Fatherhood and values

Elena Goncharova—Getty Images

What are your values? If you don’t know what they are, then what are you teaching your children? Values help determine what is important to us and motivate every purposeful action.

I’ve been privileged to be father to many children. Six of my own, two step-children and more than
30 foster children. I’ve learnt that any parent’s personal values will dictate how they deal with unacceptable behaviour. I could always motivate children to behave by using their individual interests and passions as rewards or punishments. One of my toughest foster children loved his siblings . . . and tattoos. He wanted their names tattooed on his chest.

But his behaviour at school was appalling. One day—he was 16 at the time—I was called to meet with the head of school to discuss an assault. Despite this incident, they said, his bad behaviour mentions had actually been decreasing over a period of months—my wife and I been working hard on the value of respecting his foster parents and teachers. The headmaster was shocked when I offered the following: if the child had no bad mentions in the following term, he could get the names of his siblings tattooed on his chest. I was so proud when I got the call on the last day of term telling me he’d had no bad mentions. Because he’d showed honour, worked hard and was kind to himself, he got his tattoo.

Intrinsic motivation

Social psychology has recognised that a deeply held value will guide and dictate a person’s behaviours. This is called intrinsic motivation. Johann Hari suggests in his book Lost Connections that intrinsic values, and not the promise of material rewards, can bring significant happiness.

Research shows that the value-­behaviour association only occurs if values are significant to you. A father’s value system, empathetically taught, will give meaning to, energise and regulate children’s behaviour.

Therefore, I suggest that for you to be the best parent you can be, you will need a set of values to role model. These values should be easy to understand, remember and activate. However, they must also apply to yourself.

Transformational fatherhood

In 2011, Alexander Haslam, in his book The New Psychology of Leadership, asks us to consider the difference between transactional leadership and transformational leadership. Transactional leadership is about rules without empathy; transformational leadership is about equity and respect. Transformational leaders motivate their group with even-handed boundaries and clear consequences. May I suggest that fathers be transformational leaders.


Fathers are incredibly important in instilling values in children. In 2015, Daniel Notterman wrote about epigenetics and its impact on health. Epigenetics is the study of how events or behaviours in a person’s life—food shortages, trauma or addiction, for example—can affect their body to the extent that certain genes will be “switched on or off”—genetic changes that are then inherited by the person’s children and even grandchildren.

Notterman suggested that values, knowledge and behaviours can determine health and therefore that a parent’s values, epigenetically transferred, can affect a child’s health.

The longitudinal Dunedin Study followed 100 babies from childhood to adulthood. Researcher Phil Silva showed that most children, across their lifetime, consistently expressed desires to be close to their biological fathers and grandfathers.

So where would you find examples of a values system? Personal development blogger Steve Pavlina suggests that there are 418 values. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Society, helped define six virtues and 24 character strengths. The Bible gives 10 commandments.

Four primary values

The 4500-year-old biblical commandments of Exodus 20 are the basis of values in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Jesus implied in Mathew 22 that these 10 commandments can be broken down to just two principles: love for God (from the first four commandments) and love for other people (from the remaining six commandments).

I split the last six commandments into two parts—for younger children and for teens. For the younger group, the key commands are “honour your parents/carers”, “don’t steal” and “don’t lie”. For the teens the last three are “don’t commit adultery”, “don’t murder” and “don’t lust”.

The Ten Commandments are foundational to the four primary values that govern my life and which I teach to my children and grandchildren: be kind, be grateful, work hard and honour your parents.

#1. Be kind

My overriding value is that of kindness. Aesop stated that “no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted”. It makes both the giver and the recipient feel blessed. Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build theory of positive emotions asserts that daily experiences of positive emotions multiply over time to build a variety of virtues. These virtues predict increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms. She also hypothesised that the 10 most common positive emotions are joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love. When you as a father are kind, you will brighten your children’s and partner’s lives.

monkeybusinessimages—Getty Images

#2. Be grateful

The ancient Roman philosopher Cicero described gratitude as the parent of all values. In his 2010 paper titled “Gratitude and Well-being”, Alex Wood suggests that the benefits of gratitude to wellbeing may be causal; that is, if you show gratitude you will feel better. Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present. It magnifies positive emotions, at least in the short term.

With gratitude we become greater participants in our lives as opposed to being spectators. Ami Morin used a gratitude journal to show that the nightly recording of three examples of gratitude will improve physical and mental health, reduce aggression and improve sleep. Seligman even goes further and states that if someone with depression completes a gratitude diary over a nine-month period they will reduce their depression by up to 80 per cent.

Gratitude is something you must practise. Practise it in front of your children. Be grateful in your affirmations to your children. They will remember it always.

#3. Work hard

A very sad phenomenon in Western society is intergenerational dole recipients. A father can teach a child that hard work will lead to resilience. Professional golfer Gary Player said, “The harder you work the luckier you get.” Never entitle laziness or procrastination! Always, always affirm hard work. As a father, foster father and grandfather, it gives me great joy to be able to tell people that my children are hard workers. (This means, of course, that you have to be a hard worker too!)

#4. Honour

Do you want to be proud of your children when they are adults? Teach them honour. They should learn to honour their mother and father. Armies teach that if you want to command, learn first to obey.

Father, never dishonour the mother! If the mother dishonours you, state, without anger, that you reject that opinion. Also do not be a doormat, because your boys will grow up thinking they are unfairly powerless and your daughters will grow up thinking they are unfairly powerful.

I have a specific message for those who have been damaged by their fathers (or mothers), and are wondering, How do I honour someone who has utterly destroyed me emotionally? Use forgiveness, gratitude and courtesy. Forgive their behaviours. This does not mean accepting that what they did is OK—it means not allowing their wrongs to continually damage you. Gratitude means being grateful you are alive—without their biological involvement you wouldn’t exist!

Finally, courtesy—show them respect in public and private. Again, don’t allow them to put you down, walk away if needs be.

It starts now

If you do not have intrinsic conscious values, then start with one value at a time by discussing that value with the children’s mother. With her nurturing abilities and your motivational ability as a father for competence and autonomy, you will be able to structure a sound value system that will be acceptable to yourself, the children, and their mother.

I believe intrinsic values, passionately held and role-modelled by fathers, will give children and grandchildren a happy life; and you will be proud of them.


Patrick O’Neill has qualifications in psychology and management and is a father to six biological children, two stepchildren and more than 30 foster children. He lives on NSW’s Central Coast.

image Subscribe to our eNewsletter