How do you teach values (I'm not talking about religion here) to kids?
September 9, 2013 7:45 AM   Subscribe

Parents: I'm wondering how your kids learned things like empathy, honesty, compassion, etc. I know that setting a good example is probably the #1 thing to do, and I plan to, but did you use other ways, like reading (fiction) kids' books with them that demonstrate these things? Am I overthinking this? I want to raise a kid with a conscience...
posted by trillian to Human Relations (27 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
Start by being empathic toward your kids. Then explain what you did.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:47 AM on September 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

By doing. Take them to the food bank to pack boxes, collect donations. Have them serve meals at a soup kitchen, make sack lunches to drop off at homeless shelters. Have them collect books or school supplies for low income schools. Work at events for special needs people.

There are a lot more family based volunteer projects now that are appropriate for even young children to participate in. Then talk about what they saw, how they felt, who they met, what else they may be able to do to help others.
posted by maxg94 at 7:51 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

My kids are preschool age, so this is advice geared at that group. Lots of talking about actions vs. feelings.

Also, remember that it takes time for kids to understand their own feelings, then from there, they learn to understand other people's feelings.

If you are interested in reading books, we love:

The Way I Act
The way I Feel

The biggest thing you can do with a kid who is around preschool age is really reenforce the differences between acting and feeling. Feeling mad is okay, but hurting someone isn't, even if you are mad at that person, etc.
posted by zizzle at 7:53 AM on September 9, 2013 [13 favorites]

Response by poster: Ah, one more thing to add. Here's an example of what I'm thinking about: When my husband was a teenager, he didn't have a problem stealing CDs from the local library, while I would never have done that. In general, I also seem to care more about rules than he does. I'm wondering, do those differences occur simply because of how people are raised?
posted by trillian at 7:55 AM on September 9, 2013

If you're looking for books - my cousins had a whole set of kids' books that were ostensibly biographies of famous people, but each was carefully told so as to spotlight a certain value or quality. My own personal preachy-bullshit detector was pretty high as a kid, but these passed my own muster.

I'd also wager (about your second question) that how people are raised has a lot to do with values differences. The personality of the child also matters too - my brother and I were raised by the same parents, but we grew up to be really different.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:04 AM on September 9, 2013

I worried about this a LOT before we had children. I kept saying "somehow I managed to be empathetic and kind (etc etc) especially in school, and I want my kids to be like that, but I have no idea what my parents did to make me that way."

We have a four year old and she is, without a doubt, incredibly kind and empathetic and sympathetic and all those things to other people (not necessarily to her parents always but that's a different issue!). And we did... nothing special to achieve that. We continued being the people we are, which I hope demonstrates those things.

We did do a lot of, as zizzle says, talking about feelings and actions and consequences - but more in the context of herself than others up to this point. As in "I understand that you're upset and don't want to take a bath tonight. That's okay. But it is not okay to kick me. Instead how about you punch a pillow and then come back?"

I think that the fact that you think about this at all puts you ahead of the game. Keep thinking about it, but don't stress out about it.

Also: the rule following issue, in my opinion, is largely personality driven, and perhaps related to birth order. I am the (much) youngest of five; I'm a heavy rule follower as is my eldest sibling (who is also a girl). The other three middle kids (two boys and a girl) are much less so. My husband is an only child and is not a rule follower AT ALL. Our daughter, total rule follower. Our baby, who granted is only six months old, I am willing to put money down that she will not be a rule follower at all - her personality is so different from her sister. I hope she'll still be empathetic and kind, though.
posted by dpx.mfx at 8:06 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, that's a sticky question. I think it's both nature AND nurture, probably with weight on the second, except in pathological cases.

I think there are all sorts of "philosophy for kids!" types of books. Talk to them about simplified versions of utilitarianism or the categorical imperative. Stress that sometimes two choices could both be right, or both be wrong. If they realize that acting ethically is sometimes hard, I think they'll be in a better position to think critically about their own choices.
posted by supercres at 8:07 AM on September 9, 2013

I started this from pre-verbal times. For example, when walking in city parks, I noticed my baby would become alert when she heard another baby crying. When she was still well under a year old she would then begin to imitate the crying in a stylized way. It felt as if she were trying to process or deal with the cry of another baby without knowing how. I would say "Yes, aw, that baby is crying," in a sympathetic (not intense or dramatic) tone. She would stop imitating and listen again. You can (at least sometimes) see babies begin to get it when you make it explicit.
posted by third rail at 8:15 AM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

My mom did a great job of teaching empathy, or at least theory-of-mind. When we'd talk about things that happened at school, or with my friends, she'd always ask "why do you think they did that?" And we'd come up with a variety of plausible scenarios. (Note: she wouldn't do this when what I needed was to process *my* feelings, but when I was in a stable place and just talking about my day.) It got me into the habit of considering where other people were coming from, which has been a remarkably useful life skill.

