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Beyond Dogma: How to Teach Kids Values without Religion


At Uplift Kids, we help parents teach kids timeless values. Some of our members use our lesson library and curriculum within a religious context, and some of our members use it outside of a religious context. We applaud whatever works for you in your circumstances (though, admittedly, we tend to oppose dogma — indisputable belief — both inside and outside of religion).

In this piece, we focus on those who have left religion since the question of how to teach kids values is particularly urgent for those who’ve left.

Benefits of Teaching Values to Kids

Every parent knows that lectures aren’t effective and that actions speak louder than words. But that doesn’t mean that words don’t matter. Professor of psychology Angela Duckworth suggests that the best way to teach a kid is through actions and words. “Actions may speak louder than words,” she says, “but actions and words together send the clearest message of all.” Put simply, if we want to raise kids who are honest, kind, compassionate, and determined, we should use actions and words.

The benefits of teaching values to kids are vast. When our kids understand the basics of what it means to be an ethical and moral person — and when they know that you expect them to be — they’re more likely to exhibit those values in the home. This means that you decrease the likelihood of dishonesty, selfishness, and laziness (all of which cause conflict) and enjoy more peace of mind.

Teaching values to kids is crucial for their development into responsible, ethical individuals. Values serve as guiding principles that shape their decisions, actions, and interactions with others. It’s through the lens of values that children learn to distinguish right from wrong, develop empathy, and contribute positively to society. By embracing a secular approach to teaching values, we can ensure that our children receive a well-rounded education that is inclusive and reflective of the diverse world we live in.

In addition, you might have family members who worry that your kids will grow up without any values. Teaching values is a way to connect with them, often across generations. You might not have the exact same religious beliefs as everyone else in your extended family, but hopefully you share many of the same basic values.

How to Teach Values to Kids

In practice, teaching values to kids is most effective when it’s an exploration. Instead of sitting your kids down for a lecture where you list off everything they’re doing wrong and make them feel miserable, let them know that you are all on the same team and that you’re all working to practice your values. “One of my values is honesty,” you might say, “and even though I’m not perfect at it, I want to get better.” From there you can tell a story of a time when you struggled to be honest and regretted it. Or you can tell a fictional story or even a short video or open up an activity or game.

Start by opening a conversation around what your family values are. If you had to choose just 3-5, what would they be?

Teach Kids Values at Home With or Without Religion

Once you have 3-5 values that fit your family, you can start exploring each one in detail.

Our lesson library and curriculum makes it easy to launch into an exploration. (We call them “lessons” just because words like “explorations” or “conversations” might not be as easy to understand, but they are structured more as a way to spark a conversation than as a way to lecture. In fact, we hope that they’re simple enough that kids could lead the conversation.)

Make it Part of Your Routine

Days pass into weeks and weeks pass into years. Before we know it our kids are older and grown. If we’re not careful, a lifetime of “we’ll get to it next weeks” will pass.

To deeply instill a sense of values in your kids, make the exploration part of your routine. This could be something you do as part of a daily practice. (Uplift members can use our Daily Uplift, which gives a bite-sized bit each day.) Or it could be something you do weekly — say once a week on Sunday morning where you carve out 30-60 minutes to explore a value together, play games, and have a treat.

By making values part of your regular routine, you ensure that it doesn’t get lost in the bustle of everything else you have to get done (and, in our experience, it will get lost without holding to the schedule).

A Secular Approach to Teaching Values

Even though religion has traditionally been thought of as the way to teach kids values, it certainly isn’t the only way. After all, both Western and Eastern philosophy have helped people understand what is ethical for millennia without requiring metaphysical belief. Thousands of years ago, Greek philosophers taught ways to embody virtue that were completely independent from belief or disbelief in the gods. And the Buddha taught ways to know the inner self that have nothing to do with metaphysical belief.

What’s more, there are plenty of passages and stories in holy texts around the world that do not require religious belief. For instance, the parable of the Good Samaritan as told by Jesus, in which a man is beaten up by thieves and ignored by religious men only to be helped by a Samaritan, is universally powerful. In fact, the parable could easily be read as a critique on religious leaders since it is specifically religious leaders who ignore the Samaritan!

Given this, a secular approach is one that is inclusive of the best aspects of religion, philosophy, and science. It doesn’t have to pit itself against any of them and can instead draw the best of each. The goal is to help kids become wise as they learn how to embody values in their lives. That’s why we’ve created a wisdom library that pulls from religious and philosophical traditions. The secular approach is part of a powerful and lengthy tradition.

Cultivating Critical Thinking Skills in Kids

The more that kids understand critical thinking, the better able they are at embodying timeless values. Critical thinking is a valuable skill that enables children to evaluate information, analyze situations, and make well-informed decisions. By incorporating critical thinking into their education, we empower children to question the status quo, challenge assumptions, and think independently. This can be accomplished by encouraging open discussions, presenting different perspectives on moral dilemmas, and teaching children how to weigh evidence and consider multiple viewpoints. When we foster critical thinking, we equip children with the tools necessary to navigate our complicated modern world and make ethical choices based on reason and evidence. We explore these concepts in our critical thinking lesson.

Specific Activities and Values

To provide a practical understanding of values lessons, here are some examples of activities that can be incorporated into a child’s daily life:

  1. Gratitude Journal: Encourage your children to maintain a gratitude journal, where they write down things they are grateful for each day. This cultivates appreciation for the good things in life and teaches them the value of gratitude — a value that religion doesn’t have a monopoly on.
  2. Random Acts of Kindness: Invite your kids to do random acts of kindness, such as helping a classmate, assisting a family member, or being polite to strangers. This activity promotes empathy and compassion.
  3. Ethical Dilemma Discussions: Present your children with age-appropriate ethical dilemmas and engage them in discussions about potential solutions. This helps them develop critical thinking skills and understand the complexities of moral decision-making. (Our lesson library is full of prompts and sentence stems to this end.)
  4. Community Service Projects: Engage your children in community service projects, such as cleaning up a local park or organizing a fundraising event for a charitable cause. This teaches them the importance of giving back and making a positive impact on their community.
  5. Values-Based Role-Playing: Create scenarios where children can role-play situations that require them to apply specific values. This helps them understand the practical application of values in different contexts and strengthens their decision-making abilities.

Resources for Further Practice

At Uplift Kids, we offer many ways to get started and maintain healthy discussions about values at home regardless of religious belief. Some families use our calendar program to enjoy years of conversations. Other families use our daily Uplift to spark small conversations each day. Others give their kids access to our kids portal to use on their own. And others just use our lesson library however they see fit.

To check out what we offer and see if it’s a good fit for your family, start a free two-week trial.