When my daughter was in second grade, her teacher was expecting a baby. As it came time for her to go on maternity leave, the class had a good-bye party for her. One of the gifts the class made was a scrapbook with each student contributing a photo of themselves, a picture drawn for her and the baby, and their ‘words of wisdom.’ Basically, we asked each student to give the teacher advice on how to raise a happy child. This was, perhaps, one of the funniest projects I have ever been a part of. And also one of the most illuminating.
Many of the kids wrote advice about feeding kids things that aren’t gross, reading to them at night, and making sure to change their diapers. But many wrote things that gave us a stark look at what things might be like at home for them. They wrote “make sure the kids don’t try to talk to dad during the Superbowl,” “you should have lots of different things to tell grandma about why she can’t come over so she doesn’t tell you you’re lying,” and “if the dad starts yelling, you should take the kids with you when you leave.” Now for the record, when I saw replies that would likely embarrass the kids’ parents, I simply gave them another question in the form of a prompt that would not end by revealing so much – the original answers were not put in the book.
I was thinking about this project because the reality is, even if we don’t label them, kids know what the values or norms are in our homes – for better or worse. This instance reflected what second graders had gleaned from their families about things such as lying, priorities, and even fighting. As they get older, imagine what they become aware of in the home. This came up because I wanted my daughter to have a firm foundation of what was important to her and in our family when she was entering the tween years, and I realized I wasn’t sure what she would say our family values are if she were asked.
So what did I do? I started by asking her to name some of the values of our family. She said “no lying, help other people, and no shoes in the house.” Hmm. These were fine answers, but not what I would have expected. My absolute least favorite character trait is lying – she has seen that the worst kind of trouble you can get in with me is by lying, but I didn’t realize how much she was aware of this because it wasn’t never really labeled out loud. I loved that she said help other people, because we have stated that service to others is important in our family. No shoes in the house? I am something of a germophobe, but I cringed a little that it affects the family so much that she considers it a value!
From there, we embarked on an important project to launch her into her tween years. I asked her if she would rather create a vision board or write a mission statement to focus on what’s important in her life. She chose the mission statement. You have no doubt seen many mission statements – for the company you work for, volunteer for, or even your kids’ schools. The idea is to have your tween think about the values important to her and your family, and really solidify them by writing them down, along with the necessary qualities to live them. For inspiration, look up mission statements for organizations or agencies that you or she admire, perhaps ones that focus on tween/teen issues, and let your tween take the lead from there. The idea is to name some values, and be specific about how those are achieved. It’s great to say “be a nice kid,” but what does that mean? We need to be letting our kids know what being nice really looks like, and what it takes to live that out. If your tween is more artsy, try a vision board. Ideas for these are endless – just take a peek at Pinterest for some inspiration here! But find some quotes, pictures, words, etc. that embody the values she is looking to clarify. As a shameless plug, I dedicate an entire chapter to this concept in Between Baby Dolls and Boyfriends, including a more specific template for the mission statement.
I urge you to ask your tween to name three things that she feels are values in your family, or values that are important to have at her age. Her answers will let you know the direction you should take in dispatching her into the tween or teen years. Perhaps you’ll feel that she is quite centered, and this is just a reminder to keep checking in with her about the importance of these values and encouraging her to strengthen the characteristics needed to live them. Or maybe you’ll realize that while your family does have strong values, your tween is a little scattered about being able to hold them dear to her and is at a good age to really define them and plot a course to steer her into these challenging years.
No matter how you put it together, the point is that our children desperately need our guidance in navigating the years to come, in which every value you hold will be challenged. I’m sure you are a great parent, with stellar values. But if your tween isn’t able to identify with and make these values a part of who she is, she will be easily derailed. Take a little time to have these discussions, and create a visual project that she can refer to as a reminder of what’s important. I promise you will learn something about yourself and your tween in the process, and feel a sense of calm knowing that she has a firmer foundation in years that test the strongest of foundations. All together now, everybody say “ommm.”