What if…your children need something more basic than a trip to Disneyland, the latest piece of technology, or the birthday/Christmas pile of presents that breaks your bank account?

What if…they don’t even know how to ask for what they need? What if…their insatiable nagging is for something other than stuff? What if…your children are simply yearning to know what it is that makes you tick?

In his book, It’s a Meaningful Life, It Just Takes Practice, author Bo Lozoff suggests that what children really long for and need is to know their parents; to know what their parents think, how they deal with the challenges life offers, what they value, what they think life is all about.

If actions speak louder than words, are we conscious of how our lives, as adults and parents, are speaking to our children?

How many of us didn’t get to know our parents or grandparents until later in life, when the reality of death nudged us to ask the questions we’d never thought to ask before? To wonder and learn about the values that shaped us into the people we are today?

As I speak to various parent and education groups, I often start talking about values. I use an exercise to engage the listeners. On a flipchart I write the following words: “As a parent (teacher), I should be…” and then invite input. People call out words like “organized,” “responsible,” “a good cook,” “unflappable,” “patient,” “a good listener,” “know CPR,” “good at math,” “a willing chauffeur,” etc.

Once I have a good long list, I ask the people to peruse it and tell me how they feel. I hear words like “overwhelmed,” “inadequate,” “defeated,” “tired,” “despairing,” and so on. One woman summed it up, “It’s just too much for any one person to be good at everything all the time.” Without fail, there will be a feeling of dejection in the room.

“OK,” I say, “now let’s try something a little different.” I turn over to a new page and write the following question: “As a parent (teacher) what do I value?” And I write down the words people offer: “compassion,” “trust,” “creativity,” “nature,” “learning,” “family time,” “celebration,” “extended family” and so on. Not only are the words different than the ones used to answer the first question (some words do appear on both), but the group’s responses to the different lists is very, very different. People seem surprised as they share that they feel “energized,” “inspired,” “not alone,” “amazed” by the words on the second list. Sometimes I will add words to the second list if they don’t get called out because I suspect most of our children would want to see words up there like “fun,” “humour,” “recreation,” “time together,” and “respect.”

When we try to be the kind of parent we think we should be, we are working with an external definition that may or may not connect with who we actually are. The bar is set high so we will fail.

But when we talk about what we value as parents, we’re talking about what’s important to us, what we care about. There is no bar. There is no “right” or “wrong.” I see participants get excited, energized, and inspired.

Once we’re clear about our values, it’s easy to create a vision for ourselves and for our families; one that is sustainable, one that we can revisit, one that is free of the “shoulds” which weigh us down and deflate us.

When our boys were small, my husband Jim and I valued family time and trips to visit extended family. That made it easy to limit spending money on “things.” We shopped second-hand and bought thoughtful but not expensive birthday and Christmas presents for each other. We also made gifts and re-gifted presents because we always had more than we needed. And when our sons whined about not being able to get something, we could say, “We are saving our money to visit Gramma and Grampa.” Imagining the time in Florida with their cousins and grandparents was usually enough to refocus their attention. They loved time with their extended family. They still do to this day!

Families value different things. That’s all we have to say to our children. We don’t have to make people “right” or “wrong.” We might want to honestly say how we feel when people don’t value something in the way we do. Slamming others doesn’t help our children. Knowing how we feel about something, does.

To know us, our children need to know what it is we value. What passions draw us forward and bring out the best in us? They want to know what we don’t value, where we are not interested in devoting our time and energy, and why that is so. They notice whether what we say matches up with our actions and choices.

My friend Cam had a lucrative but soul-crushing job. He dreamt about buying and running a bookstore and having more time with his family. But being the responsible guy he was, he stuck to his job and steady income. One day Cam was speaking with one of his sons about the importance of doing something you love as a career. His son interrupted and his response struck to the heart. “But Dad, you’re not doing that!”

Those words were part of the push Cam and his wife needed. They decided to risk and go for their dream. Not only has the decision been good for Cam and his family, it’s been good for our community because now we have a wonderful bookstore. And I have an amazing new friend who hosts the writing group I’m part of!

When we live with an awareness of what we value, we can more quickly identify when we’re off track. Our unhappiness, frustrations, and tensions don’t seem random, they’re rooted in the distance between our actions and our values. We can figure out how to correct the misalignment, just as Cam did. I’m not saying it doesn’t take courage sometimes, but we have a process for assessing our lives and choices.

Try this quick exercise. Pose these two questions to yourself: “What do I value?” followed by, “Where am I spending my time, energy and money?” If there’s not alignment between the two, you might feel what have been described as “soul blisters,” a painful feeling that’s meant to wake you up so you can choose differently and get aligned to your values.

Our children long to feel the roots, creativity, and energy of being part of a family living out its values, but our culture is bereft of values. I have some anxiety using this term “values” when it has been used to further a political career/party, or to sell a product. But hopefully, it’s clear that I’m not talking about “family values” in an external way to describe what I think a parent should believe or how they should act.

Rather, I’m talking about getting clear about what it is that you value as a parent so that your choices can flow naturally from this clarity. This clarity will serve your children who are bombarded by the “values” of a consumer culture that sees people solely for their ability to consume and/or produce. Your clarity will give them the ability to look beyond superficial things and navigate with a deeper, stronger rudder; clearly knowing what they value as true and important. A rudder that will not only serve them personally, but will serve their community, their world, this planet we call home.

How do you treat people in your own home, how do you treat possessions, how do you live with others?

These are the big questions. The answers are rooted in a deep knowing of what is important to you. The answers are not rooted in any product, service, experience, or even parenting book. Yes, all these things can help you live out your values, but the crucial thing is to know what your values are, articulate them for yourselves as a family, and start making choices based on those values. Then the overload of options, choices, products, services, adventures, opportunities can be filtered through your values, thereby making them much more manageable.

Selinde Krayenhoff is the cofounder of Island Parent Magazine, a community worker, writer, workshop facilitator and keynote speaker on topics covering parenting, spirituality and mid-life transition. Visit her blog at selindek.wordpress.com.