Our values form the bedrock of harmonious living in our society and people often evaluate their own actions and the actions of others based on a set of values. While values are intangible and abstract, they are guiding principles that direct our behaviors and attitudes towards becoming successful persons and positive contributors to our family and communities. Possessing these values have deep impact on our own lives, in how we are able to bounce back from setbacks, make sound moral decisions and get along with the people around us.
Why teach values to children?
Even in their early years, young children being exposed to negative influences and media containing violent content can begin to form mental models of aggression (Bandura et al, 1961; Krcmar & Height, 2007). Thus, it is never too early to develop these values in our children as children’s comprehension precedes production, and what they are taught from an early age sets the stage for how they live the rest of their lives.
Treating a child with care and kindness provides them with a strong foundation and the emotional resources to become caring, empathetic individuals when they are older. Parents can show and teach care for others by being attentive to a child’s emotions and expressing care.
3 – 12-month-olds. Parents’ responsiveness and warmth towards their child supports the development of securely attached children, which in turn encourages kindness and care in children (Berkowitz & Grych, 2000).
1 – 3-year-olds. Parents can exhibit care by being observant and responsive to the child, in greeting and engaging in eye contact with their child and responding to their child’s discomfort in unfamiliar situations. Parents can also model caring behaviour toward other persons: “Your brother is sad that he lost his toy, shall we help him find the toy?”. As children naturally seek approval from adults, parents can actively express their approval towards their child by providing them with affirmation. Affirming your child for demonstrating caring behaviors is a great way to teach and to reinforce caring behaviour: “Thanks for sharing with your sister. That is so generous. You’re a generous sister!”
3 – 6-year-olds. Parents’ ability to comprehend and appreciate the thoughts of others relates to their children’s own ability to understanding others’ emotions (Karstad, Wichstrom, Reinfjell, Belsky, and Berg-Nielsen, 2015). Parents can begin to teach children to care for others through recognizing their emotions and responding with caring behavior, by talking about others and their emotions: “Tom is sad because no one is playing with him now, how can we cheer him up?”
Learning to treat others with respect is a great start building supportive relationships with friends and family members. It is important for children to learn that they are deserving of receiving respect and in turn, learn to give respect to others.
3 – 12-month-olds. To children, parents are the most important role models and children learn a great deal from their parents’ behaviors. Parents can begin help the child practice basic courtesy by saying “hello”, “good bye”, “please”, and “thank you”. Children will begin to pick up on their parents’ example and learn courteous actions that acknowledges the presence of others and demonstrates respect.
1 – 3-year-olds. From an early age, children begin to understand that respect is about complying and cooperating with others (Shwalb & Shwalb, 2006). Parents can teach basic respectful actions by guiding a child to take others’ perspective into consideration in their behaviors. When doing simple activities such as having a conversation, parents can teach their child the behavior of taking turns, “Let Johnny finish talking, then you can have a turn to speak so that we can hear what everyone has to say.” This includes learning to take turns with toys or at the playground, “Oh someone is on the slide now, let’s get in line for our turn.”
3 – 6-year-olds. Often, 3 - 6-year-old children may understand being respectful as being a nice person and may have trouble grasping the underlying reason to why a behavior is respectful (Shwalb & Shwalb, 2006). It would help for parents to articulate to children when teaching respectful behaviours on why a particular behaviour demonstrates respect or lack of respect. For example, it may be difficult for a shy child to say “Good morning!” to her teachers in the morning. Parents can help their child learn that greeting her teachers acknowledges that others have feelings and needs too. In addition, parents can also teach their child to consider multiple perspectives that different persons might possess. One child-friendly way to do this is to discuss different characters’ thoughts in a storybook, for instance, “How will you feel if you are the giraffe and the other animals are laughing because you cannot dance? That’s not nice, right?” This can help a child to grow to perceive and develop respect for others’ points of view and opinions.
Instilling a positive attitude towards interacting with people of diverse backgrounds forms a foundation for acquiring effective interpersonal skills and having a healthy desire to form good relationships with others in future.
3 – 12 month-olds. As babies begin to gaze and recognize other people in their environment, talking to your baby about what others are doing aids the infant in becoming aware of routines and people’s actions. Parents can start to encourage social interaction by greeting others, as well as providing opportunities for play and interaction with other babies and children, such as allowing other children and adults to smile and talk to your child.
1 – 3-year-olds. Parents can facilitate their child’s social interaction with others by encouraging their children to play with others. Engaging in group play can help children learn to cooperate better with others and to increase their self-control abilities when in a group (Li, Hestenes, & Wang, 2016). Parents can guide children as they begin to learn to play with others, to demonstrate generosity and problem-solving in their sharing of toys, such as in taking turns and looking for other play options. Furthermore, parents can introduce children to diversity in culture and languages by introducing playmates from different ethnic groups.
3 – 6-year-olds. A great way to learn about harmony and getting along with others is through developing an appreciation for diversity. You could encourage the appreciation of differences in others through discussing the strengths possessed by different characters from their favourite cartoon: “Well, do you know what Funshine bear can do that the other Carebears can’t?” Children can also learn about adopting collaborative attitudes in simple activities like being part of a team art project: “Mom doesn’t like colouring but dad does, so mom will cut the flowers and dad will color!” Learning about different cultural practices and eating different types of cuisine with children will improve their appreciation of the multi-cultural and multi-racial environment they are growing up in.
