I have two boys. At the end of the summer they will turn, respectively, 3 and 5.
The multi-billion-dollar parenting industry wants you to think that parenting is complex and technical and that you need expert advice to handle it. But I’ve discovered that it’s fairly simple. I’ve unlocked the grand secret. Are you ready? Here it goes:
If you want to be a good parent, be a good person.
There you have it. Children will model their lives on the lives they see. So model a good life.
Terrifying, right? Warming the diaper wipes is one thing, but living a good life? Being a good person? Who knows how to do that?
But there’s no way around it. You can tell them to manage anger constructively. You can tell them not to take more than their fair share. You can tell them that all people, even those most pitiable or aggravating, deserve empathy and respect. You can tell them that they should own their feelings and not be afraid or ashamed to express them. You can tell them that kindness is not weakness and that love can move mountains.
But if you react to your own anger with yelling or violence; if you hoard and begrudge resources; if you insult or berate others; if you are insensitive to those you love; if you bottle up your own feelings or attack perceived weaknesses in others — if you do that stuff, that’s what they do.
Those who know me well know that I’m incredibly hard on myself. In many ways, before I met my wife and had children, I’d become resigned to being a person I didn’t much like. I berated myself, often loathed myself, but I didn’t have much faith in my ability to be a better person.
But now I have no choice, right? I can’t very well let my kids down. I don’t want them to act like I did when I was young or to hate themselves for it like I did. If I want to do right by them — and there is literally nothing in this world I could want more — I have to learn how to be less selfish and more kind. I have to find the good person I know is lurking down there under all the layers of fear and doubt and I have to bring him out. If I want them to feel confident, to love and respect themselves, I have to show them how.
That is both the curse and the blessing of parenting. It’s a curse because it condemns you to a parade of failures, small and large. Every day you fall short. (A story: the other day my older boy wouldn’t let me take a splinter out of his foot because he was scared, and I told him to stop being a baby. I actually said that. More than once! And having learned the whole verbalize-your-feelings thing, he then said, “Dad, every time you call me a baby it makes me sadder and sadder.” Boy did I sleep well.)
But it’s also a blessing. Your aspirations for your children become aspirations for yourself, and for your community, and for the world. Your love for your children refracts, and is thrown everywhere.
Anyway, if you’d like to hear someone much more eloquent (and succinct) than me discuss it, check out Barack Obama’s Father’s Day speech. Or watch this: