In previous posts, I have written about the value I place on continuous learning. Part of this comes from the fact that I love to grow and stretch myself intellectually and spiritually; part of it comes from some deeper feelings of inadequacy that lead me to believe that I will never know enough. Regardless, although we have been on this unschooling journey for a number of years now, I still learn something new at every conference - and this year's Life is Good Unschooling Conference was no exception.

My friends Gail, Broc, and Brenna hosted a chat on a subject that was seemingly simple: how do we recognize the value judgments we make about our children, and how do we avoid making them? It was a fascinating discussion, and as I have reflected on it over the past several days a few additional thoughts have to come to mind.

Values are interesting things, and they can be defined in many ways. I think the most agreeable definition I have found is this one:

"a collection of guiding, usually positive principles; what one deems to be correct and desirable in life, especially regarding personal conduct"

Since values are guiding principles, we can infer that they are important to the way we live our lives. Values serve as our guardrails, providing boundaries by which we conduct ourselves and by which we judge the worth of the conduct of others. As an example, I value thoughtfulness - so I try to be thoughtful in all I do, and tend to struggle with people whose behavior is thoughtless. I have many other values, as well - honesty, fidelity, peacefulness, engagement - but must be honest and say that I did not always value these things. I was raised in a house that valued honesty and fidelity, in which my parents exhibited these traits and reinforced them frequently through both word and example. But in my earlier years, when I lived my life in a different way and sought different things, concepts like honesty and fidelity were not important to me. Only through experience - from having conducted myself in ways that were unfaithful or dishonest, and having hurt myself and others through my behavior - was I able to see my actions as undesirable, reject them, and adapt and change them to what they are now. Because my parents raised me with these values, and because I rejected them, and because I eventually accepted them when they became important to me, I believe that values are molded and adopted more through personal experience than through the words or teachings of the parents.

Let me repeat that:

"values are molded and adopted more through personal experience
than through the words or teachings of the parents."

That's a difficult concept to grasp. After all, I was raised - most of us were raised - in environments in which the values were set by the parents, taught to the children, and expected to be obeyed. And in many cases, these values were indeed adopted and obeyed by the children; the children adopted the parent's religious or political persuasions, thoughts about the meaning of success or the importance of education. Sometimes that values that a child learns from their parents stay with with them forever, and to most parents that is a sign of exceptional parenting - after all, isn't it important for a child to be raised with a strong value system, modeled after what the parent has taught them about values?

Uh, no - it's not. In fact, I think it's dangerous.

The distinction is between the concepts of modeling values, and instilling values. Modeling your values as a parent means that you have your own guardrails by which you live your life, and you live your life by them. Your children see this, and may elect to adopt your values - but they may elect to adopt their own as well. Instilling values, on the other hand, indicates that the parent is attempting the ensure that the child shares the values of the parent, that what the parent believes in must be passed down to the child at all costs. The alignment of the child's values with those of the parent becomes an expectation, in some situations a demand. And if the child resists - chooses not to go to church, as an example, or to eat their vegetables - the parent will often cajole, guilt or coerce the child into having the same values as the parent.

This isn't parenting. It's mind control of the worst kind.

  • It completely disregards the fact that values are formed with and change with experience.
  • It completely disregards the concept of freedom of choice - the child's choice.
  • It inhibits exploration of new concepts, and therefore the development of new passions, by binding the soul and spirit of the child to grow in the way that the adult values, regardless of the child's interest.
  • It sets up a "parent knows best" relationship in which the parent maintains control over many choices, with the child left to adhere or be rejected.

Does that sound harsh? Perhaps. Maybe parents do not consciously judge their children, or enforce their own values, as often or as blatantly as I write here. But ask yourself this question: are you, as a parent, doing everything you can to model and live your own values while still accepting those of your children?

Let's take a few common examples: fighting, food, and spirituality. Let's say that you are a non-violent person, and that you value healthy eating and exercise, and that you go to worship every week. Your children do not share these values, and you're okay with that; after all, as an enlightened parent, you want them to blaze their own trail and not be sheeple. But have you ever caught yourself in these situations:

  • Your children are wrestling on the floor. One of them gets hurt and comes to you very upset. Rather than comfort, you yell "I told you this would happen if you played rough! That's why I hate it when you do that!"
  • Your child comes into the kitchen looking for something to eat, and chooses ice cream - for the fourth time that day. You say "Wouldn't you rather have an apple, or something more healthy than ice cream?"
  • You're getting ready to go to worship, and ask your child to go along. They resist, and you say "Well okay, just stay home if it's not important to you."

These comments may seem innocuous. Many times, you may not even voice them aloud; you may just think them to yourself. Your comments and thoughts may be accompanied by a sigh, or a shrug, or a roll of the eyes. Your tone may get shorter, your actions quicker.

If so, you are making a value judgment. Whether the child perceives it or not, you have made a judgment about what the child values and how out of step it is with what you would prefer. In doing so, you may be assuming that your child will never develop values of their own, will never be successful or respectable.

But you are missing an essential point:
Expectations, demands, control and coercion are parenting at their worst. Providing your children with a judgment-free environment is parenting at it's best. When a child is free from judgment and able to define their own values, they are developing the skills required to learn from experiences. They approach problems and challenges with frameworks, but without defined responses and judgments. Because they have been free to learn and experience, they respond in ways that are authentic, and which stimulate thought. They teach themselves to question and challenge, because they have been taught that their viewpoints have value. In a worst case scenario, the case of the child who chooses not to adopt our value of non-violence could end up leading a life of violence - but they could end up being an advocate for non-violence around the world. The child who rejects our value of healthy eating could just as easily end of being a personal trainer as they could being unhealthy. And the child who rejects our religion could end up being a minister. But they will not make - and embrace - those choices because we coerced them into it or demanded that they adhere to our values; they will make those choices only if we have allowed them the freedom to experience life in their own way and develop their own values.


  1. You are so right about the chhild choosing his own values... If I see how different my values are from my family's... they mainly value money work and an imaginary idea of superiority.
    Those are really really not on my list!

  2. ~~The distinction is between the concepts of modeling values, and instilling values. ~~

    And that is the crux of it. The problem in many cases is that the parent preaches values and tries to "instill" them while being a total hypocrite and unwilling to hold a mirror in front of themselves.

    I remember a lot of church "values" they tried to instill in me...all while gossiping about each other and acting very disrespectful. Modeling speaks louder than most anything else. Loved this post! Good reminder to watch the physical reactions...which can load a conversation with judgment too.

  3. Yep, yep, and yep :) great post Jeff. I see so many adults, myself and Tim included, struggling with the effects of this control. We are now working on figuring out who we are, not who are parents thought we should be.

  4. Thanks for writing this up Jeff! I wanted Ron to go to this chat, but he refused. When I read the part about Legos vs Family Guy, he said, "I *do* think building with Legos is more valuable than watching Family Guy, and I am at peace with that and not interested in debating it." But he read your post, and something shifted I think! It was the part about certain people not liking to be outdoors that rocked my world. Really? ANYTHING but that! That would be a really hard one for me to handle, but we will cross that bridge if we come to it. Doesn't seem to be the case so far. :)