This article originally appeared on Medium
Parenting’s hard. Words matter.
Nearly every day, often when I kiss my kids good-bye as they head off to school, I remind them to do four things:
“Be good. Learn lots. Have fun. Do your best.”
These four requests embody the vast majority of the goals I hope my kids can internalize during their formative years. But what do they mean? Or, more specifically, what do I want my kids to understand they mean?
Yes, this is partly a reminder to follow the rules and adhere to the guidance of teachers and others who might be responsible for their safety and well-being. But it’s not just that. “Be good” also means to “be a force for good.” That is, improve the environment you’re in. Do well by and for others. Be a friend. Help those in need. Be good, as in both the noun and the adjective.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that a lot of our problems can be solved by knowing more. Education is fundamental to improving our capacity to be (and do) good, for ourselves and for others. Knowledge gives us the raw materials we need to make the world a better place, improve our lot in life, and to find new sources of fulfillment. To that end, they should always be seeking to learn, no matter what environment they’re in. When in school, learning is paramount. When they’re not in school, it’s still important. And every situation is an opportunity to learn something new.
They’re kids. And life is short. We adults can easily become way too focused on goals and outcomes and achievement. Kids, especially, should enjoy what they do…at least some of it. One of my fears for my kids, and kids in general, is that adults’ expectations of them turn enjoyment of an activity into stress over performing well. Learning is hampered by test anxiety. Athletic performance is undermined by stress over the outcomes (i.e., “choking”). While a lot of important activities can’t be totally fun and games, having fun should be a big part of every kid’s day.
Do your best.
I hope my kids know I’ll be proud of them as long as they’ve put their heart fully into whatever it is they’re doing, regardless of the outcome. Giving things that matter their best, most sincere efforts is my expectation for them. Trying hard and failing can be even more valuable than succeeding while coasting along. But instilling in them this expectation — that they should invest effort and focus into the things they do — is the goal of this last missive.
Are these the only directives that a parent could use? Not by a long shot. There are many other good choices as well. But I’ll be satisfied if these four in particular sink into my kids’ heads more thoroughly than normal
My kids know these words by heart. Sometimes, I suspect, they roll their eyes now when I say them. But I’m OK with that because I’m sure they’ll always remember them. And if it sinks in even a little to help guide their thoughts, choices, and behavior when I’m not around, then I’ll consider that a parenting success.
And, when I say these things, to let them know that these instructions come from the very best of my intentions, I finish with
“I love you.”
Because that’s the most important thing of all.