Becoming a father has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. My daughters and I grew up together.
I studied many chapters in the book of life: patience, cooperation, humility and gratitude. Now, I’m onto the next chapter — grandparenthood! It’s everything that my friends said it would be: pure pleasure.
Like many parents, I thought about what values I wanted my children to embody. I wanted them to grow up to be happy, successful adults. I hoped that they would be compassionate, kind, honest and community-minded. I wanted them to find meaning and purpose in their lives.
But how do parents accomplish these goals? Children are influenced by so many factors outside of our control: culture, peers, the times they grow up in, technology and current events. What can we do to help our children turn into adults that we would want to have as friends?
Be loving. Showering your children with love is the easiest part of parenthood. When you gaze upon your child, love bursts out of your heart, like sunshine on a summer day. This one’s easy.
Be the person you want your child to be. This is much harder. When Naomi was 8, she and I were standing at the checkout counter at the supermarket. The cashier gave me too much change. I carefully counted out the extra cash and gave it back to the cashier. Naomi’s eyes were glued on me, watching and learning. The lesson: Honesty is more important than opportunity.
Children will model themselves after you. They are watching everything that you do. They take in everything. And they will mimic you. If you want them to be patient, you have to be patient. If you want them to be organized, you must be organized. Consider carefully how you want to be — your children are watching.
Reinforce the behavior you want to see more of. Sure we want to give our kids “atta girls” when they make their bed, brush their teeth, do their homework and practice any of the good habits we want them to develop. But consider carefully what you want to reward because whatever you reinforce will be highlighted. Creativity, independence, conformity, good grades, hard work, thoughtfulness — there is a long list of possibilities. This requires care and awareness on our part. It’s those little moments that are easy to miss. What’s more important, grades or grit? Sometimes we have to ignore one in order to encourage the other.
I was careful to reinforce critical thinking and intellectual honesty over grades. I wanted our children to be independent thinkers, who weren’t afraid to express their opinions, even if they were different than everyone else’s.
Provide learning experiences. When our kids were little, we delivered meals to shut-ins on Thanksgiving. I wanted them to see that not everyone was as fortunate as they were. When they were in their early teens, Diane and I made a huge decision to move from the suburbs to the city. We wanted our daughters to have a broader, more diverse adolescent experience. We were concerned that in their comfortable, suburban life they were becoming overly materialistic.
Our friends thought we were crazy. Why would we move from a community with a great school system to one that was mediocre at best? It was a risky decision. But years later, both daughters told us that they were transformed by their experience growing up in Seattle. It changed the course of their lives. My youngest daughter became fluent in Spanish, volunteered after college in Honduras and is now a nurse practitioner in one of the poorest neighborhoods in our nation. My oldest daughter developed greater self-confidence.
Life experiences teach children valuable lessons that help them grapple with the complexities and challenges of adult life. Consider carefully what experiences you can offer your children that will help them become the adults you would want them to be.
Paul Schoenfeld is director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His Family Talk Blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.