this personal example. Ever since my children were little, we have a routine of cleaning up our neighborhood. Every couple of weeks we grab a garbage bag and we walk up and down the block picking up stray trash. We often invite other children from the block to go along. This has been intentional. I can tell my kids not to litter, but making them part of the effort to keep our neighborhood clean tells them their responsibility goes beyond their own individual actions.

Values are all around us. Love your neighbor, honesty, integrity, kindness, being fair, tolerance, compassion, empathy, dignity, trust, respect … the list goes on and on. Our values are evident in what we say, what we do, and what we chose not to say or do.

As young people grow up, they develop a sense of right and wrong and what is fair and just, from watching the world around them and the actions of the people they love and trust.

Values Learned Now Last a Lifetime

As young people grow up, they develop a sense of right and wrong and what is fair and just, from watching the world around them and the actions of the people they love and trust. This helps them to make wise choices and encourages them to contribute to making the world around them a better place.

Teens who have a strong sense of right and wrong also are more likely to become stable, healthy adults with a clear sense of their place in this complex world we live in. They carry these ideals into their relationships with others including friends, romantic partners, their school, and the workplace.

Another personal moment stems from when my husband recently took our two daughters who are 8 and 11-years-old to a Superbowl party at a friend’s house. The hostess later told me that her daughter really enjoyed having our 11-year-old there. Apparently, despite my daughter’s eagerness to watch the game, she noticed that the younger children were not having much fun. My daughter was caught making sure the evening’s events were special for the younger children. She created activities — like spot how many famous people are in the commercials — that ensured the younger ones felt welcome and included.

It warmed my heart to hear that my 11-year-old had internalized a core message in our home — to be aware of how our actions affect others and to always treat others as we would want to be treated. By considering the feelings of the younger children who were thinking less about the football game and more about having fun, she helped make the evening special for everyone.

“Catch” Your Teens Doing Good

While holding values is universal, which values each person holds is not universal. As parents and caregivers, you know which values are most important to you and your family. But, how do you effectively communicate these values to your adolescent? How do you provide them with a moral compass to guide their decisions now and in the future? These are questions many parents struggle with.

The reality is that we actually teach our children about what we value every day, without even thinking about it. If your family is out for a drive and you see someone throw litter out their car window, do you comment on it? If not, the message sent is that this is ok. Our young people learn from what we do and say as well as from what we do not do or say. We teach young people every day with our actions and words. Make each day count.

Earlier when I said my daughter was ‘caught’ being kind to others, I chose that word intentionally. One of the ways my husband and I teach our core values is by ‘catching’ our children doing something good. Something that reflects what we value. When they are ‘caught’, we tell them what we have seen them do. We acknowledge their actions and point out how they contribute to the good in the world. We try to spend more energy commenting on the things our children do that make us proud, and less energy on the things we wish they didn’t do. Being kind to others, being aware of how you make others feel, and giving yourself permission to take time out for yourself are just some of our core values we catch our kids doing.

Every family’s values may be different, but their effect on young people is the same — values offer a connection to loved ones. Attendance at religious functions where spiritual leaders remark on values and behavioral expectations may also provide your child with a sense of what you value. Or spending time with other trusted adults such as extended family, neighbors, community leaders, or coaches allows them to learn valuable lessons from those in your social network. Make an effort to connect teens to family, friends, school, and the community. Young people with close ties are more likely to have a solid sense of security that produces strong values and prevents them from seeking destructive alternatives.

Adolescents who have a strong sense of their core values tend to have a clearer idea of who they are. This is important as they go through adolescence and begin asking themselves fundamental questions like, “Who am I?” and “Who am I becoming?” Having a clear sense of their core values will make this journey easier as they gain a strong sense of self-worth and confidence. They will be more comfortable sticking to their core values and demonstrating a caring attitude toward others.

Share Values and Respect Differences

Communicating values to your tweens and teens does not mean that they will necessarily hold the exact values that you do. They are not you and holding different ideas is not necessarily a bad thing. Differences create an opportunity to listen and learn about their evolving values. We are able to help them grow their sense of who they are and how they interact with the world.

I learned a lot about my children’s growing values during our family activity of picking up trash. When my children were young, they believed that people who litter were bad. As they got older, I told them we litter too. They were shocked. I explained that sometimes when our trash is picked up, a little bit falls out onto the ground. They insisted this did not make us guilty of littering. In this way, their values grew into an understanding of how intentions affect behaviors. When they were a little older, I told them that some of the trash we make in the U.S. is dumped in other countries — where it became litter. They were once again shocked. Their values evolved further. It led them to a growing awareness of the importance of being informed and engaged in the process of setting policies dealing with the impact of our behavior.

At each step along this learning path, I could have simply told my children what values they should have. When they were little, that worked. As they got older and learned to think for themselves, that approach didn’t respect their growing ability to think and reason on their own. Telling them what to think without allowing them to process things on their own may have pushed them away. As parents, we must learn to give our teens space and time to clarify their own values. Delivering them in a top-down lecture implies they have much to learn.

Most critically, we want to raise our children with unconditional love. This means giving them a sense that we will love them no matter what. Young people raised with unconditional love feel secure enough to look outside of themselves and safe enough to take the chance to consider others’ needs.

Part of our challenge as parents is to mold our young people into the moral beings we hope they will become, while also stepping out of their way and letting them have experiences that allow them to be reflective about what matters to them. Consider allowing your tweens and teens to take appropriate risks and to test boundaries as they strive to identify what is most important to them. As they do so, they should always know you will allow them to test boundaries, but never stray into unsafe or immoral territory.

Hold them to high moral standards as this will help strike a balance between protecting them from harm and letting them learn from life’s lessons. Be sure to let your child know that your standards for them are high. When it comes to being a good person — considerate, respectful, honest, fair, generous, responsible — you have the right to hold your child to high expectations in a way that nobody else can. That is your special way of making the world a better place.

Be Real and be Realistic

We are role models for our young people. We must show what it means to be a compassionate, respectful, honest, generous adult. It is our job as parents and caregivers to be the stable moral compass on the shoreline, the lighthouse, from which they can measure their behaviors.

Remember that being a good role model does not mean being artificially perfect. There is a real power in demonstrating how we wrestle within ourselves to live up to our values in the real world. Talking out loud with your teen about how we all struggle to be our best selves gives them permission to struggle as well.

It can also be helpful to reflect with other caring adults in your circle — other parents, caregivers, relatives, teachers, coaches, religious leaders. Consider if together, you are modeling the values you hope they will absorb. Think about how you can share the action steps we all take to do the right thing even when no one is looking. Share this piece with other important adults in your teen’s life to get this conversation started.

About Aletha Akers

Aletha Akers, MD, is a faculty member at CPTC and adolescent gynecologist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She is a featured expert discussing healthy sexuality, communication, and more. Dr. Akers brings many years of expertise in community-based research and translating science into educational materials. She founded, a site providing resources parents can use to guide conversations with their teens about sexual health.

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