A big part of being a good Dad is arming your kids with the tools they’ll need to understand and navigate the world successfully as adults. When I first became a Dad, I took some time to reflect on the adults I knew… on what the ones who were doing better seemed to understand, and on what the ones who were doing worse seemed to have in common.
I uncovered a few insights that seemed important, and now as I await the arrival of my fourth child, I’m pretty sure about the most important lesson I’ve had for the first three.
It is this:
We make choices in life, and those choices have consequences. Growing up means accepting the consequences of your choices, and dealing with them in a responsible way.
Pretty obvious, right? So why is it so important?
Different Outlooks, Different Outcomes
Do what I did… think about the happiest people you know, and about the most miserable. Pick a few real people in your life from each category, and visualize them in your mind. Ready?
Dollars to donuts, the happiest people you know aren’t necessarily the richest, the best looking, the most talented, or even the most loved. They are the people most in touch with the truth – the truth of who they are, the truth of their relationships, the truth of the people and circumstances around them. Look closely, and you’ll see that these people interpret themselves to be more or less in control of their lives. Not in the sense that unforeseeable, bad things don’t happen to them. They do, just like everyone else. But these people tend to respond to life’s inevitable setbacks and tragedies by accepting them as an objective reality to be dealt with, and focusing on the choices that will help them best address that reality.
Happy, well adjusted adults understand the nature of personal responsibility. They neither avoid the entanglements real relationships entail, nor burden themselves with worry over that which is beyond their control. Robert Frost called them “easy in their harness,” about the best distillation I’ve come across.
Now come back to the most unhappy people you know. When you talk to them, when you ask how they are, what do they say? I bet it’s some variant of this: Their boss did this to them; their wife did that to them; the whatever isn’t fair because of the <blank>; X screwed them out of Y because of Z. These people conceal the truth of their personal responsibility from themselves. They don’t hold themselves accountable, don’t see their lives as the product of their choices. They see themselves responding at the margins to circumstances beyond their control, and drift with the current toward destinations far from their hopes and dreams.
And where did these people learn to function this way in the world? Sadly, more often than not, they learned it from their parents.
What are your kids learning from you?
Right or wrong, I have a worldview I’d like my kids to start with, even if they reach different conclusions as adults. I believe our lives are what we make of them – through the good and the bad we all face, the failures and the triumphs that make up a life worth living. I believe their lives will be the consequences of their choices, and that recognizing this early on will dramatically increase their odds of being happy, productive adults.
So how do you get that message across? I’ve found that what works best is giving your kids a little more choice and a little more consequence as they go, pointing out the connections between the latter and the former at every possible opportunity.
Some examples: We’ve all seen people fight with their kids about eating this or that, or rise from a full dinner table to make macaroni and cheese for poor Timmy who “won’t eat anything else.” This drives me pazzo, and it doesn’t happen in our house. The reason is not because we’re great parents, or because our kids are better than Timmy. It’s because we use this as an opportunity to reinforce an important lesson.
After toddlerdom, we don’t argue with our kids about eating dinner, or make them something else if they choose not to eat what’s being served. We establish the rule that whatever’s been prepared is what’s for dinner, and – after advising them to eat, and clarifying the consequences if they don’t – let them decide if they want to eat or not. Easy enough, right? Well here’s the hard part: If they choose not to eat, despite our best advice and encouragement, they can’t eat anything else until breakfast. Period. Each of them has chosen not to eat dinner a couple of times, and later complained later that they were “starving” when they went to bed. Please. Each survived this “starvation” just fine, and now – for the most part – they know the deal, and they eat without complaint.
Same with bedtime. In the summer there’s the inevitable appeal to stay up until 9:00, or even 9:30. We let them decide whether they want to do this early in the summer, on the absolute condition that there’s no whining or complaining when they have to get up for camp in the morning. As long as we hold the line on this, everybody wins, either way. In order to maintain the later bedtime they work hard to get out of bed, dressed and downstairs on schedule in the morning. If they start to find that too difficult, they are the ones who choose to hit the sack early in order to get the sleep they’ve learned they need.
The consequences of bad choices obviously get more harmful as kids get older, but that’s kind of the whole point. Before your kids reach the stage of life where bad choices can have lifelong consequences, you’ll have taught them an important lesson within the relative safety of the world you control on their behalf.
What lesson do you think is most important for your kids? Why is it so important to you?