Children. Raise your hand if you have some. Yes, the one with the drink in it is fine. I probably have mentioned a few thousand times that I have three boys. They’re all pretty much grown with ages ranging from 19 to 25. I’m proud of them but realistic in recognizing that the world into which they are just starting out is nothing at all like the world I encountered at that age. On the rare occasion, they ask for advice I often don’t have anything to tell them because reality for them is quite different from my experience.
There may not be anything more important to ensure future success than to adopt world-class habits and perfect them daily.
I probably have also mentioned that I’m the stepdad to the Young Woman’s two little ones as well. Many of my peers have grandchildren the same ages as these kids, 7 and 8. Yet, here I am being a dad all over again and the perspective this gives me is unique. On one hand, I’ve been through this parenting thing before, sort of. I should know what to do, right? At the same time, the reality for the little ones is even more different than the reality my own boys faced at the same age. My experience with the boys often doesn’t apply to what these little ones need.
Such is the state of attempting to raise children in the 21st century. The days of Dr. Spock are gone, even if we don’t want that to be true. We, as parents, cannot consult some book and expect its advice will work on our children. In fact, if it’s my kid, chances are probably higher one needs to do the exact opposite. We live in a world that is more mean-spirited, more selfish, more greedy, more divisive, and more anti-everything than our grandparents would have thought possible. At the same time, though, this same world has more opportunities, is on the threshold of more ground-breaking discoveries, and is fueling more and faster innovation than any other period in history. The dichotomies are tremendous.
How one raises their children is a matter of numerous personal choices and it’s not my place, nor much of anyone else’s, to tell you how to make those choices. They’re your kids. You probably know deep down what’s best, you just have to be strong enough to actually follow through.
What I do have is a list of traits, habits that can be instilled, encouraged, and reinforced, that are more likely than not to put our children on the path that flows in the general direction of success. By success I mean they’re out of your house and paying for themselves most the time. Different children are going to hit that self-sufficiency standpoint at different times, but based on my experience and observation, these are the qualities most often found in those who make the most of what they’re given.
1Demonstrating compassion & empathy keep children connected to the real world
One of the most terrifying things we can do with our kids is to isolate them unnecessarily from the realities of the world in which they live. I’m not saying one should take four-year-olds to the strip club or stop and gawk at a bloody traffic accident, mind you. There is an appropriateness in timing that only you as a parent can determine. Isolating children, though, prevents them from developing a sense of compassion and empathy toward others. Without compassion, without the ability to look at the plight of others and want to help, we raise children who create more problems for the world rather than looking to solve them.
Much politicized recently are the statistics showing a 13% increase in crime over 12 months in the UK. No matter who one chooses to blame for such a shocking increase, one thing that holds true is that those committing those crimes have a deficiency of compassion and empathy. Violence does not come at the hands of those who are compassionate. One who cares about their fellow human does not seek to kill them in large quantities. When we see these things continuing to happen, wherever they may happen, one thing we know for certain is that someone’s child has lost their ability to care about other people.
By contrast, compassion leads us to do things such as driving hundreds of miles, using our own vacation time, to help people affected by hurricanes and wildfires. Compassion compels us to give to charities, or perhaps establish our own so that fewer people are homeless. Empathy is what allows our children to comfort a friend who just failed a test or come to the defense of a child being bullied on the playground. Empathy allows us to find the best in people without being ignorant of their faults.
We are already giving our children a world that doesn’t trust them, that mistreats people based on who they are and where they were born. Success in the future comes to those who have the ability to turn that around, to facilitate peace rather than war, who see no benefit in doing harm to others, and sincerely care about others more than themselves.
2Children who win understand what it means to fail and not give up
A lot has been written about the mistake parents made for an entire generation by attempting to instill the concept that everyone is a winner. Things such as participation trophies and doing away with scores in sporting matches gave us a generation that now feels cheated when the adult world slaps them in the face, calls them names, and makes them actually work for what they get. I distinctly remember the fury of my competitive six-year-old when his soccer coach told him after he had just scored his third goal that they weren’t keeping score. He was incredulous! By attempting to smooth the disappointment of those who lost, they had taken away the glory of his achievement.
