During a visit to my daughter Jenny’s home, I found my six-year-old granddaughter working on a homework project. Reese’s project required her to describe and/or illustrate important things about her family—who they are, the traditions they have, and the things they do that make them special. The questions let me know the assignment was designed to help students explore and appreciate diversity. It was a good project. But as we tossed some ideas out to Reese (blueberry muffins for birthday breakfasts, cousin sleepovers), I think Jenny and I both began to feel we are the most boring family on earth. Is there anything that makes us special? Not to worry. Without prompting, Reese finished her project and brought it over to show me what she had written. “My family is kind.”
It was an eye-opening moment for me. Kindness is important in our family. It actually is a family value passed from one generation to another. I don’t know how Reese’s parents have communicated this to her. By example for sure, and probably with words as well. (Good job, Jenny and Howie!) I was fascinated to see this young child’s awareness of one of her family’s core values, and I’ve not stopped thinking about how important it is for families to agree on what really matters.
Whether stated or not, every family has core values. Your children learn what matters to you through your everyday actions. What you do, what you say, and how you say it show what matters to you. What matters to you (your values) guides the decisions you make day-to-day and determines what you pass on to your children. Core values are often described as a sort of “navigational system” that reminds us which direction to take.
Corporations have core values. So do churches and specific ministries. Individuals have core values, and so do families. Could you say what your personal values are? Could your children?
In my work as a church consultant, I lead teams through a process of writing core values. It is important to have the values stated because this brings clarity and unity. Often teams will assume that everyone is on the same page. Stating values helps to ensure this is true.
Families can go through a version of this process. When and how much you want to involve your children in this exercise depends on their ages and maturity level. It is often best to begin with the parent(s).
First, write down what is important to you. There are different categories of values (professional, relational, spiritual, activity-related, etc.) so you may need to divide your list into categories. Ask yourself, “What really matters to me?” “What gives my life meaning?” “What brings me joy?”
To jump start your thinking, here is a list of some commonly held values:
- Physical Fitness
- Honoring God
- Hard Work
- Earning Money
- Saving Money
- Being Adventurous
Write down as many as you think of, but then narrow down the list. You may value many things, but we are going for your “core” values. What things are really most important to you? With organizations, I recommend having no more than five stated values. Stated values will need to be communicated and remembered. Five is a good number for people to hold on to, but you may want to state a few more or a few less.
Now it is time to do some self-examination. Are the values you have written down your actual values? Are these the values you are already living by or are they the things you feel you should live by? Often what we say we value and what we actually value do not match.
For example, if Reese’s parents said to her that kindness is important in our family but then spoke to each other in a snarky way and treated people in stores or businesses with a demanding and demeaning air (they don’t!), it would be clear to Reese that kindness is not really that important. She would be learning something completely different.
Perhaps you will look at your short list and find discrepancies in what you say you value and how you live your life. If so, your values are aspirational rather than actual. Those are the things you aspire to. There is nothing wrong with that IF you are willing to make the changes necessary to live out your aspirational values.
That’s the next step…determining what steps need to be made to instill the values in your children and ensure they will be lived out by your family. That step will be the subject of a future blog.
So, do your children know what matters to your family? Do you know? Answering those questions can make a difference in your family for generations to come. Just ask Reese!