How to Teach and Instill Virtues to Your Teenagers
Before you can expect your child to live by certain values, you must determine what your own values are and what values you want all of your children to exhibit. For some people, especially those who are raised within a religious organization, this may be easy as they are typically more likely to assume the values of their group. For others, this may be quite a challenge. For anyone, it can become difficult when you start looking at having to choose between two values. When you consider some of the most controversial issues, you will find that there is rarely a situation where one side has values and the other side had none. Rather, what you will find is that typically speaking each side will have values that they believe in and are worth fighting to keep. Deciding where you stand on these issues is a matter of having to determine which value is stronger or more important to you.
Consider the example of abortion. Most people that are pro-life are so because they believe that the life of a human fetus should be protected. Alternatively, people that are pro-choice believe that a woman has an inherent right to determine what happens to her body. There are values on both sides of this issue; determining which value is more important is usually how someone determines where they stand on the issue.
One of the trickiest parts of deciding what values to pass along to your children, especially in their teen years where the decisions get much more difficult, is anytime there is two (or more) parent family. It is more challenging to instill values when parents have different ideas from each other as to what those values should be. When parents that have different values live in different households, it is easier for teens to adopt the values of their primary caregiver but may cause some confusion and likely will cause some disruption when the child prefers one set values to another. In a two parent household where there is a significant difference in values between each parents, this can present an extremely challenging and frustrating environment for the teenager as well as for the parents.
While some values (such as not using drugs or engaging in premarital sex) are typically the ones parents are concerned about during their child's teen years (and rightfully so) it is also helpful to be prepared for your child to develop their own religious and political values that may be different from yours. For some children, this is likely to be merely a part of their own journey of independence and they will eventually return to the religious or political group where they were raised. However, some teens may not ever return, which can be very difficult for some parents. Disciplining your child for their change of values (unless the changed values violate the rules of your household or society) is usually ineffective and may be very damaging to your relationship with your child. As your teenager grows, they are learning how to think for themselves. Even if you do not like the conclusions that they come to, it is important for their development that you allow them this freedom.
That said, as always, it is appropriate and good for their development for you to challenge their changed beliefs. However, be careful when you engage in these discussions; make it clear that you are not criticizing your child, nor are you simply trying to get them to change back to having the same values that you hold. Rather, present it as a helpful way to learn about your child and their values as well as to challenge them to help develop their critical thinking skills.
Establishing RulesOnce you and your spouse or other caregiver (if you are not parenting alone) have determined your values and what values you want to pass on to your children, you are ready to begin setting (or evaluating) the rules of your home. Rules should be determined by the values you have. It is confusing and frustrating (for everyone) when you expect your children to adhere to rules that are not a reflection of values. When your child was eight, explaining to them that they had to do something because mom (or dad) said so may have been sufficient. As your children become teenagers, they are likely to be a lot less satisfied with this answer than they may have been at eight. Moreover, it is important for their development that they understand the reason and rationale behind rules, even when they may not agree. Thus, it is very helpful for you to explain to your child what the rules are and why. However, before you can do that, you have to be prepared by understanding the rules yourself.
Behind every great rule there is typically one or two main themes. These themes are usually safety and respect. Virtually every rule is (or should be) designed to teach a child how to respect others and him- or herself; in this way, even rules based on safety do revolve around the concept of respecting oneself. For religious families, respecting God may also be an important value. Consider the following examples:
- No bad attitudes or talking back to mom or dad. At its heart, this rule is clearly designed for the child to treat their parents with respect.
- Call if you are going to be home late. This rule may help a child show respect to their parents by not making them worry needlessly; it may also help them respect others' time such as in instances where they may be late for dinner or a family function.
- No drug use. Not using drugs shows respect for oneself, respect for their parents and other family members (who could be endangered by drug use or having drugs in the house), and respect for the law (which, as it turns out, is quite important).
You do not need to (and really should not) engage in an argument. Sharing your reasons for the rules they live by is important but should not be confused with you having to defend yourself or your teen believing that they have to agree with the rules to be expected to live by them.
Consequences should make sense. If your rules are based on values, your consequences should reflect that as well. Whenever possible, use the concept of natural consequences. Natural consequences tend to be situations where the consequence is related directly to the rule breaking.
For example, if your teen goes overboard with texting and your bill arrives three times higher than the normal rate, a natural consequence may involve your child helping pay the phone bill and/or losing phone privileges for a period.
Not allowing your child to go to the birthday party of a friend would not be a natural consequence. Although there are some situations where natural consequences may not be sufficient, they typically can work surprisingly well. Rationally speaking, if your child valued whatever they did (or did not do) over following your rules, it naturally follows that a loss relating to what they did is likely to have significant impact as they have shown that it is important to them.
Physical abuse is not an appropriate disciplinary technique. In most states, physical abuse is usually interpreted as any time that a child may be struck with anything other than an open hand, on any place other than their buttocks, and should not ever result in visible bruises or welts. If the actions taken by your teen are so inappropriate that you find yourself struggling not to hit them, remove yourself from the situation until you are in better control of your emotions. Unlike a three year old, your teenager will still understand why they are in trouble even if they have to wait an hour before you respond.
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