In this case, too, the argument is largely for nurture. I was adopted - I have no genetic relationship to my sister at all. But we both developed this skill to a fairly high degree, even though our personalities are otherwise almost completely opposite.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:18 AM on September 9, 2013 [9 favorites]

My youngest son learned much from watching (and reading) To Kill A Mockingbird. He's 42 now, his female dog is named Scout and he's one of the kindest people I know.
posted by HuronBob at 8:23 AM on September 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

From what we can tell among my friends' kids (and mine), some are born "rule-followers" and some are not. It's not to say that you don't expect the same behavior from them all but my youngest daughter has an innate sense of "doing what's right" that my daughter does not possess. So part of it is that you need to step back and don't take 100% responsibility for who they are (we've joked it's more like 3-4% at most that we can influence).

In terms of what to teach, we read buddhist storybooks which are generally parables on how to be kind, honest, etc. Some of my favorites are anything by Jon Muth. and I Once Was A Monkey.
posted by dawkins_7 at 8:54 AM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've talked about this elsewhere on the site, but for us, the key was to develop some first principles. We decided that our first principle was "Be Kind." Everything else stems from being kind. We don't steal CDs from the library, because those CDs belong to everyone, and it's not kind to deprive others of them for our own personal use. We don't talk obnoxiously about the birthday party we're going to next week because it's not kind to talk up an experience that's forbidden to others. And so on.

The way we presented it to our kids is that it's fun to be pretty, or smart, or strong, but you can be all of those things and not be a good person if you aren't kind. And while not everyone can be pretty, and not everyone can be smart, and not everyone can be strong -- everyone can be kind. It's a choice you make. And sometimes it's easy to be kind to other people, but sometimes it's harder; for example, it's hard to be kind to other people when you're hungry, angry, scared, or tired. When you're having trouble being kind to other people, that's a sign that you need to stop and put some energy into being kind to yourself; by eating good food, by talking through what you're angry about, by asking for help with what your scared of, by taking a rest.

We try to stay consistent and on-message by bringing everything back to kindness; I feel like it's easier for little kids to deal with one overarching message than a bunch of little ones that can seem unconnected to young minds. So when someone does any of us a favor, we say "thank you, that was so kind!" When she helps her little brother with something, we call her out for being kind to him. When other kids treat her badly, we say "oh, honey, how unkind of them!" Our elder child is only six, so we're still laying the groundwork here, but we're starting to see it pay off.
posted by KathrynT at 9:02 AM on September 9, 2013 [42 favorites]

I agree with others who say that modelling and honest conversations are the best thing.

One book I have used with my two children many times is an oldie but goodie: How to Behave and Why. There are a couple of areas in the text that I update but on the whole the book holds up very, very well and covers some important ground while keeping them interested. The author is the same person who wrote Ferdinand, another winner.
posted by Cuke at 9:06 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think culture (not just of your family, but the community you live in) is important when it comes to determining which rules you think you should follow and which you should ignore. Issues around mistakenly breaking or following the wrong rules come up a lot when people try to switch communities (ie, immigrants, people trying to climb the class ladder). So, I wouldn't equate rule-following with values, since knowing the [important] rules is more about social grace than ethics -- though I would be careful not to emphasize rules that are going to get your kids mired in a class/place you hope they won't actually have to spend adulthood in (for example, studies show that children in middle/working classes and below are taught with an emphasis on obedience whereas children in the middle/upper classes and above are taught with an emphasis on self-direction, likely resulting in a [lower] class of children raised to be good workers and a[n upper] class of children raised to be good managers -- something that you may want to perpetuate, but may not)*.

