How do you want your kids to turn out? I mean, to the extent that anything we do has or should have influence, what do you really care about? What do you really hope will stay with them?
What if you could know that, say, three things you teach your kids will actually stick in their lives? What would you want them to be?
In a recent study, here are the three most important things to teach a child, according to parents:
- Always saying please and thank you
- Respecting your elders
- Having good table manners
Excuse me while I LOSE MY MIND.
What a staggering, depressing lack of ambition. Faced with the challenge of encouraging mini human beings to become citizens who can solve the problems of infant mortality, climate change and economic inequality, we should start with how they hold their forking forks?
It actually gets worse, if you read this summary from the Express. I despaired:
Researchers have revealed a definitive list of 59 things every parent should teach their child following a detailed study carried out among mums and dads in the UK.
And the research revealed Brits deem good manners to be the most important thing we can teach our children with always saying please and thank you ranked the most important lesson (80 per cent) followed by respecting your elders (75 per cent) and having good table manners (73 per cent).
More practical teachings also made the final list including being able to swim (50 per cent), to tie your shoelaces (37 per cent), eating your greens (35 per cent) and being able to bake a cake (17 per cent).
Telling the truth (72 per cent), not talking to strangers (69 per cent) and brushing teeth properly twice a day (67 per cent) made the top 10.
Treating others with kindness and to appreciate wildlife and animals also ranked highly.
Among the smarter entries were life skills such as how to negotiate, avoiding unnecessary dramas and offering a firm handshake.
The study also found while 24 per cent believe it is a mother’s job to teach the children life skills, 71 per cent believe it should be shared jointly between parents.
Tying your shoe laces is handy if you wear shoes with laces but it’s hardly what separates us from the amoeba. It’s not going to help the next generation of humans overcome reliance on fossil fuels.
But at least they’ll give a firm handshake!
My sympathy came back when I got to the last sentence:
The study also revealed 57 per cent of parents admit to feeling guilty for not being able to find the time to teach kids everything they need to know.
No wonder everyone feels guilty. There’s just so much to pass on to these tiny sociopaths (as my friend Jess affectionately calls kids). Where do you start? And how can you possibly do it all?
And yeah, I know a lot of this depends on how you ask the question, and I’m sure most of the respondents do also care about questions of character.
But I reckon there’s still a pretty enormous gulf between things people (either the researchers or the parents) think are core tasks of parenting, and things that will actually make the human race thrive.
My Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator (check it out if you are prone to the Facebook black hole of refreshing) gave me much better advice the other day:
I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.
~ Lao Tzu
What I like about this is that it makes a daunting task a little more manageable.
Could you finish that sentence differently?
I have just three things to teach: _____________, _____________, ____________.”
When I was first pregnant, my husband and I spent a lot of time talking about what we wanted to prioritise in parenting. Of all the important things to pass on (and yes, swimming and teeth-brushing are still on our radar), what should be at the top of the list?
Over about two years our thinking crystallised into something that we now reference and mention every single day of our parenting (and gosh, you can’t say that about much else in our family chaos).
Here’s how it came about for us, and how you might be able to develop something that makes the most of your time with your precious children, helping them to become world-changing delights we can all be proud of.
Step 1: Focus on character
A brilliant scientist who is mean to her staff is not a successful human being. I want my kids to grow up to be good people rather than high-achieving ones.
Both would nice, of course. I love the idea of my kids doing amazing things, but I won’t be able to celebrate much if I know they’re selfish or greedy adults. I mean that.
My former pastor and boss, Rod, was instrumental when I was a young adult in helping me value character over other things. Here’s a challenge he would set: when you think of your goals for the next year or five years, how many of them are matters of character? Do you want to travel or get a promotion or learn to play the ukulele? Great! How about also working to become less greedy or more honest or kinder or more reliable?
Here are some of the character traits that my husband and I talked about early on as things we valued and wanted to promote in our kids:
- taking action
- standing up for people
- not being mean
- making good choices
- emotional literacy
- internal motivation
- not being too attached to possessions
- ability to make the best of difficulties
- able to make mistakes without being crushed
- going against the pack if necessary
- respect for other people’s bodies and autonomy
- green living
What kind of things are on your list? You might like to grab a pen or open a new document and jot down some ideas.
Step 2: Make your list short
Possibly the biggest professional lesson I have learned as a church pastor is that a leader’s influence is limited. Very limited.
