Parenting books and articles often highlight the importance of teaching our tweens and teens values. But what exactly are ‘values’? Why are they important? And, what is the best way to teach them?

At their most basic level, values are the guiding principles that give us a sense of what is right or wrong. They are those hard to define notions that we hold dear and that guide the decisions we make.

Values are all around us. Love your neighbor, honesty, integrity, kindness, being fair, tolerance, compassion, empathy, dignity, trust, respect … the list goes on and on. Our values are evident in what we say, what we do, and what we choose not to say or do.

Values Learned Now Last a Lifetime

As young people grow up, they develop a sense of right and wrong and what is fair and just, from watching the world around them and the actions of the people they love and trust. This helps them to make wise choices and encourages them to contribute to making the world around them a better place.

Teens who have a strong sense of right and wrong also are more likely to become stable, healthy adults with a clear sense of their place in this complex world we live in. They carry these ideals into their relationships with others including friends, romantic partners, their school, and the workplace.

“Catch” Your Teens Doing Good

While holding values is universal, which values each person holds is not universal. As parents and caregivers, you know which values are most important to you and your family. But, how do you effectively communicate these values to your adolescent? How do you provide them with a moral compass to guide their decisions now and in the future? These are questions many parents struggle with.

One of the ways my husband and I teach our core values is by ‘catching’ our children doing something good. Something that reflects what we value. When they are ‘caught’, we tell them what we have seen them do. We acknowledge their actions and point out how they contribute to the good in the world. We try to spend more energy commenting on the things our children do that make us proud, and less energy on the things we wish they didn’t do. Being kind to others, being aware of how you make others feel, and giving yourself permission to take time out for yourself are just some of our core values we catch our kids doing.

Adolescents who have a strong sense of their core values tend to have a clearer idea of who they are. This is important as they go through adolescence and begin asking themselves fundamental questions like, “Who am I?” and “Who am I becoming?” Having a clear sense of their core values will make this journey easier as they gain a strong sense of self-worth and confidence. They will be more comfortable sticking to their core values and demonstrating a caring attitude toward others.

Share Values and Respect Differences

Communicating values to your tweens and teens does not mean that they will necessarily hold the exact values that you do. They are not you and holding different ideas is not necessarily a bad thing. Differences create an opportunity to listen and learn about their evolving values. We are able to help them grow their sense of who they are and how they interact with the world.

Part of our challenge as parents is to mold our young people into the moral beings we hope they will become, while also stepping out of their way and letting them have experiences that allow them to be reflective about what matters to them. Consider allowing your tweens and teens to take appropriate risks and to test boundaries as they strive to identify what is most important to them. As they do so, they should always know you will allow them to test boundaries, but never stray into unsafe or immoral territory.

Hold them to high moral standards as this will help strike a balance between protecting them from harm and letting them learn from life’s lessons. Be sure to let your child know that your standards for them are high. When it comes to being a good person — considerate, respectful, honest, fair, generous, responsible — you have the right to hold your child to high expectations in a way that nobody else can. That is your special way of making the world a better place.

Be Real and be Realistic

We are role models for our young people. We must show what it means to be a compassionate, respectful, honest, generous adult. It is our job as parents and caregivers to be the stable moral compass on the shoreline, the lighthouse, from which they can measure their behaviors.

Remember that being a good role model does not mean being artificially perfect. There is a real power in demonstrating how we wrestle within ourselves to live up to our values in the real world. Talking out loud with your teen about how we all struggle to be our best selves gives them permission to struggle as well.

By Dr. Aletha Akers, MD, faculty member at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, which was founded by CCY Expert Panel member Dr. Ken Ginsburg, MD.

Article originally published by the Center for Parent and Teen Communication.

The Center for Children and Youth offers parenting guidance, online workshops, and clinical services for children and teens. If you or your child need additional support, schedule a consultation today.