The Most Important Things We Can Teach Our Kids

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Sasa Dinic / iStock

Most of parenting is in the minutiae: making meals; cleaning up messes; begging little people to get dressed, eat the food you’ve prepared, go the eff to sleep, listen to you, do any freaking thing you ask them to do; and then making them more meals, cleaning up more messes, etc. My life as a mom often feels like Groundhog Day—the same thing over and over until I totally go out of my mind.

But sometimes, in between all the meal making, butt wiping, and kid wrangling, I have moments of pure happiness with my kids—many of them, actually (I mean, otherwise, how could this all be worth it?). As they get older, I’ve realized that my role as a parent isn’t just about slogging though and savoring those moments of joy that manage to slip through. I have a bigger role here. In everything I do with my kids—even the most mundane of tasks—I’m teaching them about life, what it means to be human, and how to make it in what can often be a difficult, thankless world.

The days are long, but the years are short, and before I know it, my kids will be out there, trying to make it on their own. Here are some of the things I’m doing my best to teach them now, with the hope that it will help them when they leave the nest (but let’s stop talking about that because I will be a wreck when that happens):

1. You are not the center of the universe.

While I do sometimes want my kids to think they are the center of my universe (you know, unconditional love and all that), I want them to know that there is a big world out there too. I want them to know that the way we think about things is defined very much by the people we know, the community we live in, as well as the culture that defines our time. I hope to teach my kids to have an international outlook—to know that the world is made up of all kinds of people, races, perspectives, and morals. I want to teach my kids to be compassionate and have an open mind about the beautiful otherness that colors our world.

2. You can’t be good at everything, but everyone has their gifts.

Yes, I want my kids to know that they are amazing. I mean, every mother thinks that. And it’s true! All kids have gifts, but no one can be gifted at everything. My older son is some kind of math and reading whiz (and believe me, he knows it), but it took him a while to realize that playing competitive sports wasn’t something he had a knack for, nor was it something he particularly loved. Sure, he should be able to play whatever sports he wants, but doing it competitively only made him upset because he simply lacked the stamina and coordination to do it well. Kids need to know that there will always be things they can do amazingly well, but that there’s no way they can be good at everything. And that’s OK.

3. You can’t change people, but you get to choose what kind of people to let into your life.

It took me about 35 years to learn this lesson, and I’m still working on it. Always a caretaker at heart, I used let people into my life hoping I could change them. But I’ve realized that no matter what I did, change could only come from within them, not from me. And that kind of codependent thing wasn’t good for anyone. Now I try to surround myself with people who have something to give me in return and who exude kindness.

Perfect people don’t exist, but there is no reason to get dragged down by other people’s shit. I’m hoping my kids will learn this much earlier than I did. Even now, I tell them that if a friend is consistently mean to them, it’s probably just time to look for a new friend. These are hard lessons for them (and I shudder to think how their teen years will go), but I’m hoping that just giving them permission to say “no” will help them make good relationship choices throughout their lives.

4. Question everything, all the time.

I am blessed with two strong-willed children who question everything, but it took me a long time to realize what a blessing this actually was. A strong-willed 2-year-old will destroy you, but growing up to be a person of grit and determination is pretty desirable if you think about it. I want to raise freethinking kids. Hell, I even want them to question me. I want them to know that no one has all the answers all the time, and that the most innovative thinkers of our time were the ones who thought outside the box.

5. If you’re feeling upset, tell someone.

I have two boys. In a world that doesn’t create much space for honest self-expression (especially for boys), I feel that one of the most important lessons I can teach my kids is how to express and manage their feelings. Feelings matter, period, even the ugliest, most shameful ones. Amidst our busy lives, I make a point to have dedicated times each day to just sit and be with my kids. This is usually in the dark as they’re unwinding before bed. I want them to know that I will try my best to listen without judgment and that all the feelings are OK, even the weirdest, strangest, most intense ones. I want them to know that sometimes just saying the feelings out loud makes them easier to manage.

I’m not a perfect mother, and I’m certainly not a perfect person. Many of the things I want my kids to know are things I’m still learning myself. But when I step outside of our lives for a second and peer in, I can see that my kids are maturing at a more rapid pace than I realize and that they are full of wisdom I don’t usually even see. I’m proud of the boys they’re becoming and the men they will someday be. And I know that as much as I have to teach them, there are plenty of life lessons that they will inevitably teach me too.

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