The Case for Values-Based Parenting

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!

What Guides You as a Parent: Fear or Inner Wisdom?

I have always appreciated Dr. Peter Gray’s perspective. He is a strong advocate of play as one of the most important things in childhood, and believes that children, in many ways, can lead their own learning. It was interesting to read his thoughts on the significant increase in suicide among young people in this piece. According to the article, “ . . . The recent rise in pre-teen, teenage, and young adult deaths is especially disturbing given how fast it has gone up, and the fact that it's bucking a trend of improving death rates for young people from other leading causes of death like accidents, homicides, and cancer. “ So while on many levels, childhood and adolescence has become more safe for kids, we have this rise in suicide rates. What gives?

Gray says, "What makes kids happy is freedom and play.” What has happened to freedom and play among kids over the last 10-20 years? We have seen a dramatic rise in the amount of structured “play” time kids participate in, whether it is organized sports, scouting, chess clubs, even computer gaming groups. Adults are going out of their way to create “safe” play opportunities for kids. If not in structured play time, kids are often home alone, on their handheld devices. The problem is, kids really need unstructured play time. This helps them to strengthen their problem-solving capacity, helps their brains grow new neural pathways, and builds connection among areas of the brain. As Gray says, “Play is the critical way that young people learn to build resilience and courage in ways they can't when their parents and teachers are watching.”

As I explore this issue more, I can’t help but think that it is really a problem of disconnection arising from fear.

In their ever-expanding fear of what might happen to their kids in this big, bad world, parents lose their connection to their own inner knowing of what is right for their kids. The rules and societal norms change so quickly that we just can’t keep up. And unfortunately, those rules are often based on a skewed version of reality. We fear for our kids being out in the world, and yet, that is how they grow and develop. We must look at how fear does or doesn’t play into how we determine what is ok for kids. What we thought was right yesterday is no longer right today. So we lose our connection to ourselves and to that clear voice that tells us what our kids really need. We know that kids gain so many benefits from being out in the world, and yet somehow we feel more safe when they are at home, connected to a device, or in a structured play environment. The lack of freedom is actually harming our kids. But, we aren’t connecting our action and our behavior to reality. We disconnect from our ability to act because of our own fear, which simply allows the fear to fester.

On top of that, our connection to our own kids often feels like it is losing strength. They are in so many structured play activities, and then have so much school work, that we simply don’t have down time with them anymore. Over the last decade or so, as Dr. Gray points out, school has become a job. Kids are expected to begin to build their resume before they are even allowed to hold a real job. As parents, we are working hard, stretched thin for time, and often overwhelmed with our responsibilities. Homework is done on computers, we adults are bringing work home. Everyone wants time to unwind, and today, that often means hanging out on social media, or getting sucked into some videos on YouTube. Have you ever felt like everyone is in their own little corner of your house and no one is connected? Have you ever texted your kids from one room to another room in the house? I know I have.

So how do we begin to address this idea of fear and disconnection?

It starts by connecting within yourself, to your own settled center.

Try this practice:

  • Sit quietly, in a comfortable position and take three deep breaths, inhaling fully through the nose; exhaling a nice, long, sighing-out breath through the mouth.

  • Let yourself know that you are safe right now, and your children are safe too. Let yourself simply be in this moment of safety.

  • Now, allow yourself to connect with one thing that brings up a sense of fear for you about your child. Let this be something that is not overly activating for you. Stick with a 2 or a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10. Maybe it is allowing your child to walk to school alone, go on a bike ride alone or with friends, or maybe it is letting them hand that assignment in late and handle the consequences on their own. Allow yourself to feel the discomfort of the fear arise in your body. Notice what the fear feels like in your body. Notice if it wants to grow bigger. Notice if you maybe want to turn away from it.

  • See what it is like to simply stay with the fear, breathing with it, maybe even placing a hand over the part of the body where the fear resides. If the fear begins to grow too big, notice the grounding points of your body: the sits bones underneath you, your feet on the floor, the hands resting on the body.

  • Now, see if you can begin to soften the body, soften the heart around this sensation of fear. You aren’t allowing the fear to grow, and you are not turning away from it. Simply feel it, seeing if you can create some softening around it. Maybe even seeing if you can find some kindness toward this fear, fear that arises from simply wanting your child to be safe.

  • Notice the sensation of the breath as it comes into the body and then as it leaves the body. Then come back to where the fear resides. Has it shifted at all? What do you notice now about the fear? See if you can simply allow it to be there. Fear is a natural human emotion, one that we all experience. Sometimes it indicates an unsafe situation, but often, it simply means we love deeply. Allowing the fear to be present without having to change it or eradicate it means you simply accept that deep love for your child and that you do so with kindness toward yourself.

  • When you are ready, you can open your eyes.

What was that practice like for you? Once we connect with how the fear lives in our body, we can approach it with kindness and allow it to soften. Now that you have let the fear soften a bit, can you think of one simple way that you can connect with your child or children today? This doesn’t need to be a grand gesture (if your kids are anything like mine, they will just laugh at you!). Just come up with a simple way to allow just a moment of real time, face-to-face connection. I like to go with my kids to walk the dog, or just go into their room and sit on their bed to listen to whatever it is they want to talk about. They like it when I have no agenda. Sometimes it can even be as simple as closing my computer when they walk in the room.

Fear brings us into a state in our body and mind where building connection becomes difficult. By allowing the fear to soften, and building in simple moments of deeper connection, we strengthen our own inner resources and thereby strengthen our relationship with our kids.