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By "Today" contributor
updated 1/26/2006 4:28:47 PM ET 2006-01-26T21:28:47

For her latest installment of "Parenting Weekends," "Today" contributor Dr. Ruth Peters shares some thoughts from her book, “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control.” Here's an excerpt:

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Law #1:
Establish a Code of Values

If you believe that your kids will just naturally develop into good citizens or caring people, think again. Don’t depend upon their peers, schools, or the media to teach them. It’s up to you, their parent, to set the standards and to make absolutely clear what behaviors and character traits are important as a member of your family.

***

Kids have never been smarter than they are now. In fact, in the United States the average IQ score has risen 24 points since 1918! So this generation of kids must really have its stuff together, right? Well, on paper our children may have more smarts than we did at their age, but according to most of the research, many aren’t using it. And that may not just be our problem, but our fault.

Just take a gander at today’s newspaper and you’ll probably read about kids involved in adult crimes or academic achievement levels falling rather than soaring. Talking with your neighbor probably won’t help, as he gripes about the heathens down the road who litter his yard with their cigarette butts and empty beer cans. I’m sure that you’ve noticed the decline in respectful, responsible behaviors by children (perhaps yours or your friends’ kids), and this surely hasn’t escaped me.

But let’s not rush to judge these kids. This trend falls squarely upon our shoulders — the parents of these disrespectful, impulsive kids. We’re simply not teaching our children the appropriate values and respect in a way they can understand and appreciate.

Maybe, you think, it’s not so bad. Their maverick attitudes are no doubt annoying, but is this really hurting the children? Well, let’s see.

Take a look at what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in their latest survey about the behavior of high school students.

• 70 percent admit to having used cigarettes.

• 32 percent engage in episodic heavy drinking.

• 47 percent report having used marijuana.

• 19 percent seriously considered suicide during the 12 months preceding the survey.

• 50 percent have had sexual intercourse.

Ready for some more “good” news about our brilliant offspring? Try this one on for size — the National Runaway Switchboard notes that:

• One in seven kids between the ages of 10 and 18 will run away from home.

• Assaults, illness, or suicide take the lives of 5,000 runaway youth each year.

Haven’t been convinced that helping our kids to stay on track and out of trouble should be the nation’s, as well as every parent’s, number-one priority? Give the following a gander, taken from the National Center for Injury Prevention.

• The largest proportion of adolescent injuries is from motor vehicle crashes.

• Alcohol is involved in about 35 percent of adolescent driver fatalities.

• Alcohol is involved in about 40 percent of all adolescent drownings.

How about pregnancy?

• The United States has the highest teenage pregnancy rate of all developed countries.

• About one million teenagers become pregnant each year; 95 percent of those pregnancies are unintended and almost one-third end in abortions.

And we thought that our children were getting smarter! The reality lies in the difference between IQ smarts (efficiency of learning, visual and auditory memory, and perceptual-motor performance) and having developed a good value system (having the common sense and self-control to say no to drugs and alcohol, or the perseverance to stay in school even though the classes may be boring or seemingly irrelevant). Want to make sure that your child doesn’t become one of these statistics? Of course you do, as do I as a parent myself. Therefore, we are faced with the mission and the responsibility of setting up and teaching our children good values and acceptable societal mores.

You just can’t get around it — how you raise your child matters. The values that you teach and the rules you impose have a tremendous impact not only on your kid’s current behavior but also on the type of individual that he will become as an adult. Kids who are raised with a feeling of entitlement (“I want therefore I get.”) or inconsistent “Teflon Rules” (slippery rules that don’t stick) or wishy-washy “Velcro Values” (“I can slap the values on when I want them or just rip them off when they’re inconvenient.”) never quite understand or accept the laws of life. Often these children grow to be bitter, resentful adults who tend to blame others for their failures and disappointments. Until they learn to take responsibility for their actions, they will never really feel in charge of their lives and will probably be incapable of making the behavioral changes so necessary for success.

This is where establishing your own family code of values comes in.

