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Priorities and Values: Why they matter with kids.

Updated: Jul 9, 2022

kids blowing bubbles
Kids bring out the fun in everthing

Have you ever heard the saying that "You have to pick your battles?" Well, this is especially true with kids. I have a toddler that asks me to do something about every 5 minutes, and it can be anything from kissing an owie, to playing a game, or getting some candy. Some of these I say yes, some I say no, and for a while I would get irritated about how often she would ask me something.

It's pretty easy to let any little issue turn into a big argument. Over time, I have had to learn to pick my battles with my kids. Am I happy when my daughter wipes play dough on the carpet? Or when she dumps a whole jar of fish food into the tank? Not really. But I am re-learning to let some things slide.

Figuring out your priorities.

When my now-teen daughter was little, I decided that the three things I wanted more than anything else for her to do were:

  1. Eating Healthy

  2. Doing Well in School

  3. Getting Along with Others

Now that she has graduated from High School with high marks, I think for the most part, she has internalized the things that I think are important.

Most of all, what I want for my kids, is for them to be healthy and happy.

I grew up in an authoritarian household, where I constantly was afraid of what my parents thought of me. So, happy kids is something that I have always strived for. That means, I try to encourage my children in the direction they are going, and help them get there the best they can. I don't try to direct their course.

When my children take up an interest, like bugs, cosplay, building, or art, I try to get interested in it with them and help them to get better at their hobbies or interests.

Personal Values.

Values are ideas and beliefs that are important to us. In many ways, our values shape our reality, because they determine the way we live our lives. Many times, we are unaware of our value system, and we can actually have conflicting values taking us in separate directions. When we are trying to go two different directions, we end up going nowhere fast.

Many people adopt a value system from religion or culture from an early age. If this is the case for you, then your values may be deeply ingrained in your subconscious, and not something you spend time thinking about on a daily basis.

When we take our values from religion, often they are the values handed down to us from our parents and grandparents. If we attend religious services from a young age, we grow up with religious stories that teach moral behaviors and ideas about right and wrong.

Examples of religious value systems would be the 10 Commandments in Christianity, or the 4 Noble Truths in Buddhism.

Cultural values are beliefs that are held by the majority of people in a country or culture. In the US, many of the beliefs and values that we practice on a daily basis are laid out in the Constitution.

Some examples of US cultural values would include the ideas of freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness.

To some extent, we all have values shaped by religious and cultural norms that we have grown up with. However, at times there are cultural shifts in society, such as gay marriage or the black lives matter movement, which may cause us to reconsider our values and belief system.

Also, our values may change somewhat as we move through different phases of life. For example, when you are a high school or college student you may value individuality and autonomy the most, but when you become a parent then you start to value family more.

Earlier this year, I took a class with my work where we were asked to pick out our top five values from a list. You can brainstorm your own, or you can look at this list.

We all most likely have more than five values in life, the idea is to choose which values are most important to you in your current phase of life. This is also an exercise that you can do with children or teens, although with very young children I have rephrased the question to "what makes you happy" instead of "what are your values" since happiness is a more accessible concept for small children.

To give you an example of what I am talking about, here are my top five values:

  1. Trust

  2. Honesty

  3. Kindness

  4. Family

  5. Safety

As a mom, I incorporate these values in both the way I treat my kids, and the way I teach my kids to interact with the world.

For example, I think that if I treat my kids with honesty and kindness, they will learn to trust in me, which allows them to feel safe.

When I was younger, I was out of touch with my values. I spent all my time working (away from my family) to make money. If I value family higher than money, it would make sense for me to take more time with my kids, and less time at work. You could argue instead though, that if I use the money to provide my kids a better life, that all the time at work was well spent.

There are no right or wrong values. We just want to be sure that we are organizing our lives in a way that allows us to pursue what is most important to us. Like if you really want to be a marine biologist, then we want to take classes about biology and whales, not classes about business management. Make sense?

Following Our Values in an Intentional Way

When we become aware of our values, that allows us to set goals that align with what is most important to us. Intentional, goal directed action allows us to live life to the fullest because we are living life in a way that we have chosen.

A life guided by values, priorities and goals allows us to have a sense of purpose about the things that we do. It also allows us to devote our time, energy and efforts in a way that is going to make us feel fulfilled.

As moms, we are probably some of the busiest people out there! There are always 20 things that need to be done, some of them immediately, some of them yesterday, and some of them that your toddler asked you for in the last five minutes.

