What are your values? Psychologists tell us that values emphatically communicate what is most important to us. When values are “intrinsic” (in other words, fundamentally ingrained), they will become the source of every purposeful action.
I’ve been privileged to be a father to many children. Six of my own, two step-kids and more than 40 foster children. I have learned that every parent’s personal values dictate how they will deal with unacceptable behaviour. I could always motivate children to behave by using their individual interests and passions as either a reward or punishment. One of my toughest foster children loved his siblings and tattoos and wanted their names tattooed on his chest. However, his behaviour at school was appalling. One day I was called to meet with the headmaster to discuss an incident. To my surprise, they told me his behaviour had been improving. In the three terms he had been attending this school, his bad behaviour mentions had dropped from more than 130 in the first term to 80, then down to 30. My wife and I had been working hard on the value of respecting his foster parents and teachers. The headmaster was shocked when I offered the following—if he had no bad mentions the following term, he could get the names of his siblings tattooed on his chest. It wasn’t my ideal but as I had identified his values, I used them as an opportunity to help him grow. I was so proud when I got the call on the last day of term telling me that he’d had no bad mentions. Because he showed he had accepted the values of honour and diligence, he got his tattoo.
When a value is fundamentally ingrained into your psyche, it will direct your behaviour. Johann Hari suggests in his book Lost Connections that intrinsic values, not materialism, can bring significant happiness. Therefore, I suggest for you to be a relevant and effective father, you’ll need a set of values to model. Be warned—those values also apply to you, not just your children.
So, where do we learn about values? First from our parents, then our culture. The more a value is repeated, the more likely that it will become intrinsic. Society teaches us values through school, the workplace and religion. After considering all the above and reflecting on my own life, I have decided on five primary values that govern my life intrinsically. I teach these to my children and grandchildren; truth, kindness, gratitude, honour and diligence. Are there more? Of course. But these five are easy to remember and teach.
If you tell yourself the truth about yourself, you can be set free of personal recrimination. This recrimination often leads to shame, then depression. Someone once said, “When you tell the truth, there is nothing to remember.” Tell your children the truth about themselves (with kindness). All religions discuss truth as an absolute to salvation. Sadly, we live in a world of “social constructs”. These are primarily feelings-based, not rooted in a notion of absolute truth. Lies are made-up narratives with no evidence. All experiences are remembered by the five senses of taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing. All senses have their own particular part of memory for recollection. When you lie, no senses are activated and the “memory” is non-existent. Thus, your story changes constantly. When you tell the truth there really is “nothing to remember”.
Aesop said that “no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted”. It makes the giver and the recipient feel blessed. Barbara Fredrickson’s “Broaden-and-Build” theory of positive emotions asserts that daily experiences of positive emotion multiply over time to build a variety of virtues. These virtues predict increased life satisfaction and reduce depressive symptoms. When you as a father are kind, you will brighten your children’s and spouse’s lives.
The Roman philosopher Cicero described gratitude as the greatest value and 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. If you show gratitude you will feel better.
Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present because it magnifies positive emotions. Nonetheless, research on emotion shows that positive emotions wear off quickly because of normal life intrusions. With gratitude we become greater participants in our lives as opposed to being spectators. Wood also states that this prosocial behaviour increases happiness, reduces stress and increases immunity (cortisol from stress can deplete immunity). Ami Morin used Martin Seligman’s “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—measured by the Edinburgh Depression Scale. Gratitude is something you must practice. Practice it in front of your children. Be grateful in your affirmations to your children. They will remember it always.
Do you want to be proud of your children when they are adults? If yes, teach them honour. The military teaches that if you want to command, first learn to obey. Father, never dishonour your children’s mother! If your spouse dishonours you, state, without anger, that you reject that opinion. Also, don’t be a doormat. If you do, your boys will grow up thinking they are unfairly powerless and your daughters will grow up thinking they are unfairly powerful.
Specifically, to those who have been damaged by their fathers (or mothers)—how do you honour someone who has hurt you emotionally? Use forgiveness, gratitude and courtesy. Forgive them their behaviours. This doesn’t mean accepting their transgressions—it means not allowing their wrongs to continually damage you. Gratitude means being grateful you’re 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. If you need to limit or cut contact for a time, do it.
A father can teach a child that hard work through diligence will lead to resilience. The famous golfer Gary Player once said, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” Never tolerate laziness or procrastination. Always, always, affirm diligence. My dad said “The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary”. A sad reality in western society is intergenerational welfare recipients. While we can’t judge everyone’s situation, as a father, foster father and grandfather, it gives me great joy to tell people my children have been taught the value of hard work. This means, of course, that I have had to also be a hard worker. I can’t teach what I haven’t learned personally.
If you don’t know if you have intrinsic conscious values, start with one value at a time. Discuss it with your spouse. Together, you will be able to establish sound values that will be beneficial to yourself, your spouse and your children. I firmly believe that intrinsic passionate values, role modelled by fathers and maintained within the marriage unit will give your children and grandchildren a pathway toward a fulfilled and contented life—a life that both they and you can be proud of.
Patrick O’Neill has worked as an Allied Health consultant in psychology and has management/HR qualifications. He has six children, two stepchildren, more than 13 grandchildren and more than 40 foster children.