Okay, humor me for a moment. Pretend that you were given three wishes that would guarantee the development of values and attributes that you’d like your children to possess — what would these wishes be? To have a child with perseverance and athletic talent who wows the neighborhood with his batting average or speed on a running track? How about a daughter so compassionate that she would have made Mother Teresa proud? Or, to have a kid who is so internally motivated and intellectually curious that he actually enjoys school, is enthralled with math and science, and shows promise of becoming a chemical engineer?

What attributes do you value most in yourself and others? Think about it for a moment. Do you respect honesty, reliability, and perseverance? Where do compassion, insight, and empathy fall on your list of moral priorities? And, most important, how do your children stack up in terms of these qualities? If your kid assessment is a bit spotty or even scary — join the club! I’ve found that many parents know what they respect in others and expect in themselves but often feel that their kids are falling short of the goal.

Why? Well, sometimes your expectations may be unreasonable or your standards too high. Kids will be kids, and it takes some life experience for feelings of compassion to kick in or to learn that honesty really is the best policy. But too often it’s not from setting standards too high, but too low. Parents learn to accept bad behavior rather than taking the time to teach good values. The root of this problem is that families rarely elucidate what principles their family stands for.

The Family Code
I’ve found that a family without a formalized value system is like a team without a set game plan — whoever runs to first base becomes the first baseman, and the guy who meanders to the mound is the team’s starting pitcher. How can you, as the team’s “coach,” expect to get the best out of your family that way?

And that brings us to your most important first step: Setting up a formalized code of family values. This family code is the recognition of the attributes, expectations, and principles that you believe to be central to the well-being of each individual member as well as to the family as a whole. Its contents are not only important but must be reasonable to attain. Not every kid can be a star athlete, but it is reasonable to expect solid participation and perseverance during practice. Your child may not become a math or chemistry whiz, but she can do all of her homework and try her best even when it’s truly challenging. And your daughter may not be able at age 10 to save the world, but she can be expected to display compassion for a hurt kitten or a younger sibling who needs help.

The family code of values is a game plan of sorts. It clearly states what your family stands for as well as the behaviors that you promote. It’s also “The Law of the Land,” being clear about the behavior that is encouraged and the behavior you will not tolerate.

Principles such as living a substance-free lifestyle, acting in an honest and forthright manner, consistently displaying responsible behavior, and possessing a solid work ethic are some of the values in my own family code. I’m not saying that we’ve all achieved perfection, but we try, and the kids have grown up knowing exactly where my husband and I stand on these issues.

A bonus is that if you expect certain behaviors and value-development in your children, you have to display them yourself. Most likely you’ll be a happier, more successful, and fulfilled person because of your commitment to a reasonable lifestyle.

I’ve found that most parents fail to set up a family code of values for two reasons — either they don’t take the time to formalize the important principles that their family stands for (assuming that the kids will just “figure it out” as time goes by), or they don’t want to have to follow the values and inherent behaviors themselves! Let’s take a look at each of these possibilities and the associated consequences.

Excuse #1: “Let’s just take one day at a time.”
Many parents adopt this attitude about child rearing. It’s exhausting just putting out today’s fires and getting the kids off to school and to their extracurricular activities on time. Sitting down as a family to discuss something as esoteric as “values” and “expectations” may seem unnecessary, and therefore is overlooked. At times even Mom and Dad don’t take the opportunity themselves to discuss such bottom-line issues as the promotion of volunteerism or whether an allowance should be earned or just given.

My clients, 18-year-old Matt and his folks, are perfect examples of “forgetting” to establish a family code of values. Sure, they had many of the bases covered, such as expecting good grades, meeting curfew, and not drinking milk directly from the carton, but they were terribly remiss in the responsibility department. Matt never quite got the hang of getting up by himself to an alarm clock (and therefore depended upon his mother to rouse him), and Dad had to constantly remind him to check to see if all of his homework was completed and packed in his book bag. Matt was a terrific kid, but one who couldn’t be counted on to complete tasks or to organize his responsibilities.

