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Raising Kids With the Right Values

The day our son Henry was born, a nun—so short and twinkly she seemed as much fairy godmother as woman of God—popped into my hospital room to coo over the baby and bless him. (This being a Catholic birthing center, such visits were apparently part of the package.) On her way out, she handed my husband, George, a short, typewritten poem:

"Be careful where you go, young man,
Be careful what you do,
Two little eyes are watching you now—  
Two little feet will be following you."

Who would've guessed that a nun would provide some of the sagest parenting advice we've ever received? Her verse was a gentle reminder that we were not only responsible for keeping this astonishing, pink, mewling creature alive, but that it fell to us to mold his character, too. After all, he'd be watching us.

"Values" has become a popular word in recent years, especially when preceded by the word "family." To talk about them is to talk about what kind of person you want your child to be. Most parents, whatever the flavor or fervor of their faith, or whether they live in a red state or a blue, aspire to a short list of universals: honesty, compassion, trustworthiness, generosity of spirit, courtesy, fairness, self-respect, self-discipline.

Of course there are many more. How you rank virtues in importance, and what shape they take in your family, depends on many factors. Religious, cultural, and political convictions are the obvious starting blocks. Your upbringing, life experience, and interests—and those of your partner—color them, too.

Ultimately, though, we "teach" values best by our own example. The characteristics we prize influence the choices we make for our kids, and so do the everyday things we do and say. The cultural backdrop can help (going to church) or hinder (snarky PG movies come to mind), but more than anything else within our control—more, I think, than discipline, socioeconomic status, or education—our values shape the essence of who our children become.

That's powerful stuff. And it's why my own short list of core family principles includes the universals, yes—but also these not-quite-traditional ones:

Contributing editor Paula Spencer's new book, Momfidence, about being a happy mom, will be published in September 2006.