Parents who teach their children to be helpful and caring towards others are the most successful at imparting their values to their children, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychology.

The study, Parent-child values similarity in families with young children: The predictive power of prosocial educational goals, found that “the more parents wanted their children to endorse values of self-transcendence and the less parents wanted their children to endorse the opposing values of self-enhancement, the more similar their children were to them.”

This is good news for parents who are consciously training their children to think of others, because, as the study found, the parents who have the greatest success in transmitting their values are those who have specific educational goals for them.

Parents who focused on teaching their children to understand and practice educational goals associated with helping, supporting and caring for others achieved a strong bond based on parent-child values similarity, while parents who focussed on self-enhancement educational goals such as striving for power and achievement were found to have less similarity with their children’s values.

According to the research, parents act as socialising agents “that not only transmit the values they personally favour but also the values they perceive to be important in society, acting as filters to societal values.” In this way they may actually influence “the prevailing shared societal values.”

Interestingly, “parents who wanted their children to embrace self-transcendence values but not self-enhancement values were not only more successful in transmitting their country’s values (macro-level), but also more successful in transmitting additional unique values (mirco-level).”

The study’s review of existing literature on the subject identified a variety of mechanisms which helped parents to successfully share their values with their children:

  • Explicitly teaching values — for example, by explaining values to the child.
  • Everyday routines — by modeling desired behaviour.
  • Provision of opportunities — letting the child be successful and complimenting them thereafter for achievement of values.
  • Genetic similarity.

Self-transcendent values which were successfully transmitted to children by their parents were categorised using Schwart’s model of values and exemplary items from the Picture Based Survey for Children:

  • Universalism – for example, to make friends with strangers
  • Benevolence – to help others
  • Tradition – to think of God
  • Conformity – to observe the rules
  • Security – to be safe

Self-enhancement values which resulted in a lack of similarity in parent-child values included:

  • Self-direction – for example, to discover new things
  • Stimulation — to do exciting things
  • Hedonism — to enjoy life
  • Achievement — to be the best
  • Power — to be powerful.

That parents were less successful in transferring the latter values to their children could be because living out self-enhancement values intentionally leaves little time for others — including children themselves, who require self-transcendent attention from parents. This kind of focus would hardly be an inspiration for a child to adopt values which have not served him/her well in a parent-child relationship.

On the other hand this research shows that selflessness really does trump selfishness when seen through the eyes of a child.

Helena Adeloju is a free lance journalist based in Melbourne

Helena Adeloju lives in Australia. She is a Melbourne-based journalist who has also worked in newspaper and television newsrooms in Sydney and Hobart. She has had the opportunity to travel widely across...