The Values Outlast The Rules

Posted: January 21, 2010 in family
Tags: , ,

Values rule, not rules.

Over a recent holiday my daughter and I  hiked through some beautifully sculpted sand cliffs down to the beach at Torrey Pines State Park in San Diego. On the way down, we stopped and ate the lunch we brought. On a bluff overlooking long, curling waves we chatted away and  luxuriated in the sun and sage bushes.   On another day we drove to downtown San Diego together and had lunch at a favorite bistro of hers. I picked the corn chowder and turkey sandwich based on her recommendation. The rye bread was superb — my choice. Afterward we walked and shot pictures of ourselves sitting by a fountain at the train depot.

These days were the best! I think of these kind of days as the it-was-all-worth-it, the now-we’re-really living, the it’s-so-good-to-be-together days.  The activities were simple, but the time was rich with deeply shaping, underlying values —  the value of respect for each other’s choices, the value of good food and the universally esteemed  value of walking with someone you love in a beautiful place.

We parents want our children to open their arms and take in our values. Step-parents and single parents and foster parents and grandparents and adopted parents and surrogate parents and every other kind of parents want to enrich our children with a wealth of rich, wise beliefs.

But there is a very important question here:  How do we do this?  Let’s try to be bluntly helpful about this. Not by pounding our children with the rules. If we pound children with rules they may reject our values.  I know a family where the kids were constantly dominated by rules. The rule hounding  produced anxious, angry, frustrated  children. On the other hand, too little rule making and enforcing and we may produce undisciplined,  unwise and disrespectful children. I know a family where the parents were very passive and the kids were very much in charge. Everyone of the kids made a mess of their adult life. It’s a balance, but keep in mind the end — we want to produce value-inspired people, not rule-enslaved people.

What are values? Values are our deepest beliefs, our core truths, the things we hold to be good and right, those guiding ideas that help us live well.  Where do we get them? We get them from our most trusted sources —  our experiences,  our  family,  best friends, our trusted spiritual leaders. They also come from the collective wisdom of the community. They are beautiful,  powerful  realities — things like love, beauty, honesty, kindness, integrity, trust in God, hard work, tolerance of diversity, freedom to make choices.

To really understand values, it helps to see that they are somewhat different from rules. Rules and values are similar in that they both set standards, but rules tend to demand while values tend to inspire.   In general we might say that values endure; rules change. Although some don’t: Replace the toilet paper roll when it runs out; don’t use other people’s tooth brush.  Rules are typically imposed from the outside; values live within and surpass rules.We give our children a rule; hold my hand when we cross the street. But one day the child will cross alone, taking her own responsiblity to look both ways.  A value underlies the crossing rule, the value of safety, and we want this value to guide all our children’s choices, even their risky ones.

Ask of every rule you make for your children, what value does it flow from? When the value becomes embedded in the child, the rule may no longer be needed. The goal is for our children to grow out of our rules and into our values. The goal is for them to become motivated from within, not from without.  A curfew will one day be let go; the value of rest and of safety will not.

In our family we have a kind-of unwritten rule that the person who cooked dinner doesn’t have to clean up., and all the people that eat without cooking, are expected to help reconstruct the kitchen. It works; it gets the job done.  But behind the rule are at least two important values: the value of order and the value of responsibility.  My wife and I hope that these values will remain in our girls long after they are gone from our home and our rules.  

How do we build our values into our children? Bottom line: your kids will most likely value what you model by your own behavior, not what enforce by your own rules. They will learn the most from what we do with them and for them, not as much what we say to them.

When our children were younger, we took them to dance classes and music lessons; we put them on sports teams. And we had a general rule that when we committed to a class or a season, we went every week and completed the experience. These were fun times,  but these times are now gone. And yet we can  see that the value of art and of sport and of teaming with others and of following through  is something that the girls now own. One now plays on a special olympics type of  basketball team by her own choice. The other is chosing to study literature in London next fall.

As our children grow up and leave home, we will no longer be there to provide the experiences and enforce the rules, but our hope is that through the experiences they have had and the way we have interpreted these experiences for them,  powerfully shaping  values will remain. When our children are with us we make rules about money and time.  One day we hope that they will internalize and live by the values behind these rules,  the value of saving, the value of planning ahead or the value of spontaneity.

 We do well to keep in mind the end product: we want our children to own the underlying powerful beliefs that make for the best life. Do your best work parents.  Go deep. By your own actions, embed powerful ideas in their little psyches.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, my oldest daughter and I went to church, went out to lunch and split a sandwich, came home and watched a football game together, went out to a movie, afterward did a little shopping for necessities, grabbed a bite at one of her favorite places for for dinner and came home and read and goofed off.  It was like being on vacation. No rules; we did what we wanted, but we honored a very high value — us!

When their arms are open and their spirits are open, while you still have time with them, pour into them the most profound and lasting values of life — the values of love and kindness and nonproductive leisure and respect and the supreme value of just being together.

  1. Sue Hekman says:

    Lovely, insightful, gorgeously expressed. Wish that I had had that grace better given to me as a child and modeled better by me as a parent.

    Thanks for distilling wisdom and grace so beautifully, Randy. I never tire of it nor fail to learn from it.

    This is one of my very favorites.

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