It basically goes without saying that there are going to be things left undone at the end of the day, almost every day. By aligning our goals and our actions to our priorities and values, we can ensure that the most important things are getting done each day. So we didn't scrub the grout on the bathroom floor with bleach today. It isn't going to kill us if it waits for tomorrow.

The cool thing is, we each get to decide for ourselves, each day, what the most important things are.

When I set goals, I have big overarching life goals, but I split them into smaller goals on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

For more about setting goals:

With our kids, it is important to teach them about the world in such a way that we allow them to choose their own priorities and values as they grow up, and feel safe to be themselves with us. There are many ways to do this, by teaching them as much about the world as we can in a non-judgmental way.

We can teach our kids to set their own goals, and how to pursue them.

Helping Kids Choose Their Own Priorities.

When kids are young, helping them choose their priorities may mean having them choose between band and volleyball as an afterschool club, what color to paint their room, or what vegetable to have with dinner. For the bigger decisions, you can have them do something like a pro's and con's list and talk through the decision.

With my kids, I let them know that whatever choice they make, I will support them.

As they get older, the choices will get more complicated. When they get ready for college, choosing a major will be something difficult that they will all experience. If they are lucky, during high school they will be able to experiment with different fields of study, and find out what they like.

Before she decided on what to major in, I told my daughter to go on to look up information about different jobs. I told her to look at the jobs she might want, and what locations she could find the highest paid job in that field. Or, if there was somewhere she specially wanted to live, to find out what the highest paid jobs were. One strategy puts the career first, the other puts location first. So, it depends which is a higher priority to each child.

Family walking on the beach.
Kids can learn from travel.

Expose Kids to Varied Experiences.

In order to help kids find out what their priorities and values are, it may help to expose them to many different types of experiences. The more they know about the world, the better equipped they will be to make informed decisions that will serve them well in the long run.

One way to do this is by taking them to the library, and exposing them to different types of books. I always like letting my girls browse through shelves of books, reading stories with them, and fostering learning.

When my oldest was in 3rd grade, and she wanted to learn about every different type of bugs. Each week, we would go to the library and check out a book about a different bug to take home. Then, when she got older, she volunteered at the Butterfly Pavilion. I don't know anything about bugs, but she was fascinated, and I helped her pursue her interest.

You can also expose your kids to varied experiences through travel. Going to new places, learning about new cultures, and eating different foods can also broaden kids horizons. Showing them that there are many different ways of living life shows them that they have a wide range of options.

Along with travel, we can expose our kids to learning foreign languages. Often, when kids learn new languages, they can also learn about other countries, and other cultures.

Different cultures often have different value systems, and different ways of living. For example, in Spain, they take a siesta (nap) in the afternoon and businesses close. Many countries in Europe also allow for a month vacation each year, so travel is much more of an option.

When we provide our children with varied experiences, it allows them to discover their interests and broaden their horizons.

In the Amish culture, teens turn 18 and go out into the city to spend a year abroad before they settle into life. Mormons go on a mission trip for a year, so that they can see the world as well. Joining the Peace Corps, or a Foreign Exchange program also allow young people to go out into the world in somewhat of a structured way to experience new things away from home prior to choosing college or a profession.

Another option is for teens to join the military after high school and before college. In Israel, all young people are required to serve some time in the military. This is another type of cultural experience that allows young people to go out into the world and learn new skills.

There are many ways for kids to get out and experience the world before they "settle down" and choose their path. One thing I told my teen daughter when she turned 18 is that being an adult is about being able to make your own choices. Also, just because you have chosen one path, it doesn't mean you are locked in forever. The average person now changes careers 5 times in their lifetime. That creates a freedom in knowing that a choice doesn't have to be forever if it isn't right for you anymore.

The More Intentional We Are, The More Intentional They Are.

When we model intentional, goal-setting behavior in line with our values, the more likely that our kids will do the same. Kids learn more by example than anything else.

Whether they choose 'our' values or not, supporting them along the way will help them to clearly understand what their own values are, and how to pursue them.

Do you have any other tips for helping kids define their values? What has worked for you that you think will work for other readers? Let me know in the comments! As always, I am happy to hear your feedback and to write further on any topics you are interested in, just let me know!

Next Steps.

Once you or your kids choose the values that are most important to you, then you can set goals that align with your values. To meet those goals, you can make a schedule for your year, month, and day. This can include a morning routine that helps you get excited about what you are going to experience or accomplish.

To follow up on these ideas, you can read my other blog posts:

I also have a Printable Goal Planner to walk you through all the steps of setting your own goals.

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