Each of us makes hundreds of decisions every day. Most are, seemingly, small, unimportant decisions that we do not give much thought to, while others are more obviously significant. Much of our decision-making process is based on long-standing habits in the way we think about ourselves, our lives, or other people. They may also be the result of behaviors that have just become “automatic” through routine practice. Some of the more clearly significant choices we make are based on our values, but sometimes those decisions that seem insignificant can have more long-term effects on us, and may even contradict our values. We are often unaware of that contradiction because “That’s just what I’ve always done.”
An example of this might be holding to the value that spending time with our children is important to building their sense of self-esteem, safety and self-confidence. However, we may repeatedly sacrifice time with our children to work long hours or turn them over to an electronic babysitter (i.e., computer games and the internet). We can easily justify these “insignificant” decisions by telling ourselves, “I’m just too tired.” or “It’s just for today.” Without realizing it, this can become a habit that occurs routinely, yet is contrary to what we identify as an important value.
We can fall into these same patterns of unhealthy behaviors with decisions about our relationships, our work, finances, etc. We may give into these choices that contradict what we say is important to us because it takes more effort to make a decision based on your values than on the way you feel at the time. Our emotions are often dictated by our attitude, energy level, stress or anxiety (e.g., over financial fears, worry over what others will think, etc.). An example of this may be when you simply don’t seem to be able to deny yourself a certain purchase because “I need it just this once” when you are trying to save money towards a bigger goal.
When we reflect on each of the decisions we make in a given day, if we are honest with ourselves, we can probably identify many times when our choices contradict our values. For me, I struggle with this conflict when it comes to managing my eating. I say I value being healthy, which requires physical activity and making wise food choices. However, many times I toss my values overboard when faced with my favorite dessert or when I “feel” too tired to exercise. Can you relate?
So, why is this important? It’s because when we give into our emotions time after time (which is inevitable without intentional effort), we develop a habit; a default setting that becomes the path of least resistance when we are tired, stressed or anytime our self-discipline is compromised. We then may not even realize the power this habit holds over us as we give into it time and time again. The net effect is that we live our day-to-day lives in ways that conflict with the values we say are important.
Typically, we even hold onto the belief that we are living in accordance with our values while our choices and behaviors reveal just the opposite. This often means that the way we see ourselves is not the way others see us, or even the way our children see us. (For example, you may see yourself as a calm, supportive parent, but when you frequently give in to speaking disrespectfully to your child because you feel stressed, over time, your child may see you as disrespectful, tense and angry.) This is often the reason that, once children become adults, they reject their parents' values; they see their parents as either hypocritical or simply do not see any evidence that those values have any legitimate worth.
What does this mean for parents? This is critical when it comes passing along our values to our children. The mantra of “Do as I say, not as I do.” rarely works, as children are much more likely to follow your example than your stated beliefs. So, consider the choices you make in the way you speak to your child, the example of patience, grace, compassion, health, self-discipline and work ethic you profess, versus what your child is seeing every day. If you want to influence your child to become an adult who lives out the values you hold, those that you are convinced will make them happier, well-balanced adults, as a parent, you have to make consistent, intentional choices that truly reflect those values, rather than giving into your emotions.
Larry Deavers is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and Executive Director of Family Counseling Service of West Alabama.