Instead of Forcing Values, Help Kids Find Their Own

By Susan David

Your child’s best friend is over for a playdate. As you try to get some work done at the kitchen table, you hear the bickering start in the den. 

“Can I have a turn on the PlayStation?” the friend asks. 

“I’m still playing,” your kid responds. 

“But you’ve been playing for an hour!” 

“It’s my game!” 

Exasperated, you call your child into the kitchen. “You need to share,” you tell them. The friend gets a turn, but irritation stays plastered on your kid’s face. Was the lesson learned?

Probably not.

Often when we try to raise our children to act in line with our values, our demands will only go so far. (Trust me—I’ve been there!) Study after study shows that when we try to force values upon our kids, the result is quite likely to be the opposite of what we intended. In one study, children who were instructed by adults to share during play ended up sharing less and less in subsequent activities. People just don’t like being told what to do—even very young people!

So what’s the alternative?

Like adults, kids are most likely to change their behaviors when that change is connected to their personal values.

Think of how this works in your own life. If you’re a perfectionist who often spends hours completing a task (albeit, very thoroughly), your boss’ appeals for efficiency are unlikely to motivate you to speed up. Efficiency just isn’t something you value. However, maybe you are a person who strives to be a good teammate, so if they frame their request as a way of respecting your colleagues’ time, you may be more inspired to pick up the pace. 

The same is true of children. If you want to encourage them to behave differently, you’ll greatly improve your chance of success if you connect the new behavior to a value that already matters to them.

The first step is to help your child to discover and articulate their values. As always, emotions can serve as an important data point. Let’s say your kid arrives home from school fuming. 

“Jack didn’t play with me today,” they say, “so tomorrow I’m not gonna play with him!” 

You may feel the inclination to tell them, “Hmm, that’s not nice. Be the bigger person.” But this kind of admonition could actually lead them to resent you (and maybe themselves) for implying that their emotion is wrong or bad! 

A more productive approach is to help them figure out why they’re so upset. What values are hiding beneath that anger? By talking through the situation, you might discover that they feel betrayed by Jack. Loyalty and friendship are values they hold dear. Now the door is open for you to ask, “How would a loyal friend react in your situation?” You let your kid connect the dots themselves: A loyal friend wouldn’t give up on the relationship. Rather, they’d talk it out with their old pal, and, very likely, still extend an invitation to play the next day.

As tempting as it can be to try to force your little ones to act the way you want them to, it robs them of two things:

  • autonomy 
  • the chance to discover their own values 

But there’s a better way. Alternatively, when you assist them in thinking through what matters to them, you give them the tools they need to develop and grow, which was probably your intention in the first place. 


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