Journal Entry

Thursday, June 3, 2010

On inculcating values in children

This came up in the comment thread of that last post on shareable.net; I answered it there, but it seems worth a separate post here.

Jason Sperber asked,

I'm the father of a five-year-old and a one-year-old, and I'd love to hear more about how you're discussing issues of economics, money, work, consumption and value with your children in ways that encourage them to question the [....] culture that surrounds them. I try to have conversations with my five-year-old about these kinds of things [....b]ut I'm not always sure my message is getting through, especially when she receives different messages from her friends at school. [....] I want to encourage the kind of questioning your children, Ben, seem to be doing on their own, without being too didactic.

I do so love it when people ask me about parenting. :-) I spend so much time thinking about it, and have relatively few opportunities for output. My answer here as little to do with the actual content -- critique of materialist, consumerist culture -- and more to do with the general problem of having beliefs you want to effectively communicate to your kids.

Here's what I wrote Jason:


One thing I would say is that kids learn relatively little from instruction. First, your influence as a parent is highly overestimated by society. People frame the "nature/nurture" debate as if the only things constructing kids' characters are genes, Mom, and Dad, and that's absurd -- already at five, kids are absorbing as much from peers, school, advertising, etc., as from parents. Kids are designed to soak up the culture they live in like sponges. And in a way, this is a good thing. They should be paying attention to the whole world, not just you. You want them taking in lots of information and thinking about it.

Then, granted that your influence on them is a fraction of the total environmental influence, I'd say the way that influence works is probably, let's see, 70% modelling, 20% listening, and 10% actual explicit input -- and of that 10%, 90% of what gets absorbed are things they asked on their own initiative because they wanted the answers. Meaning that the effect of prepared lectures by the parent is 1% of total parental influence which is only one voice in a lot of voices to begin with.

So, what you can actually do is, in descending order of importance:

  1. Live by your own values, and let them see you do it,
  2. Listen with an open mind to their thoughts, questions, and explorations, not rushing to give them answers, giving them space to have different opinions than yours,
  3. Answer their questions as honestly as you can, and
  4. Tell them your own philosophy.
Trying to ensure that kids hold certain opinions is a losing proposition. They will fight for the freedom to hold their own opinions and come to their own conclusions, so attachment on our part, as parents, is counterproductive. That doesn't mean we don't get to strongly express what we believe, and insist on behaviors we feel are incumbent to insist upon. We can do that while modelling respect for dissent and disagreement -- even pride in independent thinking where it differs from ours.

Ideally you present your kids with a consistent, passionately held view of the world. It's one option for them to sample, as they explore their universe. If you respect their opinions, they will tend to respect yours. They will conduct empirical tests, to determine whether you are bullshitting them or not. In the end, they are going to make up their own minds.

There's a separate, interconnected issue about what kids are exposed to. You can't stop them from having their own opinions, but that doesn't mean you have to leave them to passively bathe in the onslaught of commercial values being pumped out of the TV. You get to decide what environments you think are good for them -- not to control them and make them think like you, but to protect them and make them think like them.

Book recommendations: "Simplicity Parenting" and "How to talk so kids will listen, and listen so kids will talk"

I also added some specific examples relating to talking about consumerism, social justice, and economics.

Posted by benrosen at June 3, 2010 06:42 PM | Up to blog
Comments

I agree with everything you said except for that by five kids are absorbing as much from the outside world as from parents. Of course they are influenced by the world, but peoples' values are deeply influenced by their experiences in childhood and by watching their families, especially parents, which is why modeling is the way to teach values above all else. There's a similar idea in teaching (see Ted Sizer's book "The Students are Watching) -- much of what is learned in school is the "informal curriculum", which is what teachers (sometimes unconsciously) communicate beyond the content.

Posted by: Shoshana Rosenbaum at June 3, 2010 08:23 PM

As someone who subscribes to your RSS feed, I would encourage you to consider your blog an outlet for any and all thoughts you have about parenting. That may not be its original purpose, but I, for one, would happily read anything you want to write about parenting, particularly since, from what I can gather from reading your blog, your children are smart, funny and interested in their world. Thanks!

Posted by: JB at June 4, 2010 06:11 AM

Shana, I definitely think people are profoundly influenced by their parents' values -- principally by modelling -- and it may be that in many cases this influence will ultimately win out. But I also see many parents -- and parents-to-be -- overestimating this influence. "Oh, I would never let my kid do/think/say X", or "What did I do wrong that my kid is doing Y?" I think it is grounding for parents to realize that they are only one voice in a sea of influence. Maybe the most important voice in the long run, but their kids are not simply creatures for them to mold and shape. Kids see the world, and make their own decisions.

(This is also borne out, in my experience in, for instance, language acquisition. Kids often by six or seven speak the language of their playmates as or more fluently than that of their parents.)

I think this is much more obvious if you are trying to teach values that diverge sharply from the values of the society around you. If your kids' parents' playmates, their teachers, etc., all share more or less similar values to yours, it is easy to convince yourself that your influence is larger than it is, because you are discounting the reinforcing effect of the larger environment.

One should also not underestimate the influence of siblings -- I think Aviva may be as great an influence on Noah as I am!

JB, thank you... I like to post on parenting, when I can get my text through the censors (Aviva and Noah vigilantly inspect all mentions of themselves).

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 7, 2010 08:53 AM

I think one plus for the OP is that I think parental influence is higher in trying to teach your children to a view at odds with the mainstream. Even one example, especially one as central as parents, takes something they might automatically accept from society and proves it to be something open to question. Too much of this can lead the children to resent that their parents are "weird" - but even then I think it's too late for them to just unquestionably follow the norm. Children are paying a lot of attention to behavior so lecturing and explaining are probably not necessary, and maybe counterproductive. If you act in ways that don't fit with what they see elsewhere they'll come to you for an explanation.

Posted by: someone wandering by at June 8, 2010 09:28 AM

I couldn't agree more, Ben. The strategies you suggest are very much in line with my parenting style (suprise ;-)).

This is how Filipa (4) recently introduced me to my role-playing-game character: "In this game you would actually believe in god, like I do in real life".

This made me really happy, because it illustrates quite well how the strategies must have been at work:

1. I don't believe in God and I let her see that.
2. I know that she believes in God and she knows that I am totally fine with that.
3. I anwered a lot of her questions. Whenever possible, I try to answer by asking back questions.
4. I pay a lot of attention on not trying to communicate a message, but rather telling her that there are many different truths. If she insists, I will tell her my philosophy, but again declare that it's really just one way of looking at things. I encourage her to talk to other people (like her uncle Ben) and ask them about their philosophy.

Stimulating discussions, encouraging different opinions and making my kids think about values is way more important to me than getting a message through.

Posted by: Rahel at June 9, 2010 05:53 PM

That is a totally awesome example.

Can I get in on this RPG campaign Filipa is GMing?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 10, 2010 06:01 PM
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