Why Teaching Values at Home Matters: Actions *and* Words

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. As the psychologist Carl Jung once wrote, “If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, 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.”

Similarly, 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?” 

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.” 

It’s just like how kids who know how to name their emotions tend to have better emotional health. Yes, having parents who model strong emotional health is good. But having parents who model strong emotional health and have conversations about those emotions is better. 

Similarly, 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. (“Dad, that seems like teasing…”) When we see our shortcomings reflected back to us, 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.

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