Every interaction with children provides an opportunity to teach values. While no parent tries to make every kiss goodnight a lesson, it's useful to think about the opportune times for teaching in families:
• Children learn about our values through daily interactions with us. When we think about teaching values to kids, we often think about taking them to church or having a talk with them about lying, teaching them about sharing or encouraging them to give during the holiday season. Yet we teach values every day in our ordinary daily encounters.
• Children learn through our example. As one dad, Cully, explains: "My son has seen me pick up trash off the street and he's asked, 'Who dropped that?' I answered, 'I don't know. But it was on my earth. So I picked it up."
Leah, who has cared for foster children from troubled families, says, "I do it because I know what I do makes a difference. I can't fix the parents. I can't fix society. But to me, loving one child is enough. The Foster Parents Association motto is, 'To touch a life forever.' Even if they're only in my home for twelve hours, they've had twelve hours of seeing that love can make a family work. They've seen people respecting each other. They've learned that it's possible. I also love that it teaches my birth kids values I really care about: flexibility, compassion, and generosity.
"My children are really welcoming of the foster kids. Both of them like to go to the shelter to pick up the new kids with me. Emma, my five-year-old, is my little ambassador. She'll meet the kids at the door and she'll pick up their hand. She'll say, 'You don't have to be scared. It's okay to have feelings here. It's okay to be angry. When we're angry, we run around outside or hit pillows and shout, but we don't hit each other. Nobody will ever hit you here. This is where my room is. This is where you're going to sleep. This is your private place.'"
• Children learn through the values we strive towards. While it's true that children learn through what we model, it's not true that you need to have mastered a value before you teach it to your children. All of us have some values that are woven into the very fabric of who we are. At the same time, most of us have values we're newly adopting, that we haven't practiced or integrated.
Even if we move toward our values in tiny increments, children will pick up on our intention and commitment, and learn that they, too, can strive toward a vision they haven't yet attained.
• Children learn values through the way we do things as a family. Kathleen shares how she teaches the value of family: "Once a week we have an evening where we sit around as a family and talk about the things we like about our family. We plan games, songs and crafts. It's a time when no one has other appointments. I love that time. It tells us that our family is a priority."
• Children learn values and beliefs through their exposure to the larger world. Through friends, extended family, books, TV and the experiences they have in their community, children absorb values and societal norms. Janis recalls, "My three-year-old friend, Melissa, came to me one day with the statement, 'All doctors are men.' And I happened to know for a fact that the only doctors Melissa had ever been to had been women. Yet every time she overheard a conversation about doctors, they were referred to as men. Every book she read about doctors showed men. When she came home and told her aunt that she'd gone to the doctor, her aunt said, 'Oh, did he give you a shot?' All of a sudden, Melissa's perception, 'I thought my doctor was a woman' was challenged by the greater authority of her aunt and the accumulated weight of images from world around her."
• Children learn values through our explanations of the world. We can't always control our child's environment. We may have chosen the grocery store, but we don't control all the people who are going to be in the grocery store. Our children sometimes witness or hear things we wish they hadn't seen or heard. But the fact that we are with them or that they can come home and tell us about it, gives us a chance to share our perspective on what happened. Even though we didn't choose that experience for them, we get to help them figure it out: "I'm sorry that woman yelled at you for standing in the cart. I think she was worried about your safety. She doesn't know that you can stand safety in the cart and she doesn't know that yelling scares kids."