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How Children Learn Our Core Values


‘Come in or stay out, you let all the heat out’; “Dublin Airport wouldn’t have as many lights on as we have this house”; “Not everything has to go in the wash basket if you’ve only worn it once”.

These are just three sayings I’ve told myself to tell my kids over the past few weeks, which are verbatim the phrases my parents used when I was growing up. Although it may have seemed like I paid little attention to them at the time, they sank by some form of osmosis.

I hear my mother’s and father’s voices more and more when I talk to my children. This is perhaps more pronounced due to the rising cost of living, which may have parallels to when I grew up in the 80s. Being reasonable and frugal about our use of domestic utilities was a common topic of conversation when I was a kid, not because of a desire to protect the planet – it was just about lowering the price of our utility bills.

Almost anyone who grew up in Ireland at this time will remember that it was frowned upon to have lights on in rooms that no one was using; the radiators in the “good room” were turned off because no one was using it; and if you left the immersion on by accident, you better pray it’s switched to “sink” and not “bath”. Although I didn’t see the point of any of these life lessons at the time, some learnings and attitudes had a lifelong impact.

Values ​​can be transmitted from generation to generation without our knowledge. It’s fascinating how many of us embrace the values ​​taught to us by our parents, despite their rebellion or disagreement at the time.

A wise colleague once spoke of the “sleep-inducing effects of therapy,” which echoes the parent-child relationship. A client, he explained, may complain, “it doesn’t work,” but years later will report implementing the skills taught in the therapeutic relationship.

Absorb a system of values

In addition to teaching me the value of being sensitive to the use of electricity and home heating oil, my parents also passed on other value systems to me. One of them is my “borrowing” or “lending” approach. My father firmly believed in “never owing anything to anyone”. It comes from the idea that you should never “see” or “be obliged” to someone else, which rubbed off on me. Every car I’ve owned, I’ve bought outright, and the thought of buying something on “the never-never” fills me with dread. While this perspective was probably very helpful to me from a debt management perspective, it also made me quite risk averse. My reliance on permanent, pensionable income has always kept me from “going out alone,” so maybe that life lesson held me back from being an entrepreneur.

Another value system that my mother passed on to me was “the work ethic”. I don’t remember my parents ever missing work or ever complaining about having to go to work. I remember my mother, a nurse, driving to work in treacherously heavy snow. I told her once that I thought she was stupid for taking such risks to get to work. She explained that she was going out in dangerous weather conditions because her colleagues and patients depended on her. If she couldn’t, her colleagues wouldn’t be able to go home, and that sense of obligation drove her to do anything to get to work.

I have a similar mindset. When I left my job in 2020 at St Patrick’s Hospital in Dublin, I calculated that I had only taken one sick day in the 11 years I was there. It wasn’t because I’m incredibly healthy or never sick, but rather because I would have dragged myself to work with coughs, temperatures and other doses and been through it all. In hindsight, that was neither wise nor sensible.

The other value system I inherited was punctuality. My father’s repeated saying was “better an hour early than a minute late”. Despite rolling my eyes as a teenager when he used that phrase, to this day I’m obsessed with punctuality. If ever I am delayed, for whatever reason, my reaction is not commensurate with the importance of the event.

If being thrifty, risk averse and punctual are the qualities I inherited from my parents, what value systems am I passing on to my children? Or are they even picking them up?

Despite our best efforts to impart wisdom to children, there is a common belief that we have no impact. To borrow a phrase from my mother, it “falls on deaf ears”. But does that mean we should give up passing on our wisdom to our children? I do not think so. Perhaps akin to the “sleep-inducing effects” of therapy, there is hope that a similar latent dynamic is at play in the “sleep-inducing effects” of parenting.

Be a role model for your children

Children and adolescents do not want to be sensible adults, so the wisdom value system of parents will conflict with the experimentation value system of adolescence. But that doesn’t mean the message isn’t absorbed or has an unconscious, subtle impact on their core beliefs. Teenagers are not designed to agree with their parents – their role is to challenge those values ​​and test them in the field. For this reason, the value system that parents attempt to convey may be challenged or ignored. But that’s not proof you’ve failed – your words of wisdom can be filed away, to be reused later when they’re more applicable to their stage of life.

If you have a value system that you want to convey, then embody it, persist, and try to sell its benefits. But don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t have an immediate effect. Reclaiming this wisdom may require a set of circumstances to bring it to light, which is why many of us don’t appreciate the benefits of approaching our parents until we become parents ourselves. .

I don’t see any signs that my kids are embracing my core values ​​yet. My daughter has no problem borrowing my money and my eldest son has no rush to be on time. That said, my youngest son was sitting in the dark with his tablet last night, which I’d like to think because it saves electricity. However, the most likely explanation was that he was too lazy to get up and turn on the light in the first place.

Dr. Colman Noctor is a child psychotherapist