For children to make good moral decisions in their life, it is important to start children early in developing strong moral principles and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong.
1 – 3-year-olds. Children’s literature is a promising avenue for imparting abstract values to young children through an age appropriate means. Many children’s books embed moral concepts such as honesty and fairness (Owens & Nowell, 2001), exposing your child to principles of integrity and moral uprightness. Often parents may act on their children’s behalf in preventing their child from doing something ‘wrong’ because they think their child is too young to know. However, parents can instead guide their child to do the right thing or to take corrective action. For example, when your child tries to bring back a toy from their playgroup, instead of returning it for them, try sharing with your child what the right behavior is, “We can’t bring home other people’s toys, so shall we put them back? We should leave the toys there so that other children have toys to play with.” and allowing them to undertake the right behavior for themselves. When a child throws a cup from the table, let him/her pick it up so that he/she knows the right thing to do, and is given a chance to take immediate corrective action.
3 – 6-year-olds. Parents are children’s role models and children learn much more from actions modeled by their parents, compared to learning from behaviours they merely told are right (Berkowitz & Grych, 2000). Parents can begin imparting a sense of integrity through modeling honest and virtuous behaviour. Further, you can ask your child for their opinion on what they think the right thing to do is in various situations. This helps the parent understand the child’s reasoning better, and helps children develop independent thinking in distinguishing right from wrong, as well as confidence to make such decisions on their own.
Developing good self-management skills and consequential reasoning forms the foundation for child’s intrapersonal and interpersonal success – the former builds capacity to reach one’s full potential while the latter builds the capacity to interact positively with others.
3 – 12-month-olds. Even from a tender age, babies begin to express emotions and observe parents’ responses. From 8-10 months of age, babies can use social referencing, which is to refer to their parents’ expressed emotions in ambiguous situations for cues about the right behavior. Parents can be alert and recognise behavioural cues expressed by their baby and be responsive, expressing positive emotions through facial cues and verbalising thoughts. Carrying out activities by following consistent routines helps baby to begin to anticipate and look forward to what would happen next. An early responsibility babies can take part in is feeding themselves. When the baby can sit up in a high chair and eat soft solid foods, parents can encourage the baby to feed him/ herself bite-sized foods using the fingers. This helps the baby build fine motor skills as well.
1 – 3-year-olds. It is easy to take care of everything for your child, especially when it seems like they are too young to look after themselves. Parents can start instilling a sense of responsibility early, by teaching responsibility in everyday tasks, such as looking after their belongings and remembering to bring their bottle to school. At two years of age, children can be taught to dress themselves such as putting on their shoes, and wearing their clothes. This builds confidence and children feel responsible and proud of taking care of themselves.
3 – 6-year-olds. As children get older, parents can begin to impart to their child a broader sense of ownership. One effective parenting method is ‘demandingness’, where parents set expectations for their child to engage in responsible behavior so that children have an attainable goal to work towards (Berkowitz & Grych, 2000). You can do this by putting your child in charge of little responsibilities such as managing their own space: “This is your play area where you can play with all your toys! Let’s keep it clean so you can have lots of fun here.” Next, parents can ‘scaffold’ the attainment of this goal by guiding children to take the right actions that will help them achieve their goal (Berkowitz & Grych, 2000). Try asking your child guiding questions such as, “How would you like to take care of this play area? Where do you want to put your toys?”. Further, parents can assign small household tasks like setting the table for dinner, feeding the pet, or even mixing and rolling dough to make pasta for the family dinner. Children will understand the importance of completing tasks when they learn the positive outcomes of their actions, such as “Let’s set the table early so we can all have dinner soon!”
Mental toughness is an important quality to develop for a child to keep trying and to persevere even when he/she experiences setbacks. It takes time to build a persevering, ‘let’s try again!’ attitude and not be afraid of failure.
3 – 12-month-olds. Parents can teach their child to persevere by revisiting difficult tasks that the baby has yet to master. Parents can demonstrate how to solve puzzles “Look here, fit the star in the star shape.” Babies can learn faster through modeling behaviors and solutions shown by parents. Always encourage your baby to play and try the activity for themselves.
1 – 3-year-olds. Goal-setting can help children understand and learn to persist at a task until it is complete. Parents can set goals for children and encourage them to complete unfinished tasks: “Hmm, looks like this picture isn’t done yet, why don’t we finish colouring it so we can hang it up?” Reward by giving praise, hugs or a pat on the back for children completing tasks. The sense of achievement from completing a task should be rewarding enough without bribes so that children can appreciate the satisfaction of perseverance and accomplishment.
3 – 6-year-olds. As a first step, being open and positive would encourage your child to approach you for help when encountering difficulties. Parents can help shape children’s behaviours through setting small goals and making gradual increments in the targeted behaviour. If a child can manage 2 minutes of piano practice, parents can praise their child for the time spent at the piano and aim to increase by a minute each practice session, lavishing praise for meeting each little milestone. With visible improvement in child’s ability to persist at the task, parents can gradually diminish their supervision so that child can practice on their own without the parent’s presence. Interestingly, research finds that taking on a third person viewpoint when working on a task, such as a favourite character like Bob the Builder or Batman, helps children persevere through tasks for a longer time (White et al., 2017). Parents can teach their child to ask themselves ‘What would Piggie (of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books) do if his friend Gerald is sad?’.
Dr Setoh Pei Pei
Nanyang Technological University, School of Social Sciences