Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. ~James Baldwin
I don’t claim to be a parenting expert. I’m just a guy who has spent a lot of time playing with children, from that I’ve learned a little bit, and because of this blog people write me for my take on things. If there is any one thing that people write me more than anything else, it’s something along the lines of, “I’ve tried everything and nothing works.” I’m talking about universal parenting aggravations like getting kids to eat their vegetables, take a nap, or participate in household chores. And these are important things. Not only do we want our children to be healthy, rested, and responsible today, but these behaviors represent the values of good health and responsibility that, if we can only “instill” them, we know will serve our children throughout their lives.
While I try to be more sympathetic than this with individual readers because I know they wouldn’t write to some guy on the internet wearing a red cape unless they were truly at the end of their rope, my answer to their dilemma is really quite simple: Quit trying.
You can serve children healthy food, but you can’t make them eat. So quit trying.
You can put children into their bed, but you can’t make them sleep. So quit trying.
And you can’t make them clean up their room without the promise of a reward or the threat of punishment.
So, I suppose I could reply to these parents that they haven’t, in fact, tried “everything,” because obviously you could always come up with a carrot that is sweet enough or a stick that is painful enough that you can get a child to do what you want them to do, but I would never suggest that anyone consciously step onto the vicious cycle of reward and punishment. Rewards and punishments may appear to work in the moment — the promise of ice cream may well motivate a child to eat a few peas; the threat of having toys taken away may well motivate a child to tidy up — but human nature dictates that, being unnatural consequences, the value of the rewards and the severity of the punishments must be regularly increased or they lose their effectiveness. Not only that, but the lessons taught in the long run, to be motivated by the approval or disapproval of others, are certainly not what we wish for our children. Values must come from within; they are not imposed from without: that’s called obedience an unsavory and even dangerous trait.
Whatever we publicly proclaim, our actual values (as opposed to the values to which we aspire) are always, always, always most accurately and honestly revealed by our behaviors. When we eat junk food, we demonstrate that we value convenience or flavor over eating healthily. When we don’t get enough sleep, we demonstrate that we value our jobs or our hobbies or our TV programs more than rest. When we let our homes become cluttered and dirty, we demonstrate that we value something else over a well-ordered household.
No, the better course, I’ve found, when it comes to teaching values is to simply give up trying to make another person do something that you want them to do. If you value healthy food, then eat it. If you value being well rested, then sleep. If you value a tidy bedroom, then keep yours tidy. And ultimately, with time, sometimes lots of time, it will be your role-modeling of these behaviors that your child will come to imitate, not on your schedule, but one of his own, which is all we can expect of our fellow humans.
You cannot instill values in other people, you can only role model them. And while I’ve avoided mentioning them in this post, no matter what your priest, rabbi, pastor, imam, or guru says, this goes for moral values as well.