Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man, the Catholic missionary Francis Xavier said in the 1500s, suggesting a belief that broadly, remains with us to this day: that parents play a crucial role in helping shape their children’s world view, but that our influence tapers off as the years advance.
Casting the mould
Modern psychologists agree with Xavier in that they think that children under seven accept the moral teaching of their parents, meaning that whatever they experience in their home lives during that time is “normal” to them. Somewhere after that, they develop distance and the ability to reason morally for themselves.
The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who categorised the stages of childhood cognitive development, argued children can start internalising values between seven and 12 – while they’re in the concrete operational and definitely by the time they’ve reached the formal operational stages. The formal operational stage coincides with adolescence and is when we learn to think abstractly.
Whitbeck and Gecas say in the Journal of Marriage and Family (1988) that children internalise values at a certain stage of cognitive development. “Instrumental values” (those which refer to an emotion, such as honesty or fairness) are internalised earlier than “terminal values” (world peace, freedom). But once formed, values endure and inform behaviour. Our influence as parents is massive in the first few years. What a responsibility!
At the heart of it, all caring parents want their children to grow up to be personally fulfilled, and assets to humanity. Whether modesty or assertiveness is more important to you, whether you prioritise empathy and sensitivity or competitiveness and personal responsibility, good manners or good hygiene, selflessness or cooperation, (and these are not necessarily polar opposites nor mutually exclusive) chances are you want your child’s value system to closely mirror your own.
Is this a fair expectation?
“We think that parents’ values are an important influence on the development of children’s values,” say Whitbeck and Gecas. “However, this influence is affected by variables, such as the degree of specificity or concreteness of the value, the value’s salience for the parent, the accuracy with which the value is perceived, the age of the child, the extent to which the child identifies with the parent, and various situational factors.”
And in another study, researchers Grusec and Good now claim in a 1994 issue of Developmental Psychology that “mechanisms promoting acceptance (of the parents’ message) are perceptions of the parent’s actions as appropriate, motivation to accept the parental position, and perception that a value has been self-generated.”
In other words, simply believing a thing is not enough to make our children believe it too – and the “because I said so” discipline methods no longer cut it,especially among the over-seven crowd.These methods may bring acquiescence from your child, but not internalisation. “Inductive control” – where you exercise control over your child via reasoning and discussion – is best for transmitting values, argue Whitbeck and Gecas.
While older children will best benefit from this, you can start inductive control-style parenting at any age, because you stand a greater chance of convincing your child that your values are good if you do precisely that: convince.
But bear in mind that, ideally, a parent will have the maturity to allow their child “to become the person he or she would like to be, and not the child the parent would like to have,” says Johannesburg counselling psychologist Kerry Yates.
“As parents we can get stuck on, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ Maybe simply remembering to positively practice as we preach to our child will be the most useful thing we can ever do.”
We’ve put together a few tips for foregrounding core values before you relinquish your children to adolescence, their own choices and their own lives.
“A child’s first experience of responsibility is through their experiences of their parents’ responsibility to attend to their basic needs,” says Kerry. “This allows the child to experience the benefits of being responsible, through the parents’ consistency and awareness of the child’s needs.” So first, be a caring and responsible parent yourself.
You would like to live with a person who puts his own dishes in the dishwasher after a meal. Does this mean having to instruct your son or daughter to do it every time? If they forget, try saying, “As soon as we have put our lunch plates in the dishwasher we can go outside to play,” rather than, “Clean up your mess,” in order to suggest to children that cleaning up after yourself is a daily necessity and outside of your control, a value instead of a parent’s quirk. And keep the instructions deliberately specific for very young children, who may be confused by, “Tidy up,” but will know exactly what is expected if you frame the expectations step by step.
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” Those inspirational Facebook posters may annoy you, but this platitude is true for teaching children respect (including good manners). You must model the way you feel your children should treat others or risk being outed as a hypocrite by your offspring. You can start by teaching your children how your culture expects them to address people, the rules around making eye contact, or about the importance of greeting people. Explain the rules (“greeting makes someone feel welcome”) and don’t stress if it takes a small child a while to understand and start following the convention. For the best chance at internalising the value, gently correct the behaviour rather than shaming the child if they get it wrong. The aim is to raise a child who would genuinely like to welcome someone into his home, and knows the social convention for doing so, rather than one who greets because not doing so brings punishment.
At this age, parents are often quite concerned with how well-mannered their children appear to others; probably, if we are honest, this is because we take their degree or acquiescence as a reflection on ourselves and the quality of our parenting. Many parents absolutely insist on extracting a “please” and “thank you” from their child, every time. Admittedly, if a child obeys it is initially just a reflex, but not for long. Even a two year-old child can feel how good it feels to be thanked warmly, asked politely or apologised to sincerely.
American paediatrician and attachment parenting proponent Dr William Sears maintains that around age nine children begin to understand the Golden Rule – “Treat others as you would like to be treated” – and its sense of equivocation will help them remember their manners.
Consideration of others
Again, this is not something a two-year-old, who lives in an egocentric world, can understand. But you can begin to sketch your expectations for cooperativeness early on nevertheless. Say, “When we go to the shops, it makes me stressed when you whine over who sits where in the trolley. How can we behave so that everyone has a fun time?” and listen to your children’s ideas. If children have been consulted and thought up a solution together, they work much harder at achieving the outcome. Remember the power of positive reinforcement: thank them afterwards if the trip was a success.
In an era of parenting that tends towards indiscriminate praise even if the child made only a half-hearted effort, we could be shooting ourselves in the foot. A child can learn that even sloppy work is rewarded. Without being psychologically destructive, you could say, “You didn’t spend as much time on rolling this cookie as you did the last one. Have you had enough of baking?” instead of proclaiming each proudly presented dough ball as the best you’ve ever seen.
And if your child is withdrawn, shy or scared of trying something new, you could show that you understand the feeling and suggest child does it anyway, with some backup from you. “It is scary on the jungle gym. I’m right here if you need me.” Show that you understand the achievement took courage, and that you are proud, if your little adventurer did conquer his fears.
Once again, practise what you preach: if you say your child is busy or ill because you don’t feel like accepting an invitation, you cannot expect your child not to lie. If and when your child does lie, don’t overreact but calmly give him the opportunity to tell the truth. “I don’t think that’s what happened. Do you want to try telling me who really threw the TV remote into the water?” Thank him for the courage it took to be honest.
You’re not letting your child off easy, just safe enough in his relationship to you to own up to his behaviour. “You can express disappointment at stealing,” says Kerry. “But this is very different from expressing guilt, which tries to make the child fear of the loss of the relationship with the parent.”
Asking your child to say sorry is good, exploring why your child did something naughty is better, but even best is coming up with a gesture of restitution. Hand your child the towel and let him dry the remote, even if you know it’s beyond repair!