As for empathy and kindness, reading fiction is supposed to help -- I think for the same principle that people brought up earlier in the thread: empathy comes easily when theory of mind comes easily, which requires practice in thinking about things from multiple points of view. But honestly, when in doubt the rule of thumb that has helped me the most is the Golden Rule. Or, in less clear-cut cases, don't dish it out if you can't take it! I didn't steal library books as a child, and still don't, not because I'm great at following rules (I'm not), but because it's mean/antisocial to steal things for yourself that are meant to be shared. I agree with the post above saying that larger principles are important guideposts, for adults as well as children.

I also don't think a natural obedience/disobedience to rules has anything to do with developing a strong sense of ethics. If you live in an unequal society (which we all do, more or less), there are probably a lot of rules it's unethical to follow, because they privilege one group over another. People need to both be able to follow rules, in order to live in harmony with society, and to know how to recognize/respond to rules that shouldn't be followed, to keep from being (harmful, especially in the aggregate) slaves to convention.

*I tried to find a link for this study, but the best matches came up as PDFs, so hopefully your google-fu with help if you're interested
posted by rue72 at 9:07 AM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is a longer term suggestion, but there is a Canadian program called Roots of Empathy that is now being offered a few places internationally (the one for preschoolers is Seeds of Empathy). You might be interested in their approach to building empathy in children--a class of six-year-olds meets a pregnant mom whose baby is due near September; then when the baby's born, she brings him/her to the class and the kids meet with them regularly through the school year, following the baby's development from pre-birth to about 8 or 9 months. I have a friend who works with the program and it is excellent.

If you like the idea of it, you could see if your school district is willing to get a facilitator trained. Lots of districts here are willing to fund it because it fits with anti-bullying concerns--you could frame a request that way if you were interested.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:22 AM on September 9, 2013

When my husband was a teenager, he didn't have a problem stealing CDs from the local library, while I would never have done that.

When my son was a younger teenager, he got caught stealing from 7-11. He also got into a marijuana-related scrape. He also has been a vegetarian since age 6, has literally prevented fights between others by advocating nonviolence, and is the guy who stands up and says "hey, not cool" when confronted with bigotry/bullying. Following the rules is not the same thing at all as being empathetic.
posted by headnsouth at 9:27 AM on September 9, 2013 [9 favorites]

Ah, one more thing to add. Here's an example of what I'm thinking about: When my husband was a teenager, he didn't have a problem stealing CDs from the local library, while I would never have done that. In general, I also seem to care more about rules than he does. I'm wondering, do those differences occur simply because of how people are raised?

Yes, but not necessarily in the ways that you might think. I am rigidly rule-driven and always have been (as is my sibling), but this was more a result of being raised in a household where there was a lot of arbitrary verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse at minor perceived infractions but without any set written rules or guidelines for behavior--and with abstract emphasis on the importance of being "good" but no sense of what that means. For example, we would sometimes arbitrarily get in trouble for coming home "late" but would have no set curfew. We both have memories of begging for a curfew or written rules that we could better abide by. Inconsistency and a sense that the world is arbitrary can make children very afraid to take risks, and some degree of rule breaking and boundary pushing is actually normal and healthy in teenagers.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:38 AM on September 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

I heard any interview with Mary Gordon on Q a while ago, talking about her book Roots of Empathy. It was more about school programs than ideas for individual families, but I thought it sounded fascinating. I'm not a parent though, not have I read the book.
posted by carolr at 9:55 AM on September 9, 2013

One series of books I thought my kids learned a lot from was the Great Brain series.

Also, at bed time, I made up a character from my youth as the focal point of made up stories I would tell my kids before bed. Often, as often as I could do it, I would work in a message in addition to the story itself being entertaining.

Of course, lead by example.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:13 AM on September 9, 2013

One other important thing to consider is looking at who your kids' friends are. You can teach your kids to be the best people ever, but with school/sports/clubs and just general hanging out, they spend >8 hours every weekday around their friends.

I was certainly raised to have good values and be a good person, but I definitely did some stupid/mean/unethical things as a teenager with some of my friends. Not really to impress them or fit in (although I am sure that's a reason for a lot of kids), but because their morals were not that great, so being around them so much made it seem like it was OK to do those things, like it was normal.

So spend time with your kids, and spend time volunteering and helping people. This way it is guaranteed that your kids are spending time with good people (you) doing good things even if you can't control who they hang out with in school. Also, if your kids just spent a weekend helping at an old folks home, they are less likely to be be a jerk to an elderly person when their friends think it might be funny to harass that old lady trying to cross the street.

