Values as a term referring to the moral beliefs and perception of society was coined by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Teaching values to children is not only their parents' task. A toddler and a preschooler's view on the world is most often shaped by their mother and father since children spend most of their time in their company. When children start going to school they will spend up to half of their day there.
Teachers often take over the role of parents in teaching the students what is right and wrong and how to tell one from the other. It is a well-known fact that the early years of children's upbringing determine their future actions and influence their decisions as adults. This explains why the teachers' role is of paramount importance in a child's development.
Authors Louis Raths, Merrill Harmin and Sydney Simon introduced their values clarification theory in Values and Teaching: Working with Values in the Classroom (1978). Their theory centers around the fact that many people in contemporary society have difficulties in defining values. Raths, Harmin and Simon examine four key elements of teaching values. These include: a focus on life, which makes people draw their attention to aspects of their lives that they value and which may vary from individual to individual; an acceptance of what is, which aims at nonjudgmental acceptance of other people just the way they are; an invitation to reflect further, which should follow the acceptance and help people make better informed choices and raise awareness of what is important to a person; and finally, a nourishment of personal powers, which should help people apply this awareness and information in their future.
According to the authors of the theory, there are different types of people who need values clarification and who do not integrate values in their lives. These may range from apathetic people to personalities that are enthusiastic about different things but just as easily become disinterested. Another type of person is the overconformer, who always wishes to please people. All these types of behavior need value clarification because the lack of clear values may have negative impact on their lives in the long run.
However, there is the question of how to decide what values to teach — liberal or conservative, religious or secular. In a multicultural society, if religious values are to be taught, there are many religions to choose from. Researchers argue that the real issue is that there is no universal list of values approved by each member of society. Money, for instance, might be regarded as a value by some families but not by others. Therefore, teaching values should only be restricted to a list of values that are generally accepted by society, such as honesty, compassion, courage, duty, respect or kindness.
Psychologists generally agree that people learn most by models and imitation. In order to be good role models, teachers have to explicitly demonstrate all the values that they wish to teach and to explain their actions and choices, so as to make clear to the students that they are being driven by certain values. Consistency is very important in teaching values. If what children hear and see at school is different from what they experience at home, children would be at a loss. Parents and teachers should be partners in teaching values and not confront each other since inconsistency may cause confusion to children.
Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and School of Education, argues that students should not just be taught values because they know them perfectly well. A four-year-old knows that it is wrong to lie but will nevertheless do it to avoid punishment. Elementary school students know that it is wrong to bully the new child but will do it because others expect them to.
What needs to be taught is to develop commitment to values by constantly urging the children to act accordingly. If you want to teach respect, then you demand respect at all times - to teachers, to classmates, to neighbors. Another important factor to help children know how to be sensitive and act maturely is to teach them how to deal adequately with negative emotions like shame, anger or envy and show them how to deal with such emotions.