Last summer, I had big plans on one of our family camping trips. A friend had told me that as she struggled with raising her teen son, she realized she had never talked to him about values. She demonstrates her values to him through her actions, but a lot of times it’s the things we don’t do that demonstrate a value — not throwing cigarette butts on the ground, not taking frustration out on wait staff — and a decision not to do something is often a silent one; it is not always seen or heard, and so there’s no knowing that a guiding principle motivated non-action.
My friend decided to verbalize her values with her son. To discuss them out loud so he knew there were silent judgment calls going on behind the scenes, and that the choices his mom made were not arbitrary but were motivated by a set of fundamental beliefs. I thought this was a brilliant idea, and I couldn’t wait to talk to our kids about it on our next camping trip.
Sometimes I’m not great at these things.
It was a hot, humid June day and we were at Breaks Interstate Park in the southwest corner of Virginia, where the state butts up against Kentucky. We weren’t impressed with our campground or the park — both were littered with candy wrappers and plastic bottle caps that we griped about and cleaned up — and it was hot enough to wear shorts even at our early morning start. We dripped sweat while we waded through poison ivy our entire 6-hour hike. At some point, we took a wrong turn on the mountain and stirred a nest of sand bees, whose swarm we had to coax our children around to get back on the trail.
We saw all sorts of moisture-loving creatures on the hike, but other than the millipede and fungus highlights, the hike was miserable. It seemed everything was out to get us, and we talked endlessly of poison ivy — how long it takes to start itching, whether the kids will be allergic, can we wash it off, how long do you have before the oils seep into your skin, how much longer is the hike, will there be this much poison ivy the whole way? I wanted off the mountain as much as our kids did: I could handle the poison ivy, the heat, the bees, but I could not handle the incessant questions.
When we got back to the campsite, showered to wash the poison ivy oils away, and were all sitting around in the doldrums of the afternoon — when everyone was too hot and tired to do anything, but was also bored just staring at each other around a not-yet-lit campfire, I thought, aha! Now would be a good time for our talk.
I grabbed my notebook and said, “I know what we can do. I’ve been wanting to talk to y’all about our family values. Do you know what values are?”
My husband is often pained by my cheesy “talks” like this. He tried hard not to roll his eyes. Our 10-year-old son shrugged, and our 8-year-old daughter, ever the pleaser, scrunched her face while she thought, trying to find the answer that would most likely earn her praise. “Things we spend money on?” she finally said.
“Close,” I told her. “Values are the things in our lives that we — value. Things that add depth and richness to our lives. For instance, I value beauty,” I said.
“Me too!” our daughter said.
“I value the beauty in nature and music and literature, and appreciate when people put thought into the aesthetics of a creation, whether a painting or a plate of food.”
I surveyed my family, and while our daughter was eager, my husband and son wondered at the point of this exercise. They are both show-ers, not say-ers.
“So let’s go around the circle and name the things we value,” I said. I looked at our son. He scratched his shin.
“I value pants,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “Ha. Ha. I’m talking about things that add meaning to our lives. Things we wouldn’t want to live without.”
“I wouldn’t want to live without pants,” my husband said. I sighed.
“Okay,” my son said, and grinned. “Donuts. Donuts add meaning to my life.”
I live in a family of smart asses.
I wrote down donuts on our son’s list, and our daughter said, “Art!”
I scribbled “art.”
“Family,” I said.
“Salt,” said our son.
And on we went, our son finally getting serious about it, as we made our list of values.
Badgley Family Values:
an inviting home
My husband was quiet, and when I ran out of paper without a peep from him, I asked, “What about you?”
He thought a minute. “Pretty much everything everyone else has already mentioned,” he said. “And charity.”
I squeezed “charity” into a small open space on the paper.
“When we get home I’ll post these on the fridge,” I said. “And when we’re bored and can’t think of what to do, or if we need help in making a tough decision, we can check in with this list.” They scratched their ankles.
“Thanks for doing that with me, even if it was painful for you,” I said. I closed my notebook and promptly forgot the whole thing. I never posted the list on the fridge.
Apparently, our children forgot about it too. As I finished writing this post, and wondered how to end it, I asked them, “Do y’all remember that time we talked about values?”
They sat in the living room, their faces blank as they turned their eyes from their books to my face. There were no sparks of recognition. “You know,” I said, “we were camping?”
“Oh yeah,” our son giggled. “I said I valued donuts.” He’s still proud of that response.
“Do you ever think about that talk? Did it have any impact on you?”
Both kids shrugged, “Not really,” and stuck their noses back in books.
As I look back on the year since we had our talk, I realize the kids’ behavior didn’t change after verbalizing our values. The actions they take, and the actions they don’t, have always been consistent: they wear pants, they eat donuts, they are gentle and witty, loving and kind.
As hard as it is for me to believe as a talker, it turns out that some things need not be discussed.