What are values and how do they develop in children?

In a new study, Jiseul Sophia Ahn & Johnmarshall Reeve (2020) provide more insight into how our values ​​develop during childhood. They make use of the self-determination theory (SDT) distinction between intrinsic values ​​and extrinsic values.


Values ​​are beliefs about what is desirable. Our values ​​guide our attitudes, goals and choices. The development of our values ​​starts in early childhood, partly (especially?) through the influence of our parents. During adolescence, our values ​​greatly influence how we see and present ourselves. What kinds of values ​​we develop has a great deal of influence on what we do and on our psychological well-being (read more).

Intrinsic values

Typical examples of intrinsic values ​​are ambitions for personal growth, contributing to the community, and having meaningful relationships. The pursuit of these things is pleasant for people because it offers many opportunities for the satisfaction of the basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness. Having, pursuing and achieving intrinsic values ​​is related to various aspects of psychological well-being such as vitality, positive emotions, satisfaction with one's own life and less feelings of anxiety and depression. Adolescents with mainly intrinsic values, tend to display less risky behavior and more focus on learning, altruism and cooperation.

Extrinsic values

Typical examples of extrinsic values ​​are aspirations for financial success, fame, and social status. The pursuit of these types of values ​​directs people's daily activities in a direction where they experience frustration from their basic psychological needs or, at best, indirect satisfaction that is short-lived and dependent on social approval or validation. Having, pursuing and achieving extrinsic values ​​is not related to psychological well-being, but rather to some aspects of psychological unwell. In adolescents who mainly have extrinsic values, there is more evidence of ethnic and racial prejudice, authoritarianism and Machiavellianism.

Three processes

Based on the literature, Ahn & Reeve identified three possible processes by which values ​​can develop in our youth:
  1. Direct transfer of values: children adopt value-laden words and behaviors from their parents. Both intrinsic and extrinsic values ​​could thus transfer from parent to child.
  2. Indirect transfer of values: the parenting style of the parent promotes or hinders the internalization of social and parental values. An autonomy-supporting parenting style would generate intrinsic values ​​in the child and a controlling parenting style would generate extrinsic values.
  3. From within the child itself: through the fulfillment of basic psychological needs, evolutionary tendencies are expressed in values. Fulfilling basic needs would lead to intrinsic values. The frustration of basic needs would lead to extrinsic values. The frustration of basic needs would in fact lead to a vulnerability of the individual creating the need to look for external indicators of self-worth (such as fame, money and power).

The research

The researchers analyzed information from 233 South Korean mother-child couples. Questionnaires about their values ​​were administered to mothers. Also, questionnaires were administered to children (age 10-12 years) to measure values, experienced parenting style and needs satisfaction. The researchers opted for a one-year longitudinal with 4 measurement moments so that the effects could be viewed over time.


The following results were found:
  1. Extrinsic values ​​were transferred directly from mothers to children.
  2. Intrinsic values ​​were not directly transferred from mothers to children.
  3. Mother's intrinsic values ​​predicted a needs-supportive parenting style but did not predict a change in the child's intrinsic values.
  4. Mother's extrinsic values ​​predicted neither the parenting style nor the child's values.
  5. Contrary to expectations of SDT, the child's predicted frustration of needs does not lead to the development of extrinsic values.
  6. A needs-supportive parenting style predicted child satisfaction and this predicted the development of intrinsic values.

In sum

In short, the following emerges from this study. Intrinsic values ​​arise from the child's own inner psychological experiences and are related to the satisfaction of basic psychological needs. Extrinsic values ​​are developed through direct transmission from parent to child through how the parent expresses these values ​​through words and behaviors.