Our values and beliefs tell us how to behave in our dealings with others and they give us our purposes in life. They define both our morality and our aspirations. They represent our vision of the person we would like to be.

Children playing

But the decline of religious and, more recently, secular belief in social obligation means there is less confidence in values such as generosity and fairness. Such values are more difficult to inculcate when parents and children are repeatedly told they need to posses more material goods and compete successfully against others.

This void has left the way open to excessive individualism – the belief that things will work out all right if everybody looks after themselves. But the philosophy behind excessive individualism is fundamentally flawed. Psychological research shows unselfish people become on average happier.

Children are born with moral potential. But it only develops through fruitful human interaction. What children need is unconditional love but also firm guidance about boundaries and how to behave. The right guidance is based on reason, not command – "authoritative", not authoritarian. The main principles are rather simple:

  • Other people matter as much as you do
  • So consider how your behaviour will affect them and how they will feel.
  • Agreement is bound to involve compromise.

Clearly parents have the biggest influence on children's values. But schools also make a major difference. What is needed is a common vocabulary used by both teachers and parents. The words we use have a powerful influence on how we would like to be. At "Values-Based-Schools" such as West Kidlington in Oxfordshire, staff, parents and children agree a list of words such as "respect’" "trust’" and "generosity’" which in turn become word of the month and get written on walls around the school. Teachers are expected to practise the same principles as children and parents are included at every step.

We are arguing for a significant change of heart in society where adults, be they parents or teachers, are less embarrassed to stand for the values without which a society cannot flourish. For example, sex and relationships education should become a statutory, not voluntary, part of the curriculum and be presented not as biology but as part of social and emotional learning. Parents should teach the importance of key values and help children to develop spiritual qualities.

Children's evidence

You should treat others as you would like to be treated back and respect the people around you, whoever they are. If they have a disability or a problem still treat them as you would treat others.
- 9-year-old boy

I think people should listen to kids more. Adults never seem to truly listen, and we have good ideas.
- 12-year-old girl

Read The Children's Society's view on values.