The other thing is that the fear of getting caught made me regret some things and not do them again (or just avoid doing bad things) - it just wasn't worth being worried about being found out. So teaching kids good values is the first step, but being consistent about discipline/punishment is also very important so they know not to do bad things.
posted by at 10:18 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't have kids, but starting when I was very young, my mother would tell me about the children she was sponsoring in third-world countries. She showed me pictures of them and talked about how their lives were like or different from mine, why they needed help, how the money she sent each month was going to help them with nutrition and education, etc.

Her personal example, at times when I knew she was struggling to make ends meet for our family already, made a very strong impression on me.
posted by shattersock at 10:46 AM on September 9, 2013

It sometimes sounds cringe-worthy or silly but I am forever greatful to my hippie teachers who pushed us to use "I statements." They really do have an effect, both on helping articulate one's feelings/thoughts and on how they are received/perceived by others. Developing a theory of the other, as r_n says above.

Also not all kids are bookish nerds but I sure as heck was, and what I read was almost as influential on me as family and peers. Just to pick one example the way Diane Duane used entropy as a metaphor in her YA young wizards series still sticks in my head. "Gotta pay for that subway fare, don't wan't to increase local entropy!" (I cite her as an illustration, not saying it's the greatest series ever written or anything, just that stuck in my moldable kid brain. A reverse example would be the problematic gender roles in many otherwise wonderful classic 50s-70s scifi-- which isn't to say they shouldn't be read, just that it should be conciously discussed.)
posted by Wretch729 at 11:03 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I grew up white in a very white area, and my parents really went out of their way to expose me to other cultures through fiction. For example, I had this book, which is about inner-city kids in a positive way. It's not a preachy book at all, but I have a very specific memory of hearing some racist language about "inner-city youth criminals" on the news, and relating it directly back to the characters, and realizing that the news was biased. I also had good experiences with the American Girls books (we had the Kirsten and Samantha series), which were surprisingly gritty--I don't know if the newer ones are up to that standard.

In my experience, most kids are naturally empathic, and will develop that way unless they're pushed away from it somehow (for example, taught to be racist by bigoted parents). You can help them along by articulating your feelings ("I am feeling frustrated because we're stuck in traffic") and helping them identify theirs ("It looks like you're feeling sad right now") and others' ("Owen lost his doll and he's upset. Let's help him look for it"). And don't worry too much if they're occasionally thoughtless--a lot of little kids aren't too aware of other people when they're involved in an activity. They can empathize when it's pointed out, they just don't notice on their own. You can help them notice.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 12:28 PM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

No one really knows the answer to this! If you look at the people you know, you'll probably observe that most (though certainly not all) share a basic set of values with their parents. So one assumes this comes from what they saw modeled - but perhaps it's genetic, who knows!

I see that my almost-11-year-old shares many of my values and moral concerns. She also disregards the same social mores that I disregard. I can only assume the latter part comes from modeling, as I've never told her "ignore arbitrary rules", quite the contrary actually, but she sure does ignore them, just like me.

Anyway, I do try to let her see my decision making around ethics and share some of my questions with her. When we encounter a morally ambiguous situation, for example, a clearly drug addicted homeless person asking for money, I share my thoughts with her, and do encourage her to think aloud and share her feelings about the situation.

More simply, I try to do the right thing when I can - help people who need help, be kind, assume the best of others, and I do those things when she's watching.

In my opinion she is a highly empathetic and generally principled person, so I think I'm doing pretty well by this method.
posted by latkes at 1:39 PM on September 9, 2013

My father was the master at playing devil's advocate. If I said something controversial he would propose an opposing view. Not in a nasty shouting down way but as a way to give me something to put my feelings up against and to learn to understand that the way I think is not necessarily the way that everyone thinks.

I have always encouraged my boys to explore as many view points as possible, particularly when they've come home (at surprisingly early ages) with opinions about how people should think and feel and be.

Being open to discussion encourages empathy, in my view.
posted by h00py at 4:31 AM on September 10, 2013

Um, I meant this book, The Boy Who Didn't Believe in Spring, by Lucille Clifton. Sorry about the wonky link.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 4:56 AM on September 12, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you so much -- so helpful.
posted by trillian at 9:43 AM on September 16, 2013

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