This week I posted on social media about the importance of values in parenting. I was spurred on by an article in the Washington Post by Jennifer Breheny Wallace, titled, “Students in high-achieving schools are now named an ‘at-risk’ group, study says.” When I read this article, I wasn’t expecting to find validation for my work with parents, but there it was. The author notes that students in high-achieving schools are now on lists of at-risk youth, along with children who are living in poverty, recent immigrants, those with incarcerated parents, and those in foster care. Kids, it seems, are struggling today, across the board, and I would argue that a lot of that struggle has to do with the loss of connection to our values, and therefore to each other.
When I was in school for my Masters in Social Work, we learned about protective factors and risk factors. In those days, it was believed that poverty was one of the biggest risk factors, and yes, it still is. When we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, physiological needs build the foundation of the pyramid. Food, water, sleep are the basic needs that must be met before we can get to higher level needs of Love & Belonging, Self-Esteem, and Self-Actualization. Next, safety needs must be met, which includes safety of the family, property, health, the body.
Here’s my theory: Both poverty and affluence lead to disconnection for families, clearly for vastly different reasons.
But regardless of the reason, disconnection breeds struggle. Kids need to feel connected to the safety of family. They need to know they are protected by those who say they love them. It is easy to see how poverty can create a sense of disconnection as people are fighting for their very survival. But we must now begin to look at the ways that affluence can also be a risk factor.
There are a lot of ways affluence can lead to disconnection for kids. Parents can be super focused on their work. We know that people bring more work home than ever before. There no longer exists such a clear boundary between work and home. Access to all this great technology can lead to disconnection too - everyone is on their own device, head in a screen (though, frankly, the research is still very much out on this!). So many of us are sick with “busy,” running from one thing to the next, and expecting our kids to do the same, as if our value as a person is based on how much we can fit into one day. It seems we now live in a time when it is not guaranteed that children will be in the same or better socioeconomic stratum than their parents. One has to wonder how much stress this knowledge adds to parents as they push for harder work from their kids, more and earlier resume building. Success has become a big deal for young people. Before we even define it for ourselves or allow them to define it for themselves, we place them on the path we think is best for them. From the Post article, “Many students have been fed the myth that there is only one, narrow path to success — acceptance to a prestigious college — and they have internalized that message, says researcher Denise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success.”
But, and here is the big one - attachment to goals based on achievement rather than character becomes a significant risk factor for kids.
Breheny Wallace writes, "Adolescents who believed that both of their parents valued character traits as much as or more than achievement exhibited better outcomes at school, greater mental health and less rule-breaking behavior than peers who believed their parents were primarily achievement-minded, the researchers found. Those who fared the worst reported their mothers placed a higher value on achievement than character, and were also critical.” When our kids know that we parents value character as strongly, or more so, as achievement, they fair better. In other words, when they hear from us, “It is more important that you work hard or are kind than that you get an A,” kids can see their own parent’s values in action.
This is a big deal. There is a deterioration of values across the board in American culture. It plays out most prominently in the political landscape, but really we see it everywhere. We have forgotten what is important. Somehow we have come to believe that being right is more important than building connection and listening. And more importantly, we have come to value socioeconomic status over kindness, connection, and love. Do your kids know what you value, what is important to you? How do they know this?
This is at the very heart of the work I do with parents. It is important that we have clarity around our own value system and that we know how our kids view our values.
Our values are our judgements about what we find important in life. Values should become the north star that you always look to as you make decisions about both yourself and your kids. Do you value achievement over character for yourself and your own kids? How do you convey your values to your kids? And - this is the really big one, and the one that so many of us struggle with - do your ACTIONS match up to your professed values? In other words, can someone determine what you value by what you do? (By the way, that is one of the meanings of ‘Integrity,’ and where the name of my business stems from). These are the questions parents must ask themselves if they want to begin to build strong connections with their kids that can act as a protective factor.
Through work with mindfulness and self-compassion, you can begin to explore your own deeply held values and determine how your values and your actions line up. You can create connection with your kids by helping them to see your values in action and then helping them to set goals that match their own values. Understanding your value system and beginning to really LIVE these values leads to connection, and when it comes to families,
Connection = Protection.
As with so much of parenting, it begins with turning toward yourself and really examining your own core beliefs. What is most important to you for yourself? For your kids? Start with these questions. If you have middle school or older kids, this can make great dinner time conversation. Ask them what they think you value most. You might be surprised by the answer. If it seems way off from what you truly value, see if you can guess why. Is there some way that you are acting that might bring your kids to believe this? While you’re at it, make some guesses about what your kids value. Let them know what you see in their actions that leads you to this conclusion. These conversations can be real connection builders!