Using imagination to develop personal values

A few weeks ago I was chastising my 14-year-old niece over facebook messenger for saying she would go somewhere and then not showing up for an important family event. I found myself writing this line to her “The minute you realize you need a personal code of practice to live by and then live by it the better. Make some choices today this is your future starting now.” It made me feel so incredibly bossy and preachy I still can’t forgive myself, no amount of self flagellation will ever take it back, it’s written forever in the digital universe much to my own embarrassment.

I’ve given numerous workshops for clients on how to develop corporate values and also for individual teams to develop team charters. But what I was trying to convey to my niece was the consequences of not having values. I know, this still sounds so preachy I can hardly bear it. I used to be her cool Aunty, who have I become?

The whole concept can all seem so fluffy, especially in a corporate setting where we talk about setting some ethical boundaries for ourselves. It is all very nice and well meaning, but mostly people comment on the nice biscuits they can eat in the break.

Where do values come from?

To identify what values align with us, I like to ask participants to think of the best times in their lives and then also to ponder the worst. Values are then aligned and attributed to both scenarios.

Were you travelling the world with a backpack and open to all kinds of new things through acceptance and willingness to learn with an open mind? Or, were you having a tough time at school and being persecuted, indicating a lack of tolerance and empathy?

Usually, if we discover what made them the best and worst times of our lives, we can identify which values were being displayed or not. Values can keep us in our comfort zones and allow us to make decisions on how to interact with people. On the other hand if we are not aligned with positive values we could be more likely to act through fear.

What is the alternative to developing personal values?

Up to the age of seven, children are absorbing everything around them and reflecting the behavior of their social structures. It is a critical time for instilling what we believe to be inherently right or wrong. It is the time in our lives where the deepest imprints are built. Later in life we can be influenced by our peers and the media and may behave a certain way to feel a sense of belonging to any particular group. Even then, the behaviors we are displaying in our late teens may not feel right to us, we know instinctively what is feeling right or not.

Take fore instance our political leaders basing their policies on fear. Driving their whole election campaigns to gain power by promoting intolerance and separation. I see half the world divided. One camp, shocked by the antics of someone like Trump and his immigration policies, another camp buying into the sentiment of separation and intolerance.

The group who are shocked by his antics, more than likely are feeling a deep sense that these policies of his are not sitting well with their own instilled personal values of acceptance and tolerance. The Trump supporting group may be feeling that these policies align with their sense of fairness and equality.

A snapshot of the world today reveals that just over 1% of the entire population are now displaced from their homelands; either by war, direct persecution or even climate change.

Over 50% of the refugee population are children.

What are our children learning about the plight of this group and how will they accept, show tolerance and integrate these groups of people into their future world? We can’t control the actions of our political leaders around the world, but we can influence how our children will participate and lead in the future.

Teaching children values through pronouncements rules and warnings is also not effective. When done in this way, values are seen to imply compliance and authority so as soon as we are old enough to make our own choices we may decide to go against the grain to feel liberated.

The alternative is empowering children to discover their own values through their own moral reasoning. The traditional approach is to offer children a dilemma that can be related to real-life and for them to discuss options of moving through it.

I love this method, however I feel it misses out on the biggest opportunity available to us, and that is using our imagination. If imagination is the key to innovation that drives technological advances, surely it can be used to drive the development of our own positive personal values.

Dee Coleman is the author of Kikir of the Walking Trees, a book designed to use the imagination of children to help solve some the world’s current refugee crisis.