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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.

Individuality

One of parenthood's most unexpected pleasures for me has been how each of my four children came complete with a strong and distinct personality. When Henry was born, I thought, "So this is what babies are like." Then when his sister Eleanor came along, I thought, "Well, boys are like Henry, and girls are like Eleanor." Wrong again, of course. When another sister arrived, and then another, it became clearer and clearer what incredible individuals kids are—from birth.

Preserving this individuality, and helping them to see it in themselves, is one of my top missions as a mom. Once I caught on, that is. I used to avoid dressing Eleanor in pink as a baby because I didn't want to stereotype her as "girly." Guess what her favorite color turned out to be?

It can take a little trial and error (and a lot of self-restraint) to figure out where your ideas should end and your child's begin. Especially when he's not the person you expected. Although neither George nor I am athletic, Henry's very first sentence was, "Play ball, Daddy!"

Another time, when Henry was 8, we insisted he take piano lessons. It was a battle to get him to practice. Ever. After less than a year, he quit. On the other hand, four years later Eleanor asked to learn to play, and she practices diligently on her own, every day.

Since then I've tried harder to support their natural inclinations. I now take a deep breath and follow their lead (within reason) on books, activities, toys, clothes, and room décor—while still retaining veto power, of course.

I can think of no greater gift to a child (aside from giving life) than helping him to grow into the person he is.

Possibility

Most parents want their child to be well educated. And George and I are no exception, from buying the first stimulating crib mobile through our choice of a Montessori preschool. But when we moved to a new state, it wasn't just for a good education. We were drawn to a broader concept: a foundation of possibility.

Because we are both self-employed, we can live anywhere. But as much as I love my parents and siblings (and the mountains and the seashore), we wound up picking a small city with no great natural beauty and no preexisting acquaintances or relatives. It had a national reputation for excellent public schools, a professional population, and proximity to two top universities and a host of smaller colleges. (And, okay, a decent climate.)

I couldn't care less whether my kids go to Harvard. But I do want them to know it's out there—I didn't as a kid—and that it's part of a whole spectrum of choices. I want them to grow up in a place where people expect to feed their heads and hearts, where you get a base that prepares you for anything. I really like living in a place where their friends come from Japan, India, Europe, and China, and that there are lots of things for all of us to do.

I know it's also true that cream will rise, love will find a way, and presidents grow up in log cabins. Where you live isn't everything. But having someone besides your parents whispering "Go for it!" in your ear is.

Humor

We have a wacky house. Or so a visiting preschooler once informed me. Many a time my husband has told a young guest tall tales of the monkeys in our freezer only to be met with a solemn stare.

I can appreciate that not everyone is naturally goofy. I'm more the serious type myself. But small children come by silliness naturally, and they deserve to have it preserved as long as possible.

I want my kids to appreciate the absurd. To see tigers in the trees. To make up knock-knock jokes. To know it's okay to yodel dumb songs (so long as they don't sing them at the dinner table). To not freeze up with suspicion like some of our visitors when asked our household's long-running nonsense poll: "Are you a salty dog or a pepper cat?"

(Don't ask what it means. It's been years, and I still have no idea.) Kids don't learn just manners by example; they also learn how to laugh. This wasn't our stated goal when we started making up silly family songs or laughing off ordinary household disasters. But it's become a priority.

Independent thinking

The first year Henry and Eleanor encountered "TV-Turnoff Week" at school, they refused to participate. "Like that's going to prove anything!" they snorted.

My first impulse had been to insist they sign the pledge forms like their teacher wanted. But I had to admire their logic. Turning off the TV for a week doesn't solve the real causes of obesity, violence, and illiteracy. And even at 10 and 8, they understood this.

To learn to think for themselves, kids need conversation, not marching orders. My favorite part of eating dinner together (that undervalued activity worth more than 1,000 soccer practices and music lessons) is being able to sit around talking about the world and everyone's day. Asking "What do you think?" can take you to some pretty interesting places.

Children also need the downtime and space to think, which is why I'm loath to overschedule their afternoons. I supply lots of white paper, crayons, and backyard time. You also can't beat open-ended toys like dress-up clothes, blocks, and dolls that don't have words already programmed inside them.

Hunger

Prompt disclaimer: I do not starve my kids. (I'm the last pro-Oreo holdout among the moms I know.) The kind of hunger I want for them is the kind of longing I grew up with  -- of not having life handed to me on a silver platter and every heart's desire made readily available. Some of those old longings are still palpable: the Barbie Dream House my cousin had while my dolls slept in a cardboard box. Heading out west. These unfulfilled desires still fuel the choices I make as an adult.

It's not that I'm into deprivation. In many ways my kids have more than I did as a child—bigger house, more books, more "enrichment," farther-flung vacations. Yet I try to stop short of making everything happen for them, just like that, just because I can."What do you want Santa to bring?" I once asked a 5-year-old visitor.

"I don't know. There's not really anything I need," she shrugged. She already had a bedroom so stuffed with every toy that she really didn't want for anything.

Not here. There will be no $30 allowances in this house. No computer at 1, no iPods at 8. No new clothes if the old still fit. Partly it's about money, sure. But mostly it's about teaching my kids the hidden values of effort and desire. It kindles a little fire in the belly. So I don't rush to replace lost lunch boxes. I drag my feet about feeding this year's trendy toy craze. Waiting to see London or Paris means they're more likely to properly appreciate it later. (Okay, so I bought the girls a deluxe pink Dream House and the Barbie Cruise Ship, too. But I held the line at the karaoke machine. I'm a little indulgent, but I'm not crazy.)

Does my list have you nodding in agreement—or wrinkling your nose in disgust? The only way to sort out your own roster of family values is to mull it over.

Start with your reactions to my priorities. Maybe you think I left out something essential. More chores? Less goofiness? Do you place family over all else, and if so what does that look like day to day? Maybe your worldview turns more firmly on fiscal responsibility or hard work or faith. What do you wish for your child?

Compare notes with your partner, too. For all our differences, George and I tend to be made of the same core stuff. But couples are often surprised at how their differences of religion, ethnicity, politics, money, and so on—things perhaps blissfully ignored prepregnancy—play out now. Whether you conflict or compromise is hard to say until you're in there taking inventory and then trying to live in a way that makes those values spring to life.

Maybe George and I will wind up with a passel of egocentric, wacky iconoclasts who scatter to the four corners of the earth. Maybe not. So long as they love themselves, do what they love, know they are unconditionally loved by us—and yes, have a good time, with a healthy embodiment of our basic values—I'll consider my stint as Mom a job well done.

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