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Values-Based Parenting

​​​​​​​By ​Julie Almquist, M.S., LIMHP, and Assistant Clinic Director at Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health​

Mom sittign at a table with four children.

​​Parents often unwittingly focus too much on the extreme ​highs and lows that come with parenting children and teens: either they are being "good" or "bad," in trouble or doing great things, earning "A's" in school or getting unacceptable grades, playing well in a sporting event or performing poorly. When this happens, an excessive amount of emphasis and importance is being given to kid's achievements and the outcomes of their efforts. While accomplishments and goals are important, there may be more to consider when implementing a positive, ​effective parenting approach. 

Another tool parents can put in their parenting tool belt is a values-based parenting approach. This means you look for opportunities to teach and reinforce values that are important to you and your family. It doesn't mean you abandon or neglect your child's achievements and goals; instead, you compliment them with values teaching.

Values are principles or standards of behavior that you deem important in life. To talk about values is to talk about what kind of person you want your child to be. Some examples of values include: honesty, compassion, trustworthiness, generosity of spirit, courtesy, fairness, self-respect, self-discipline, resilience, and many more. When it comes to your particular values, there isn't a right or wrong – they are simply the behaviors and characteristics you believe are important for your child to learn, develop, and use.         

The realization of adding a values-based focus to my parenting repertoire happened during a phone call from my son's high school principal…not exactly your typical time for something like that to happen. My son had created a rap song that had gone viral with his friends and at school. The lyrics contained some colorful language typical of the music genre. The song may have been a smash hit with his friends and classmates but it wasn't with the principal.

When the principal called to explain the situation and I first heard my son's voice, I knew right away this was a unique situation that required more than just a stern lecture and consequence. I could hear in my son's voice that he didn't want to be in this sticky situation anymore than I did. It was clear that when he created the song, he had no intention of causing trouble for himself, me, or anyone else. He was simply exploring his creative side and enjoying an activity he loved to do.

After the call, I spent some time thinking about how to best handle things. I certainly wanted to honor and reinforce my son's creative effort and celebrate the success he had with it. And I also wanted to hold him accountable for breaking school rules and take responsibility for the offense (also a core value). So when we discussed the situation later that night, I initially praised him for exploring the creative part of himself – a value I deem important and worthy of further pursuit. The idea was to cultivate and support the value of creativity instead of squashing it by mainly focusing on the outcome of ending up in principal's office. I also handed out natural consequences that fit the situation. We spent a few moments talking about how to best avoid the situation from happening again with the principal. So, my son walked away feeling good about his creative endeavor while also learning a better way to express it to avoid issues at school.

A values-based emphasis can improve your relationship with your children and teens. They see you care about and pay attention to their personal growth and not just the results that come from school, extra-curricular activities, and their social lives. Ultimately, the values you teach your children are what they will take with them and use their entire lives as family members, friends, students, workers, partners, and parents.   

So, how do you go about adopting a values-based focus in your parenting style? The following are some suggestions you can use to do that:  

  • Determine the values that are important to you and your family. Think about the behaviors and characteristics you believe are important for your child or teen to learn and use in their lives.  
  • Discuss those values with your kids. Explain what values are, why they are important, and go over some of the ones you plan to emphasize and teach. This gives them some background and a heads up for what's coming.  
  • Look for opportunities to reinforce and teach your family values. This is especially important and challenging to do when kids get in trouble or don't meet your or their expectations. Your first instinct may be to only focus on the outcome of what happened. While teaching and consequences are important parenting tools during these times, keep in mind there will always be a value to teach, too. Also, when you see your kids using a value, reinforce it by praising them.    
  • Model the values you want your children and teens to learn and use. Kids do not always listen to what you have to say but they are always watching what you do. Make sure you use the values you find important in your own life. This will have a bigger impact on your child than anything you might say to them.       

Values-based parenting can easily be added to your parenting approach with our family values tool​. It's an adjustment in your mindset and focus. You can start this process when your children are young in very simple discussions, and as they mature, you can make the discussions more nuanced, complex, and sophisticated.​​