Parents and Teachers Should Focus On Values Rather Than Rules

“Talking with our kids about values and attitudes, like respect, cooperation, honesty, service,
and compassion can be as important as clear-cut rules.”
– David Walsh (2007, p.177)

Most parents and teachers spend a lot of time teaching their kids about rules, when they really should be emphasizing the values behind these rules. It’s an important distinction. Rules and restrictions by their very nature are a blunt instrument. They are inflexible, unaccommodating, and above all, promote conformity – often at the expense of reason or compassion. In fact, much of bullying behavior is about kids imposing learned social rules upon other students. So and so is supposed to look and act a certain way, and so if they disobey these social rules, they must be punished.

Rules can easily become a lazy way to try to promote universal values. Yet sadly, most parents – not to mention society at large – will go to great lengths focusing on and enforcing rules and restrictions, often while entirely ignoring values. In fact, we frequently defend rules at the expense of values, enforcing arbitrary, unnecessary or hypocritical demands on others without once stopping to question whether these judgments are accurate or fair or whether they even support the values our rules are meant to support. The end result of this focus on rules over values is that individuals tend to think in a more rigid way, with less concern for universal kindness and more of a focus on conformity.

A value-oriented child does not bully others because they are different or wear the wrong clothes, because that would violate important values such as kindness and compassion. A rule-oriented child, on the other hand, is much more likely to view such deviations as a violation of the norm and seek to punish the rule-breaker. So as subtle as this distinction can seem, over time the difference between a value-oriented system and a rule-oriented system can amount to a big difference in how susceptible kids are towards bullying.

Teaching children about universal values
Teach your kids about the following universal values:

1. Kindness and compassion: Compassion is about showing kindness towards all people in all situations. It’s about disliking pain and suffering in all its forms, no matter who it’s directed against (even someone we don’t like). The most important thing kids should understand about kindness and compassion is that it needs to be universal. It’s easy to be kind to people we like; that takes no effort at all. The real indicator of kindness is measured by how compassionate you are towards those who are different than you, weaker than you, or perhaps even somewhat unpleasant to be around.

2. Self-control: Self-control is about holding back on doing something that might cause pain or injury (to yourself or others), even when you feel the urge to do so. It’s restraining our urges when that action or statement would be hurtful to someone else.

3. Responsibility: This is about acting responsibly in different situations, and taking ownership for any hurt or problems your actions may have caused, even if that hurt was unintentional. In terms of bullying prevention, it’s important to talk up what a child’s responsibilities are, such as the responsibility to speak out against hostility, to try and say something soothing to someone you see being picked on, and the responsibility to not give bullies an audience and either intervene or walk away when you witness it.

4. Honesty and trustworthiness: All of us lie. In fact, it’s a basic developmental mark of social intelligence. But there are good lies and bad lies; or if you prefer, there is a distinction between bending the truth and malicious deceit. We may bend the truth in a positive way, such as when we’re trying to help a friend feel better by buffering the truth. But when we’re deceptive in ways that mislead others, then generally our deception becomes a hurtful thing. Also emphasize that we want to earn the trust of others, which comes through acting genuinely and in ways that do not let others down.

5. Respect: It’s true that respect is earned, but you should also teach children to maintain a basic respect for living things in general, a type of courtesy we extend towards others under any circumstance. Even the lowliest of humans can be treated with a basic respect and dignity as a human being. You should also talk about conducting yourself in ways that earn the respect of others. In our own lives, we want to strive far beyond this basic respect as a human creature, and earn the respect of others on account of the way we treat them and the principles we live by.

6. Integrity: Integrity is about being true to these core principles, even when it’s difficult or comes at a cost. It’s about staying true to ourselves and the type of person we want to be, not just when it’s convenient, but in EVERY situation. A big part of integrity is talking up the heroics and courage it takes to stand up for compassion when everyone around you is shouting to condemn, as we discussed in the previous section. So be sure to do this regularly.

Focus on values in discipline
When disciplining kids, talk to them about the values behind your demands. Don’t ever talk to children about “breaking the rules” without a large part of the conversation focusing around the values that these rules promote. This is especially important when it comes to disciplining them about their behavior with others.

Promote values through our other resources
Whether you’re a parent or teacher, please make use of the other materials we have throughout this site that can help promote compassion and other values. We have many different resources for both the preteen and teen age groups, and are adding more every day.