Through high school Matt and his folks were able to keep things patched together haphazardly, but his dependence upon others caused major problems when he began college. Roommates are not prone to rising early just to wake up a sleepyhead, so Matt often missed his first class. Professors do not take kindly to students asking for time extensions because they forgot the paper’s due date. You can see where this is going. Matt basically fell on his face, had to withdraw from his first semester, and returned home to begin at the community college to start over. This time around, though, I worked with the family, and we added responsibility to their code of values. Matt was expected to set his alarm and use a daily planner for his studies, as well as tackle other organizational duties around the house. Matt learned a hard, expensive, but ultimately very important lesson, as most of his friends were off to school and he was back home living with his folks.

Excuse #2: “But then, I’ll have to change.”
The second reason that many parents don’t formalize and communicate a family code of values is that if they do, then they are expected to follow it. It’s one thing to tell your kids not to smoke cigarettes or to drink alcohol, but it’s quite another to live it yourself. The hypocrisy of “Do as I say but not as I do” just doesn’t cut it when raising kids. You have to be willing to live the code yourself. For example, instructing your children to be fiscally responsible while you’re creating a mound of credit card debt doesn’t jibe.

This reminds me of a fifth-grade client of mine who had just finished the D.A.R.E. (substance-abuse education) program at school. She reported to me that on the very first day that she was planning to wear her coveted and hard-earned red D.A.R.E. T-shirt to school, she was rummaging through Mom’s accessory drawer in search of a neck scarf to match. Well, the kid got more than she bargained for — underneath the scarves was Mom’s marijuana stash! Not a particularly pleasant way to boast about completing a substance-abuse education course, especially when her mother had given her an “atta girl” for completing the program.

Trust me, most children know what their folks are up to, even when their parents believe that they’ve hidden their behavior or possessions well. Not only must you love your children enough to set up a reasonable code of values, but you must also care enough for yourself and for your family to live it yourself.

If Not You, Who?
As you can see, a family code of values is a platform upon which parents present their expectations to their kids — goals about behavior, academic achievement, truthfulness, and sexual behavior, as well as health and physical concerns. Hoping that your children “just get it” by watching you is too risky. In fact, the kids who need the most guidance in these matters are often those who are too inattentive to even notice your behavior! That’s why the family code should be spelled out and communicated clearly to the kids in a formal manner, such as a family meeting. And, through the years, it should be presented informally via your own actions as well as reactions to their behaviors.

If the kids tire of hearing “I expect you to tell me the truth, even if it does land you in a bit of trouble,” or “We believe in work before play,” so be it. This is the way that children learn what you and the family stand for. And if you’re not teaching principles and values, who is? It may be your kid’s peer group — now that’s a scary thought! Although setting up and communicating the family code does not guarantee that the children will live by all of the principles when they become adults, some of it usually sticks. It provides them with a structure — a behavioral and attitudinal guideline to follow throughout the growing years and well into adulthood.

LIVING THE LAW

Make a list of values, attributes, qualities, and behaviors that you admire. Go for it — don’t be concerned at this stage whether your ideas are totally reasonable — just get the creative juices flowing. Think about the people you admire and what it is about their behavior that you find most attractive.

Then, make a list of values, attributes, qualities, and behaviors that you definitely do not wish to see developing in your family. This list may be easier to devise — just think about folks whom you’ve been less than pleased with!

Together pare down both lists to those descriptors that you agree upon. If you’re a single parent, then you get to do all of the choosing — definitely one of the benefits of calling the shots all by yourself. Translate, if possible, the negative attributes that you’d like to avoid into positive language. Try to keep the list to 9 or 10 items in order to keep it simple and manageable. Allow a few items to remain even though only one parent feels strongly about the attribute.

Set a family meeting to present and discuss your lists with the kids. Use firm and definitive language such as, “In our family we don’t use drugs,” “We’re careful about using credit cards,” and “We try not to give up even when it gets tough.” This clarifies not only what you live by but also your expectations for the children’s behavior.

As a family, periodically review the appropriateness of the values listed within your family code. As necessary, delete, add, or update the list to meet the changing needs, ages, and desires of all of the family members.

Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” Her most recent book is "Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting" (Rodale, 2002).  She is also the consultant psychologist for the Family Program at the Pritikin Longevity Center, a nutrition and exercise facility in Aventura, Florida. For more information you can visit her Web site at www.ruthpeters.com. Copyright ©2004 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.

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