This parenting gig—it’s hard. Parents are expected to raise happy, healthy, moral, smart, successful, savvy kids and are charged with this task without having fully honed these traits themselves. There is a lot of on-the-job learning, and I’m no exception. I came into my parenting role as ill-equipped as any.
I’ve stumbled upon a loophole that has made my job much easier, however.
It is the regular application of one simple question that guides my parenting and has a beneficial side effect of making me a better person. It’s a basic question that subtly triggers my moral compass and years of learning to be a human. When I ask it, I can almost always come up with the right solution to any problem.
The question: What would I tell my kids to do?
My children force me to answer this question on their behalf dozens of times a day.
For instance, when my baby daughter sticks her finger up her nose for the 10th time, I tell her, “No boogers,” because nose-picking spreads germs and is frowned upon in society. When my son sneaks another poke at the baby after I’ve asked him to stop, I send him to his room because he needs to learn to listen and to control his impulses.
I answer my son’s questions about life and teach him to be kind, set boundaries, give back and work hard. I weave these lessons into the small, but big, things he’s experiencing.
I talk a good game.
But what about when life throws me a challenge, as it does every day?
My life is now on display for my children.
I’ve paid enough attention to know that my kids are going to do as I do, not as I say. If my kids are going to have a chance in this world, I need to lead by example.
I’m able to provide this example by pretending that I’m advising my future, grown children when I need to make a decision on how to proceed in my own life. I ask myself, What would I tell my kids to do?
If a frustrating email from work came in on a Friday, would I tell a grown-up version of my daughter to spend Friday evening absorbed by this communication while her family tried to play board games? Or would I tell her to take a jog, set the email on a mental shelf, and attend to it with fresh eyes on Monday?
Of course, I’d tell her the latter, but up until recently, I would have done the former.
If my adult son decided to pursue a passion and didn’t receive accolades for his work right away, would I tell him to give up? Would I explain that if he doesn’t hit it big the first time, he might as well quit? Or would I tell him to set a goal, work toward it, and regroup when setbacks occur?
Obviously I’d advise him to work hard and to learn from failure, but I only began to think about my goals this way recently through asking myself, What would I tell my kids to do?
When I look back at my life, there are a lot of decisions I am proud of, but also a slew of decisions that I would never advise for my kids.
Now when I’m faced with the decision to be positive or negative, mature or childish, kind or careless, I stop and think, What would I tell my kids to do?
I come up with the right answer more often than not. My record isn’t perfect, but none of us are. That’s something to model, too.
I know my kids aren’t always listening, but hopefully they are watching.