A few years back, I was feeling particularly overwhelmed as a mother. I felt like every minute of my day was jam packed with responsibilities and obligations. You know what I mean – I had to meet an important deadline at work by 1PM yet somehow manage to get away to my daughter’s Kindergarten pre‐Thanksgiving banquet at noon. Oh and don’t forget to bring along the mashed potatoes. Thank goodness for take out! My heart races now just thinking about it. I remember actually making a mental note to try and remember NOT to wear heels next time I knew there would be actual running in my day. Sometimes it feels like mothers have to break the space‐time continuum and manage to be in two places at once!
Naturally like most moms out there, I try to multi‐task, but I’m not particularly good at it. You know that familiar image of a harried mom juggling kids, work, marriage/relationships, aging parents, groceries, bills, etc…? That was me, and I was dropping balls everywhere. And one of the balls that I dropped really bothered me. It was “values.” I wasn’t doing a good job of teaching my children how to be honest, decent, kind, grateful people. And after loving my kids with all my heart and doing everything in my power to keep them safe and healthy, wasn’t that my most important responsibility as a parent?
I knew I had dropped the ball because I caught my then five year‐old‐daughter trying to shoplift a candy bar as I was paying the bill at a local store. Maybe it’s not a very unusual thing for a five year‐old to do, but something about this particular incident was like a slap in the face that essentially said, “Wake up Mary! You’re messing up big time!”
So to make a long story short, I tried to create some order out of the chaos. And as any organizationally challenged mom worth her salt knows, there is really only one way to do this.
You make a list.
So that’s what I did. I created a list of the values that my husband and I hold most dear – things like integrity, compassion, and a sense of purpose. I titled the list “What Really Matters to Us.” As it turns out there were 12 values on that list. With 12 months in the year and a tenacious desire to “not mess this up any more” I set out on a mission. By focusing on only one value a month, I was going to teach my kids what each of these 12 values mean, and for my husband and me it would be a refresher course to make sure we were truly living these values as well. I would make things like commitment and inner strength real and concrete to my children and give them practical ways to start living these values in their daily lives right then and there, not just when they’re all grown up.
And the amazing thing is, it actually works! Teaching my kids values in this way has been a seismic shift in terms of how I parent, and it’s had an incredible impact. It turns out that values really were abstract and confusing to my kids. Now that I’ve given them practical and understandable ways to live genuine values every day, they have made these 12 values their own.
Here’s how it works. Every month, my family and I focus on understanding one particular value. We start out by just defining what that value means to us and we tell our kids. That’s a really simple but crucial first step because I want the whole family to understand what exactly we are trying to learn. Throughout the month we spend about five minutes a day (really – that’s all) talking about the value and doing simple, interactive exercises. And the kids share their ideas too, so it brings us closer as a family because we all contribute something.
April is one of my favorites ‐ Integrity Month. Here’s an excerpt from my book with my definition of integrity:
Integrity isn’t just telling the truth, though that’s a good start. Integrity is about being ethical, being able to declare your beliefs and stand up for them, even when no one else is backing you up. It’s also about making sacrifices for others and doing the right thing, even when it’s hard.
Here is an integrity building exercise you can try with your kids. It’s called the Daily Dilemma. Every day this month we sit down and ask our kids one question and then we take a moment to talk about their answers. I list 30 different ideas in the book and here are five to get you started.
What would you do if…
…you broke a toy or a video game that a friend had loaned to you and you have to return it today?
…you spilled juice on your grandmother’s new couch when you had been told not to bring any food or drinks into her living room?
…You haven’t studied for the math test at school. Should you fake being sick or go to school and risk failing the test?
…Your mom asks you if you’ve finished your homework and you haven’t, but your friend is coming over any minute with his new video game?
…The popular kids at school decide to play a mean prank on the new teacher and they ask you to be a part of it?
After your kids have given their responses, chat with them. If they have answered in a way that is ethical, take a moment to make sure they’re not just doing this to please you! This exercise isn’t about being judged, and the kids should know that from the start. Encourage their positive choices and when they find that grey area (as my son often seemed to do) help them determine if their answer shows integrity or not. If they typically look for the easy way out (and this is not uncommon) you can offer some insight and guidance from a grown‐up’s perspective.
If you try this exercise with your kids, I’d love to hear how it goes. I welcome your comments. Thanks very much!
Written by Mary O’Donohue