In, say, five years in a position of influence (like as pastor of a church, principal of a school, prime minister of a country, or head of a company), if you want to foster real change that will outlast your presence, you’d better pick just one or two things to focus on. And they’d better be good ones.
Think about the legacy of various political leaders you are familiar with. What changes did they make to their nation that outlasted their time in leadership, or their party’s time in power? What hasn’t been reversed? What has carried on being an influence on subsequent generations? The list won’t be long – and it will be even shorter for people with smaller leadership jobs, like in a company or school.
This is probably my key piece of advice for church ministers, by the way: if you’re going to spend all your energy on improving the Sunday morning music group or changing which way the chairs face, you need to know that you can’t also expect your teaching on hospitality or multiculturalism to stick. Pick a couple of things, and make sure they’re the most important.
Back to parenthood: I was also influenced, after SBJ was born, by Glennon Doyle Melton’s famous start-of-school-year pep-talk to her son, Chase, about what’s important in their family:
Chase – We do not care if you are the smartest or fastest or coolest or funniest. There will be lots of contests at school, and we don’t care if you win a single one of them. We don’t care if you get straight As. We don’t care if the girls think you’re cute or whether you’re picked first or last for kickball at recess. We don’t care if you are your teacher’s favorite or not. We don’t care if you have the best clothes or most Pokemon cards or coolest gadgets. We just don’t care.
We don’t send you to school to become the best at anything at all. We already love you as much as we possibly could. You do not have to earn our love or pride and you can’t lose it. That’s done.
We send you to school to practice being brave and kind.
How’s that for inspiring parenting?
So our long list has boiled down to just four words that are our most important values, and that are short-hand for lots of other things. Our words are:
We try to be kind
Kindness, for us, is shorthand for a lot of more specific actions and values, like empathy, generosity, compassion, politeness, sharing, service, and so on.
We talk about using kind hands (not hitting), using kind words (being polite, encouraging, appreciative), making kind choices (being wise, generous, thoughtful, considerate, respectful, selfless), and being kind to God’s earth (environmental sustainability and so on).
We try to be wise
We define wisdom as ‘knowing the right thing to do and then doing it.’
So this encompasses self-control, thinking about things, considering what Jesus might want us to do in a given situation, and doing the right thing, even if it’s hard.
When we critique something with respect to sexism, racism, other harmful ideologies or foolishness, we talk about how sometimes people aren’t very wise.
We try to be brave
This came directly from Glennon Doyle Melton’s talk, above. We’re not talking about doing scary physical feats, primarily, but about conquering fear in order to do something kind or wise.
We don’t ever use this to try and convince a child that they aren’t really feeling scared if they say they are. It’s not about pretending you feel differently, but about gathering up your courage to do something difficult.
In fact, we hardly ever use this in a ‘Go on, be brave!’ way. That can so easily just be manipulation, and we never want to push our kids into doing things they’re not comfortable with by making them feel inadequate or guilty.
We mostly talk about this in non-emotive contexts, like in encouragement afterwards: ‘I could see you were being very brave!’ and paired with an acknowledgement of other feelings: ‘You were so brave to go and talk to the new girl. It looked like you were pretty nervous, too. It can be hard to talk to people you haven’t met before, can’t it?’
We try to be joyful
First things first: this is not about pretending to be happy.
We are very big, in our house, on acknowledging all emotions, and allowing space for them.
There’s a part of the New Testament where Paul, the missionary apostle, is writing to the church based in Philippi. This letter he wrote is famous for being filled with the language of joy and rejoicing, from start to finish. He starts his letter like this (pay attention to the context that comes from the last sentence in particular):
3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel.
Say what? This joyous letter is written while Paul is in prison.
This is the kind of joyfulness we try and foster in our family – and this is definitely not just for the kids. It’s not about denying sadness, but about doing what you can to choose contentment. This is how Paul sums up his attitude while in prison, in chapter 4 of the letter:
10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. 11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.
There is a growing collection of research showing that people’s happiness is not closely connected to their material circumstances. While mental health troubles can certainly make the pursuit of joyfulness very difficult, for most of us – even us depressed folks – being joyful, being content in our circumstances, is to some significant extent a matter of habit and attitude.
As the good folks at Happify.com say, science has demonstrated:
1. That the brain we’re born with can be changed. Technically speaking, they call that neuroplasticity. (You can teach an old brain new tricks.)
2. We can change it by adopting new thought patterns, by training our brain as if it were a muscle, to overcome negative thoughts.
3. All of us are hard-wired for negativity (blame
evolution!) but can profoundly benefit from learning new ways to react and deal with everyday stresses.
4. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to make a real difference in your life. A few simple and even entertaining mental diversions will change things.
This is clearly a much bigger topic, so I’ll stop there, and suggest if you’re interested in this joyfulness stuff that you check out Happify for more, perhaps starting with this cool infographic. You might also want to head to Aha! Parenting for ideas on fostering happiness in kids.
I hope it’s obvious that our four words don’t need to be anyone else’s words. They work for us, and have the right resonance for how we talk to each other and help each other to behave. But you’ll have your own priorities, preferences and words you are attracted to. You might want to be much more specific, or use full sentences or catchphrases. You might have three or six. I’d love to hear what they are!
Step 3: Mention your values daily, but not like your average mission statement
I am confident that you have been part of a business, school, church or other organisation that has a ‘mission statement,’ ‘vision statement,’ or slogan that isn’t worth the corridor wall it’s painted on.
It may be carefully thought out, it may be cleverly worded, but if it doesn’t show up in daily conversation about the organisation, it’s probably not doing much at all.
For us, the trick has been to link our four key words to all the other messages we’re giving throughout the day.
So if we want to talk about being ‘polite’ we don’t actually use that word. We connect it to our core value of being ‘kind’. So when we prompt a child to say ‘thank you’ to someone (we don’t force that stuff, but that’s another story), we say ‘do you have any kind words for Dad?’ If someone’s being too loud, we might say ‘please be kind to my ears!’
That means that ‘kind’ is the word we use whenever we’re talking about generosity, courtesy, selflessness, consideration, respect – all sorts of things. We might use both words – ‘It’s good to be kind and polite, remember?’ – but we will always use at least the one that is on our core list.
We also use our core value words whenever we might want to give encouragement and positive feedback throughout the day:
‘I love those kind words you’re using.’
‘Kind, gentle hands. Thank you.’
‘That’s so kind!’
‘It was very kind of you to give your sister that toy.’
‘You are growing into such a kind little boy.’
It’s also how we evaluate other people’s behaviour, and, for instance, whether a TV programme is appropriate to be watching. If someone says something that upsets my son, he will often analyse it in terms of our value words:
‘She said boys can’t have pink bikes. And THAT’S NOT WISE.’
Step 4: Celebrate achievements in terms of your values
If your Facebragging and proud phone calls to grandparents are all about sport, music or school, guess what your kids will pick up is most important about their development as human beings? Make sure you celebrate their achievements in character, too.
How can you do this when there aren’t certificates from the team to put on the fridge?
Here are some ideas for putting your core value words in the limelight:
- Talk about them at mealtimes. You could have a tradition of asking each person what they did that day that was kind or wise, or what they did today to help someone else, or whatever else is important to your family.
- Make a point of telling other people in the hearing of your kids, about the developments you are noticing in their levels of kindness or wisdom, etc.
- Create other rituals around your words. Perhaps at bedtime you might use them when you say goodnight, or review the day using them. If you are a praying family, you might use them when you pray: ‘Please God, help us to be kind and wise and brave and joyful,’ as we often say in our house.
- When someone compliments your kids on their looks or talents, add a word about character: ‘Yes, and she’s also kind and generous!’ or ‘I love how he’s good at both ballet and self-control. He’s growing up great!’
Step 5: Notice and nurture character growth regularly
Once you’ve got your list and you’re weaving it into everyday life, you’ll probably find that the learning and developing side of things takes care of itself. If you’re mentioning kindness everyday, I would expect that you and your kids would grow steadily kinder in practice – and yes, it’ll be all of you, because, for one thing, your kids will keep you honest! They’ll notice any hypocrisy you’re tempted into.
Keep an eye on it. Does your daughter struggle with self-control? Does your son’s exuberance getting in the way of him being considerate to others? Is there a particular anxiety or fear someone needs help with?
The internet and parenting books are chock-full of advice on fostering specific character traits. You could google ‘helping a child learn to be x’ and see what you find, or you could start with the marvellously wise Dr Laura Markham, who has guides for helping develop all sorts of character traits here.
Step 0: Do your own now, eh?
Well, that’s a lot of reading about someone else’s family values. What are yours?
Take some time – maybe even right now! – to make some notes or have a conversation with a friend or partner. Make a plan. Talk to your kids. Build some new traditions. Celebrate the great things going on in your kids’ lives.
And tell us all about it, please!
Because I love ya, here’s a handy-dandy infographic you can pin or save or share: