After watching hours of political rhetoric from the Republican and Democratic conventions, with frequent comments about “values” peppered throughout, I hate to even say the word. The concept of values can be a tricky one for therapists. After all, it is not my role to say what is right or wrong for any family but my own. I should not be setting goals or priorities for the families seeking my help. My assistance must come in the form of helping parents gain clarity about their own values and teach their values effectively.
The following scenario, a version of which plays out in my office several times a week, illustrates this point well.
Zane is a bright kid who does fine in school, more B’s than A’s. He could do better, but he’s not especially focused on academics just yet. At 11 years old, he is all about sports – soccer, basketball, baseball. His parents enjoy and support Zane’s involvement in sports, but they’d really like to see him bring up his grades. Several times a month, Zane puts up a big fuss about doing his homework. He mopes, he complains, he dilly-dallies, he doodles, he whines, and he gets very little done. His parents get frustrated and, after encouragement, cajoling, and begging fail, they resort to threats. Because Zane values sports above all else at the moment, this is what they threaten to take away: “If your homework isn’t done, you will not go to practice tonight” or “If I get another email about a missing homework assignment from one of your teachers, I will not let you go to the game on Saturday.” This strategy rarely actually works and creates a great deal of tension in the parent-child relationships. Zane argues that he cannot miss practice because he has made a commitment. If he doesn’t show up for a game, he will be letting his coaches and teammates down.
In a particularly challenging session, after listening to Mom and Dad share their feelings about the homework struggles, Zane turned to me and asked,
What if I don’t agree that grades are more important than everything else? Zane, age 11
Zane’s question was an excellent one, and it went right to the heart of the struggle, a struggle not simply between sports and academics. This struggle has many more layers than that. At its core, it is really a struggle over values. On the one hand, Mom and Dad are acting as if they value academic achievement over all other considerations. On the other, Zane appears to be dismissing the importance of academics and placing a higher priority on his commitment to a team. When I asked Mom, Dad, and Zane whether they valued grades over commitment, only Zane was clear. Mom and Dad both waffled, and it became clear that their threats were really about coercing Zane to do his homework, that they never really intended to make him miss practices or games, that they too believe Zane must show up for practices and games if he is part of a team. Perhaps the threats didn’t work because Zane intuitively knew his parents would not allow him to shirk his responsibility to his teams.
After some reflection, Zane and his parents were able to agree that the relevant values in this academics-versus-sports dilemma are responsibility and accountability. Once these values were named, it was much clearer to Mom and Dad that there was no choice to make between academics and sports. Zane has to be held accountable for both: schoolwork because it is required and sports because he made a commitment. Mom and Dad realized that they were taking far too much responsibility for their son’s work and that they were not holding him accountable. The plan they ultimately decided upon, with Zane in full agreement, was written up and signed by each family member. Here is what it said:
We agree that it is Zane’s responsibility to complete his homework and to attend practices and games for his sports teams. In order to continue to participate in sports, Zane will demonstrate that he can manage his time by completing homework assignments by the due dates. Zane’s teachers will confirm that he is meeting deadlines. If Zane is unable to complete his homework before a practice or game on any given night, he will fulfill his team responsibility and will still have to go to bed by 10:00pm. Upon his request, a parent will get him up early the next morning so that he can complete his work. Weekend homework will be completed before any optional activities such as seeing friends or playing video games. At the end of each sports season, we will evaluate how Zane is doing with homework before he is allowed to start a new sport.
This is not a perfect agreement, but it is an excellent start. What I like most is the fact that it moves the focus away from the academics-versus-sports struggle. Zane and his parents were never going to agree as long as the discussion focused on which of these two is more important. That’s okay because the conflict was never really about that anyway. Zane, Mom, and Dad actually always agreed on the basics: it is important to fulfill responsibilities (homework) and follow through on commitments (participation on sports teams).
This is all very complicated, isn’t it? Teaching values, like so many aspects of parenting, is hard work and requires constant mindfulness. To help parents gain clarity in these difficult situations, I frequently ask questions such as “If you do _______, what lesson are you teaching your child?” and “What do you teach him if you do _________ instead?” In the case of Zane and his parents, taking away sports as punishment for not completing homework teaches the wrong lesson, that is, academics are more important than sports. On the other hand, if they focus on the importance of being responsible and accountable in both homework and sports, they teach the value of following through on commitments.
This story has a mixed and powerful ending. When Mom and Dad stopped using coercive tactics to get Zane to complete his homework, he didn’t step up right away. At the end of soccer season, his grades had dropped to B’s and C’s, largely due to missing homework assignments. His parents made the excruciatingly difficult decision to make him sit basketball season out. As difficult as this was for all of them, the consequence sent the desired message loud and clear: In order to take on extra commitments such as sports, you must fulfill required responsibilities such as homework. It was a long and dreary winter for this family, but Zane got the message. Not only did he pull his grades up to 3 A’s and 2 B’s (one in Phys Ed; go figure!), he maintained his grades through baseball season.
Many common parenting dilemmas are, at their core, about values. For example,
- A teen wanting to buy the newest, coolest brand of blue jeans when she already has several pairs that fit her (materialism/simplicity)
- A child spending too much time playing video games and getting too little fresh air and exercise (indulgence/self-care)
- A tween excluding a longtime friend because some new friends don’t like her (popularity/compassion)
- A student telling a white lie such as “I was sick” to a teacher to avoid getting a grade docked for lateness (expedience/integrity)
- A teenager skipping a scheduled youth group outing because he wants to sleep in (individualism/community)
While folding values into the equation makes these parenting dilemmas more complex, it also may make it easier to find common ground with your child. Most of the time, parents and kids don’t really disagree on core values. Few kids will earnestly argue that they value popularity over compassion even if they really really really want to be part of the popular crowd. Few can honestly say that a couple of extra hours of sleep is more valuable than the day of service at the soup kitchen even if they are truly exhausted.
As you navigate the tricky business of clarifying and teaching your values to your child, keep the conversations deep and complex. Listen intently to what your child is telling you about what he values. Be accepting and respectful when your values don’t align perfectly. You and your child are, after all, separate people with different experiences and perspectives and sometimes even different values. You are all grown up; she isn’t. Her values won’t be fully formed or crystal clear. Avoid thinking of these moments in negative terms; some of the most heated, most emotional, most murky, and most passionate conversations you and your child have will also be the ones that create the best opportunities for growth – for each of you as individuals and for your relationship.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed.]