Talking Virtues and Values with Kids without Preaching
When our eldest child was three years old he popped this question: “Are you friends with all of the people at work?” I answered simply for his age and already envisioned deep discussions on friendship, respect, and,yes, even office politics!
Then time zooooomed by and I finally paused long enough to wonder what happened with those conversations. Would we ever have them?
Chez nous (in our home here in Paris), family conversations happen mostly at mealtime (which is why we try to eat together regularly). What do we talk about around the table?
(For posts on specific values, click here.)
When the kids were small “conversation” often
consisted of repeated lessons in good manners.
“Elbows off the table...Chew with your mouth closed...Let the other
person finish speaking before you start....”
On good days we found out what was going on at school. The kids even negotiated additional computer
game time (we limited AND monitored screen time) in exchange for sharing five
interesting things per day. That’s how
we found out what they played at recess, the teacher's latest joke, and who hit whom!
As the children learned more how to express
themselves, we further discovered the high points and disappointments of their
days. Sometimes we parents also shared
Sunday dinners gave us the
opportunity to review the week’s calendar and to try and coordinate
schedules. “Both of us parents have
meetings late on Wed night?! How will
Joey get home from music?...”
Variety Tickles Appetite
Talking about logistics eventually gets boring. It’s like French baguettes. In our neighborhood, each of the six French bakeries has a slightly unique bread flavor and texture. One Parisian friend shared their family philosophy: “Even a great baguette gets boring after several years. We used to go Chez Dupont Bakery, then switched to La Baguette Fresh, and now we frequent Le Pain Delicieux.”
I too crave new conversational flavors. Not gourmet every day, but at least from time to time.
Hot, Tasty Topics
What constitutes a “gourmet conversation”? Topics that don’t surface everyday and enable us to discover our core selves.
Turansky and Miller, in their book Parenting is Heart Work, describe levels of intimacy in communication. We begin with greetings (“Hello” vs. grunt),move through talking about activities, and progress to engaging on the topics which generate the greatest intimacy: our hopes, dreams, and our spiritual core (values and beliefs).
I find it challenging enough to comprehend my own beliefs (not what I say I believe but for what I would live and die), let alone those of my loved ones. I also know that every time I confront my values and how they are lived out every day, I become a richer, wiser, and more interesting person. That’s what I wish for my loved ones too.
So we talk about virtues and values AND their impact on life every day. What does courage look like? Is humility good, bad, both, or neither and why? How do you and I want to be remembered... what is our current reputation...and what will we do about it? Describe the face of forgiveness....
Talking Under Fire or when Cool, Calm, and Coherent?
How does one introduce “gourmet
conversation” around the dinner table, especially when everyone expects the
regular fare? If you were to set out
the fine china for Sunday’s spaghetti and meatballs, the family would react.
The kids might squeal with excitement....and bang their forks on the delicate
dinnerware in glee. The spouse might
think you’ve gone crazy.
Besides, why force the topics. Let’s be spontaneous! Life brings these values to the fore anyhow.
Honesty becomes a critical issue...when a child is caught cheating. Respect looms vital...when the teacher requests a meeting to speak about our kid’s disruptive behavior. At Christmas or on birthdays, gratitude soars in importance...as our darling wails over not receiving the gift of her heart’s desire.
It’s usually the child’s misbehavior that gets the (negative) attention, and not the virtue itself.
It's amazingly easy to react off the cuff...and to “loose it,” a.k.a. blow out of control. “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU DID THAT! WHERE DID YOU LEARN TO CHEAT? (Who raised those kids? I have something to tell her!!) WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?”
How does the above tirade define honesty? It doesn’t. The child merely learns that not lying keeps parents from getting furious. Is that the message we parents want our kids to remember?
I have learned the hard way to cool down
before reacting to such highly emotional and pressure-filled situations. The ensuing discussions enabled me to point
my children towards the values we hope they’ll integrate. Place yourself in the kids' shoes. Who would you rather face: Growling Momster or Positive Perspectives?
These sensitive exchanges have also convinced me of the benefit of broaching the subject of values preventatively, BEFORE any mishaps, and when the stakes are low. So, how to?!
“Let’s talk about courage.”
“What do you want to say? What do you want me to say?”
“Well....what does it mean to you?”
“It’s good, Mom...Can I go play now?”
The direct approach to talking about values rarely works.
That’s why I like conversation catalysts. Webster’s defines catalyst as a substance that enables a chemical reaction to proceed at a usually faster rate or under different conditions than otherwise possible. That’s my goal: deeper conversations more quickly and easily.
Conversation catalysts introduce a delicate subject through a creative, indirect approach. We’ll engage in story-telling; read and respond to quotes from famous people; engage through photos; ask questions about a movie; and more.
Conversations ensue. Not only do we discover what our children (and ourselves) believe, we also learn about each other’s lives.
“Mom, Dad. I’m respecting that bully. I just tell her to move away. To get out.”
“Hummm. Are you treating the bully like she treats you? What does that make you?”
“I know how you feel about wanting to talk back to someone who criticizes you. Someone did that to me at work. But you can't just blurt out what you want whenever at work. My boss let it slip that the person missed out on a promotion because of his attitude.”
“You mean, you’re not friends with everyone at work?!!!”
Beware of Conversation Stiflers
Parents can be the best conversation initiators...and the people who stifle discussion too.
For many years I believed that talking about values meant making sure that everyone else agreed with me. Whenever someone slightly questioned my stance, I “corrected” them. How come the family resisted my attempts to meaningful exchanges? I wondered. I was oblivious to my own controlling behavior!
I now realize I acted out of insecurity.
Ironically, failure has helped me overcome lack of confidence. It’s when I messed up AND found my husband and children still loving me that I grew in assurance.
With the 70th anniversary of D-Day approaching, our family has been talking about courage. I have replace correction with curiosity. The discussions have been thrilling. One person’s comment stimulated the thoughts of another. Opinions built on each other. Some family members disagreed with others...but expressed it with a smile instead of through a rebellious stance. I left the table impressed with my kids’ intelligence, perspective, and thoughtfulness.
Who raised those kids? I want to meet her!
Click here to choose which value you'll talk about next in your home: HERE!
Baguettes Photo from the bakery Reine des Blés (Queen of the Wheats) in Reims (Champagne county of France).