I’ve been fortunate enough to be a father to many children in my life: six of my own, two stepchildren, and more than 30 foster children. All of them were different, but I found I could always motivate them to behave better by using their individual interests and passions as rewards or punishments. I would do my best to align these consequences to my personal values.
One of my toughest foster children, for example, loved his birth family, and he loved tattoos. He wanted the names of his siblings tattooed on his chest, but since he was only 16 years old he needed the permission of a parent or guardian—that is, me—before getting inked.
Unfortunately his behavior at school was appalling. One day I was called to meet with his school principal to discuss an assault. During the interview the principal said that, on the positive side, his behavior had been getting better. In fact, during the three terms he’d been attending the school his record of bad behavior had dropped from more than 130 per term to 80, then down to 30.
We’d been working hard at home on the value of respecting his foster parents and his teachers. The head of the school was shocked when I offered the following: if he had no record of bad behavior during the following semester, he could get the names of his siblings tattooed on his chest. I was so proud when I got the call on the last day of the term telling me that his behavior record for the entire term was squeaky clean.
He got his tattoo!
A deeply held value will guide a person’s behaviors. My most closely held values underpin my roles as a husband, a father, and a member of society.
Research shows that the value-behavior connection only happens when values are central to one’s self-concept. A father’s value system, empathically taught, will give meaning to, energize, and regulate his children’s behavior.
So I’m suggesting that for you to be a relevant and wonderful father, you will need a set of values that you adhere to in your own life. Then you can model them to your kids. These values should be easy to understand, remember, and apply.
To teach values, you as a father must have confident knowledge of your own values. They have to be part of your passion and mind-set. The ancient Hebrew king Solomon put it this way: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). What, then, is “the way they should go”? Obviously the answer will be based on your values. But if you don’t know what your values are, how can you model them?
How can you model your values?
Before we answer that question, I want to make a quick side trip to understand how a father, as a leader of his children, can teach and apply his values in different ways. In his 2011 book The New Psychology of Leadership, Australian psychologist Alexander Haslam asks us to consider the difference between transformational leadership and transactional leadership. Transformational leadership is about equity and respect; transactional leadership is about blindly applying the rules and consequences without care. Transformational leaders motivate others through designed equity with even-handed boundaries and clear consequences.
So back to values. Where would you find examples of a values system? In lots of different places. American entrepreneur and motivational speaker Steve Pavlina, for example, suggests on his website that there are 418 values. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, defined six virtues and 24 character strengths, which we’ll look at a bit later. But let’s start with something more basic: the Bible’s Ten Commandments (Exodus 20).
Jesus actually made it even simpler when He said that biblical commands can be broken down into just two categories: love for God and love for other people (Matthew 22:37–40). Take a look at the Ten Commandments, and you’ll quickly see that the last six are about how we should treat other people. And it’s in these last six that I suggest you can build and model your values as a father:
Honor your mother and father.
Don’t commit adultery.
Don’t covet (lust) after what your neighbor has.
If you’re completely aware of and believe in the values above, whether as a transactional or a transformational leader, then you have a very sound and very easy basis from which to teach values to your children. A transactional leader will instill the biblical values as a list of rules without rhyme or reason. A transformational leader, on the other hand, will encourage a child to fully understand and internalize the biblical values and to be able to put them into practice—even when Dad isn’t watching. And that should be your goal.
For my children, I split the last six commandments into two parts: one for preteens and the other for teens. The younger children had to be aware of honor your parents/care givers, don’t steal, and don’t lie. For the teens the other three were added, with full explanations: don’t commit adultery, don’t kill, and don’t wish for other people’s things.
Since the late 1990s, leading American psychologist Martin Seligman has been an avid promoter of positive psychology with a focus on authentic happiness and learned optimism that I think provides some very useful insights into instilling meaningful and effective values within kid’s characters. He defined six virtues and 24 character strengths that are based on a statistical analysis of society’s needs. Each virtue has associated character strengths:
- Wisdom and knowledge: creativity, curiosity, judgment and open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective.
- Courage: bravery, perseverance, honesty, zest.
- Humanity: capacity to love and be loved, kindness, social intelligence.
- Justice: teamwork, fairness, leadership.
- Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, modesty and humility, prudence, self-regulation.
- Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, religiousness, and spirituality.
Thus, between Seligman’s six virtues and the last six commandments you should be able to select, memorize, and put into practice those values that are appropriate to your social and cultural setting. It’s possible to present the six commandments as transactions—rigid dos and don’ts with no reason given. But with a little thought you can teach them to your children in ways that are truly transformational. See if you agree with how I’ve explained them to my kids:
Honor. Do you want to be proud of your children when they are adults? Teach them honor. They must learn to honor their mother and their father. And if they should dishonor either you or your spouse, you should state, without anger, that you reject their opinion. Don’t be doormats, because your boys will grow up thinking they can be inappropriately powerless, and your daughters will grow up thinking they can be inappropriately powerful.
But what if either you or your spouse has damaged your children emotionally and/or physically? How can they honor someone who’s destroyed them emotionally? The answer is forgiveness, gratitude, and courtesy. Forgiving your behaviors doesn’t mean allowing your actions to keep damaging them. Gratitude means being grateful they’re alive, for without your biological involvement they wouldn’t exist! Finally, courtesy: your children should show you respect in public and private. Again don’t allow them to put you down. Instead, walk away if you need to, and show them the courtesy of not responding to their insults. And, of course, respond courteously when they are courteous.
Don’t kill. Never allow your children to even suggest, in an outburst of anger, that they’d like to kill someone. This isn’t a joke, and it is not a healthy way to express frustration and anger. And as a role model, never state out loud that you would like to kill someone. This is a very bad example to your children!
Don’t commit adultery. Don’t allow it, even in your own thoughts. Adultery destroys families. If you have to break with your life partner, do it with courage, and face your children and the issues honestly. And don’t undermine your chances of working things out by beginning an intimate relationship with another person prematurely. This confuses children and embitters them.
Don’t steal. Never steal. Ever.
Don’t lie. Again, never. Don’t lie to your children. Explain your wishes and intentions clearly in a way that’s appropriate for their level of maturity. Be authentic with everyone. Speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
Don’t covet. Don’t lust after things other people have. Ancient rabbis and imams state that this is the beginning of all sin and evil, and you don’t have to look far to see the damage that greed and envy do, not only to families but to entire societies. Modern advertising specifically aims to stoke this obsessive desire for material things; but modern scholars are seeing that a constant effort to “keep up with the Joneses” can lead to depression. Journalist Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections, says that only intrinsic values, not materialism, can bring significant happiness.
If you don’t have a set of clearly understood, conscious values, then start with one value at a time in a discussion with your children’s mother. With her nurturing ability and your motivational ability as a father, the two of you will be able to structure a sound value system that will be acceptable to both of you and the children.
If you as a father make a consistent effort to guide your children into simple, effective values, you’ll be amazed at how they will maintain them through the challenges life throws at them. It’s never too early to start. And, while you have any kind of influence in their lives, it’s never too late.