Every parent knows that actions speak louder than words — that if you want your kids to be a certain way, you shouldn’t just talk about it. You should model it. “If there is anything that we wish to change in the child,” the psychologist Carl Jung once wrote, “we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.”
But does this mean that only actions matter and that words don’t?
Professor of psychology Angela Duckworth doesn’t think so. She writes about a study where students watched an adult complete a difficult task and were then asked to complete an impossible version of the same task. The children who watched adults struggle with the task stuck with it for longer than those who watched adults who easily succeeded.
But one group stuck with the task even longer. Duckworth writes, “Children kept at their task longest by far after seeing an adult model struggle and eventually triumph, all the while saying things like, ‘Trying hard is important!’”
Duckworth’s conclusion? “Actions may speak louder than words, but actions and words together send the clearest message of all.”
Think of it this way: We all know that when you teach kids how to name their emotions, you help them tame their emotions.
Similarly, when you teach kids how to name their values, you help them practice their values.
“I Want to Let My Kids Decide For Themselves”
Some parents understandably believe that because they don’t want to raise their kids with dogma they shouldn’t voice their opinions about principles and values at home. They believe they should instead just live the best life they can and let their kids decide for themselves.
It’s a noble idea, particularly because forcing a set of values and beliefs on kids by creating arbitrary consequences if they don’t tends to backfire.
But it overlooks a third option, which is to tell them about the values and principles you care most about and let kids decide for themselves.
The truth is that if you don’t share what matters most to you, your kids will only hear it from other voices — teachers, fellow classmates, YouTubers, etc. There’s no way for anyone, particularly a kid, to get through life without being influenced by outside voices. So not talking about values at home doesn’t mean that they’ll grow up as a blank slate. It just means that your voice won’t be among those they hear.
At Uplift, we believe that the best way to instill values at home is to make conversations about values a natural part of home life and to think of it as a collective process. After all, none of us perfectly embody timeless values such as honesty, compassion, forgiveness, grit, or courage. In so many ways, our kids remind us to live more aligned with the best version of ourselves.
In other words, the experience is more of an open-ended exploration than a teacher-student experience. When it comes to Uplift “lessons,” we strongly encourage parents to let the kids — especially teens — lead conversations. It’s a collective exploration. And we hope it’s fun.
Carving out time to regularly explore these values together bolsters your collective desire to make them part of your life.
The emerging psychological studies back up this approach.
What the Science Says About Discussing Values at Home
Clinical psychologist Laura Markham suggests that parents “talk explicitly about your values and why they are important to you.” She adds that these conversations might center around questions such as, “What IS integrity? What is our obligation to our neighbor? What if that neighbor doesn’t look like us? Why is respectful behavior important in a church, synagogue or mosque?”
Professor of psychology Lisa Miller, adds, “Studies on spiritual development in adolescents who have spiritually minded parents have shown that the right type of parental contribution … can make or break the development of adolescent spirituality and can influence the child’s lifelong physical and mental health.”
And the educational psychologist Michele Borba writes, “Studies are clear: Kids who act morally have parents who expect them to do so. It sets a standard for your children’s conduct and also lets them know in no uncertain terms what you value. So post your moral standards [and] discuss them.”
Kids who talk with their parents about values such as kindness, compassion, and spirituality get a clear message about these values. What’s more, by talking about these values, they learn what they think and can then articulate their thoughts to friends when they feel pulled to contradict their values. For example, they develop the capacity to say, “I don’t tease other kids because I wouldn’t want to be teased. And it’s against my family’s values.”
This means that your kids can also better remind you to live your values as well. They might say, “Dad, you hurt Chloe with your teasing.” When we see our shortcomings reflected back to us like this, we grow as parents — which is a major part of experiencing spirituality at home.
In the end, spiritual growth hinges on instilling values, a process that works best with actions and words.
See our lesson on deciding how you want to gather together as a family.