I’m astonished in writing and admitting this, but after two degrees, countless hours consuming scientific literature, working decades in social services, and philosophizing with anyone with the interest, the single most important idea I’ve discovered came from my first nonprofit job at the Boys & Girls Clubs.
Talking About Values
It was a sunny Friday in August that I had what I now consider the most important meeting in my life. Joey Scheuler, Matt Sorenson, and myself, all directors at the Boys & Girls Clubs, met at Matt’s house to prepare for the upcoming school year, starting with a laser-focus on one crucial question: what values should we be teaching the kids?
We already had an excellent working model, created by Youth Development professionals decades before: Respect, Responsibility, Integrity, and Compassion. But we didn’t want to use these by default, so we took some time to think deeply about how we were communicating values to our kids.
We already liked our values better than those used by the YMCA, which at the time had five values and 40 “developmental assets”. We prefered simplicity, but wanted to be sure we weren’t omitting anything.
We thought hard about each value, what they meant to us, and how the values would guide anyone in a positive direction. Ultimately, we decided to use three values, respect, responsibility, and integrity, and we went on to promote them fiercely.
When there were fights at the Club between youth, we’d sit them down and use the values. We’d get each club member in the dispute to see that showing respect for each other, regardless of how others treated them, was an important part of growing up. Kids yell and fight, adults communicate and collaborate to get along.
When personal items were stolen, we’d work hard to uncover the truth, and suspend the membership (always temporarily) with a careful discussion about responsibilities every member has to each other and to the Club to maintain our safe place. We were sure to explain that membership in the club was a privilege that could be removed if rules were broken.
When kids lied and deceived each other, we’d talk about integrity, always careful to separate the behavior from the child, saying things like “I know you are better than this. I know you are a good kid, but the way you behaved is wrong.” We’d provide opportunities to make things right by offering forgiveness and a chance to prove themselves again.
Respect, responsibility, and integrity was the language of values, and they continue to be used every day at Boys & Girls Clubs across the country to maintain safe places for kids to uncover their potential and form an identity around their best selves.
Values aren’t just for kids
Among the greatest challenges at the Boys & Girls Clubs was the social firewall between our safe place at the Clubs, and the often hostile environments the kids experienced at home and school. While we promoted values all day at our Club, it was considered preaching to extend these out to families.
Our most difficult conversations were with kids who would say “why should I show respect to others when my dad doesn’t respect my mom?”
How would you answer that question?
The problem is that values apply to us all, and yet they are the most difficult things to talk about. They represent ideals that are challenging to maintain, especially in heated moments when things seem unfair.
In my experience, it’s the fear of judgment and failure that holds us back from these crucial conversations. While at the Club, kids know we will forgive them, as we always did when kids returned from a suspension, washed clean from their past transgressions. Adults, however, don’t tend to give each other a fresh start. Rather, we add failures to long resumes of transgressions that only go away when we destroy relationships and abandon communities for fresh starts.
It doesn’t need to be that way.
What I value
The conversation that Joey, Matt, and I had has never left my mind. I’ve been on a life-long mission to deepen my understanding of why these values seem to be so important, exploring the scientific underpinnings of human behavior, the social implications of judgement and virtue, and the impact that our beliefs have on our environment.
Here is the summary of this exploration: four values, which I believe are shared by nearly every human being on the planet. They are seen in all major religions, reflected in our most ancient philosophy, and confirmed by modern science. The four values are individuality, wisdom, community, and change.
I respect myself and others equally, because we must bring balance to two powerful forces: the pleasure of expressing and exploring ourselves, and the pain of not having what you need to feel safe and healthy. Ideally, how to take care of our own mental and physical health, and not require others to do this for us.
I can be wrong. Again, this value brings balance to two forces: our problem-solving brains that can justify just about anything, and the reality that there are better ideas that we may need to adopt. Wisdom combines the behavior of integrity (doing what’s right even if it’s a disadvantage) with the concept of truth (the best ideas work for everyone because they reflect our shared reality.)
I take on responsibilities to others. Kids get this better than adults because they see that adults have to work jobs and make dinner for their benefit. Still, we need to balance the receiving and giving ends of these relationships. A healthy community is one in which there is a fair exchange of resources and support.
I created this value to capture a missing piece of the broader puzzle. Even if we were to treat each other like the beautiful gems we are, there are impacts from our collective behaviors that extend well beyond our immediate environment. Look at the environmental devastation that humans have caused on the planet: we’re filling the oceans with plastic, the air with greenhouse gases, and wiping out entire species of life. We have to care about how we are changing things on a grander scale than our own lives, otherwise, we are disconnected from the humanity at large. This value brings balance to humanity at large: on one hand mandating our own survival and comfort, and on the other acknowledging that our unrestrained desires lead to the consumption of everything in sight. It’s an understanding of change that guides us into lifestyles of value and purpose.
Maybe we all need to take a moment to talk about our values with the other people in our lives. They are helpful in times of conflict. Shared values are the means to elevating conflict from battles for survival into honest communications about the world we all need to share.
Staff at the Boys & Girls Club were on the same page regarding values, which enabled us to be consistent in helping kids understand why the should try to avoid aggressive behaviors and instead work toward their potential. Maybe the same can be true for us all.
I think humanity needs to start talking about shared values, and I think these four values will mesh with anyone’s personal beliefs. You can replace “spirituality” or “God” with “change” and achieve nearly the same result. I’m not religious, but I respect what religions are trying to do: justify our existence.