Stuffing Core Values Into The Tween Years


Jul 22, 2016


Clothes in a suitcase

What I really want to be is an easy-going, calm mother. But if you were a fly on the wall in our home, you might accuse my husband and me of being over-earnest parents. We use every opportunity to teach our kids all the core values they MUST learn to grow into healthy, respectable, caring citizens of the future. From making good food choices to selecting friends wisely, from showing courtesy to elders to striving for world peace – we’ve always got a lecture ready.

And perhaps — just perhaps — sometimes it’s too much. Like that time when my son got a talking-to about environmental callousness after he pulled at the grass on the lawn absentmindedly.

Actually, you don’t have to be a fly to accuse us of lecturing; our kids do so on a regular basis, mostly through eye-rolls and very audible sighs.

“Not again, Mother,” my daughter will exclaim. “Not EVERYTHING is a reason to deliver a life lesson.”

But isn’t it?

When my kids were little, I was their messiah, and they’d treat my word like the Gospel. If I said something was important – brushing teeth, saying thank-you – they would willingly comply. They were cute and trusting and followed me blindly. Admittedly, it got annoying sometimes when I couldn’t even go to the toilet alone and, no, I havent forgotten the perpetually exhausted stupor of those early years.

Still — it felt good to be taken seriously.

As they approach their tweens, I doubt my kids hear most of what I say, let alone heed any of it. I worry about the best use of our ‘air-time’ with them, about which messages we must teach our kids, and which are bonuses. But honestly, how does one choose between ‘brushing your teeth’ and ‘good work ethic’ and the many other core values in between?

I certainly don’t want to be THAT mum. I want to fret less, be more laissez faire and trust that my children will imbibe good core values and habits solely from the great examples that my husband and I are (…no doubt…) setting daily.

But it all falls apart at about 7.30 p.m. on any week night. Then, you are likely to find me deep in an argument with my 9-year-old son about unscrubbed knees – right after his bath. It’s a daily moment of crisis when even basic lessons like personal hygiene don’t stick.

In that moment, I can’t help wondering what I am doing wrong. Or more precisely, why they aren’t getting any of it, in spite of all the things I am doing right. My son sees the rest of us take regular showers, we have read about germs with him, pleaded nicely … and yet, there we are, every evening, with grimy knees.

I feel myself descend into a tizzy, then. The voice in my head tells me we are making no progress with our kids. That, as we struggle with even the elementary stuff we have been talking about for only, you know, their entire lives, there will be no time left to teach them the bigger lessons.

From there, well, it’s just panic. Every sacrifice I’ve made is recalled and possible future scenarios of unwashed knees descending into drug-shooting-junkyhood are conjured. I veer from a calm, caring mother into crazy mom. We end each night with banged doors, rolled eyes and knees scrubbed out of sheer exasperation instead of conviction.

After one recent bout of this, I realised, perhaps, I’ve been looking at it the wrong way. Maybe instead of worrying about what needs to be imparted, the right question is: What – if anything — sticks? That was the stuff to double down on.

“If you were the ‘boss’ of your own life,” I pose to my children and their cousins, “what are things you would definitely learn now, so you can be fine as a grown-up?”

“To take care of myself, use money well and to be a good influence on others,” says my tween daughter. I want to believe this is deep wisdom. But I suspect she’s keeping it vague lest her words be used against her in our next fight. (Methinks she is set for a career in politics.)

“To at least make an egg and if you are vegetarian, a cheese sandwich,” says my 9-year old, who is a picky eater.

“To have a good life, to ride horses and to use mosquito spray,” declares my 3-year-old nephew.

“To become a smart ‘arguer,’ or you cannot convince other people,” pouts my 5-year-old niece, who has been compelled by her mum to wear pants on a cold day even though she would rather wear her fairy dress.

I asked more kids in the neighbourhood, aged 3 to 13, and it poured in:

  • “To learn how to live with other people and control your tantrums.”
  • “To respect those older than you even if you are a grown-up.”
  • “To take great photos. Then you can have some for memories.”
  • “To understand when it is time to sleep.”
  • “To be adventurous and not be scared of new experiences.”
  • “To dance and throw a fun party.”
  • “To have a job, take care of yourself and of your family.”
  • “To become happy again when you are sad.”

It was a curious mix – part parroting, part observing, part reaction, part instinct. It seems they pick up more than we think. Lecturing, then, must be what we do while our children are busy imbibing all of the core values and wisdom we send out in subtler, more unconscious ways.

It has taken some of the pressure off. I still am not entirely certain about what specifically is working. But I am comforted that, at any given moment, something is. Even if I don’t manage to cram every value, norm and habit I care about into my children before they leave home, maybe they’ll still find a way in.

Remind me about this the next time my jaw tightens as my son walks out of his bath with soap behind his ears.


Written By Swati Apte

Swati Apte lives in Mumbai and is passionate about initiatives at the intersection of arts, social enterprise, and leadership development. She reads paper books and watches youtube videos with equal alacrity, and gently coaxes her friends, husband, and her two children into adventures to tops of mountains or into deep forests.

  1. Iyer

    Lovely writing as usual… The response given by your A’s and the other 3 to 13 year olds.. well, they sound like what we (as much much older people) ourselves want or would rather be, no!? Maybe they already Are like us. Or we continue to be, in large parts, like Them; a mix of what the 3-13 year olds seek to be. Always. And what we ultimately end up “doing” professionally and or otherwise, is simply woven around these ‘best-case’ dreams and goals. A child famously being the father/mother of man/woman; I can only Imagine what Two children would be! Lage raho… 🙂


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