Values and Initiative

My teenager's forte is not house cleaning, and it's certainly not taking the initiative on cleaning. But he has some sense of what's required to keep a household functioning, and can be very thoughtful. I came home one day to find a sign of this thoughtfulness: he had cleaned out the refrigerator. I should have been thankful and delighted--but my reaction was one of annoyance. As well as cleaning the obvious, he had also thrown out a lot of perfectly good leftovers. Now I admit that I save many things that other people would throw away. But I was brought up on the value of not wasting, and I hold it dear. "Why can't he understand about waste?" I wondered. It seems like I have to choose between his initiative and my values.

As I thought about it, I realized that I've been in this conflict before with my children--torn between encouraging their initiative and imparting my values. How do we walk this line?

My seven-year-old loves animals. When he discovered several years ago that whales were in danger, he wanted to join the fight to save the whales. Personally, I've always seen saving the people as a priority for our family's giving. I would like him to understand my way of thinking about social justice and human liberation, but I certainly don't want to discourage his love for the whales. (This has been one of the easier ones to resolve, since I like whales too. As a result of his initiative, we've expanded our giving a little.)

With my four-year-old, I'm finding it more difficult. He is now enamored of the idea of spending his allowance on candy. He's eager to make his own choices, learn about money, take more power over his life--and I find myself not eager to encourage him. I just want him to understand that candy is bad for you.

I remember when the children were toddlers they were eager to take the initiative, any time, any place. They wanted to wash dishes, to sweep, to carry plates. It was often hard to encourage them in this wonderful quality--not because of conflict in values this time, but because of how much extra work it made for me.

We get in more conflict over values as they grow older. Some teenagers seem to exercise their initiative (in hair styles, musical preferences, interests, friends) for the express purpose of offending our values. Others learn a value we cherish--like saving money--then use it all to purchase something we despise.

I don't have an answer here, but my guess is that we tend to come down to hard on the side of trying to teach values. After all, I tell myself, if I live out my values and the results show, they'll pick up what they see that's good. My guess is that we'll do better looking first at the initiative, and genuinely appreciating it for all that it's worth. ("I really appreciate that you decided to clean the refrigerator--I love it when people are thinking about the house that way." "I'm so glad that you want to save the whales. Yes, people can make a difference by what they do." "You're really thinking about your money, aren't you? It's important to learn how to make choices with it, and they can be hard.") Maybe, after we've done this, we'll be more able both to think whether there's more to be communicated, and if there is, to be heard.