On another day, my heart broke when a different son came in last place at his cub scout’s Pinewood Derby race. He hadn’t lost by just a little mind, you. Our scales had been off by a lot and his car was too light to make it all the way down the track. His car stopped before reaching the finish line. He was devastated and cried all the way home. The scoutmaster apologized but I assured him it would be okay. We let the little guy cry it out that night and then the next morning he was ready to start planning and strategizing on how to make a better car for next year. His cars didn’t always win, but he was always in the race because he learned to not let failure keep him down.
Both of those boys, as well as their brother, have grown to be wonderful young men, in my opinion. They’re still comparatively young and it is too early to tell what they’ll make of their lives, but they don’t give up when life gets challenging. That little boy on the soccer field is now a tenacious US Marine. The son whose car didn’t make it down the track still looks for ways to do things better the next time. We didn’t protect them from failing. We reward their success. Whatever they ultimately do with their lives, they are going to be winners. They won’t give up until they’ve achieved their goals.
We not only cannot protect our children from every possible disappointment, we don’t need to give them that protection. The child whose parent doesn’t let them risk a broken arm never discovers how high they can climb. Give them space to fail, encourage their success, and build in them a refusal to ever give up.
3Children who address their own needs are better able to tackle external challenges
Geeze, this is a tough one. I could write for pages about how we’ve attempted to tackle this issue on different levels with all five kids and still not necessarily give you any solid advice that works universally. From the outset, this is one of those areas where we have to realize that every child is unique and develops at a different speed and in different ways. There is no “silver bullet” that teaches all of them to be fully self-sufficient. What we have learned over the past 25 years, though, is that the better they are at taking care of themselves the more likely they are to successfully address external challenges as well.
Without getting too deep into specifics, which would mire us down in the necessary backstory, know that all five kids have unique personal challenges. Some require medication to help address those challenges but at the same time, there are other things they do on their own that are just as important. What we’ve found is that, as parents, we have to help them, and sometimes those around them, to figure out what they can do on their own to better meet their needs.
First, of course, they have to learn to identify what is a need versus merely addressing the symptom of a need. Nutrition, for example, is a need. Feeling hungry is a symptom of that need. Candy addresses the symptom, not the need. However, what we perceive as hunger is also a symptom of something else: boredom, the need to keep our minds active and knowing when, and how, to chill and relax. With the younger two, especially, we’re still working on learning how to tell which need should be addressed. We don’t always get it right, but being self-aware is a good start.
Then, once we’ve identified the need we learn to address that need sufficiently, or at least attempt to do so. Continuing the hunger example, we’re working on finding healthier alternatives to snacks loaded with processed sugar as well as learning to listen to our bodies so we know whether what we’re feeling is real hunger or boredom. Finding the wrong solution doesn’t address the need.
This is a very long-term lesson that children don’t just pick up on their own. Critical thinking skills develop in children over time and there’s no rushing them. What one child understands at age six the other may not pick up until they’re eight. As parents, we have to use an incredible amount of patience and understanding on this one. Kids don’t always know how to express their needs, either, which makes the whole task more challenging. What we’ve learned, though, is that as they develop these skills for themselves they apply them to other parts of their lives in learning to assess challenges and find solutions. Without fail.
4Learning to prioritize helps children achieve their goals
Being a parent to more than one child inevitably means that at some point something similar to these words is going to come from your mouth: “Can you please wait a minute? I can only do one thing at a time.” Small children, especially, have little sense of physical limitations especially in regard to time. They have an idea pop into their heads and don’t understand why it can’t happen at that every moment.
We want our children to be successful and to reach their goals but we’re dumping them into a world that makes a lot of demands on their time while also tempting them with myriad distractions. Reaching their goals means teaching them how to prioritize the things in their life so that they’re not wasting time and can actually reach those goals. What starts on a small scale develops into a life skill that is critical to success no matter what they end up doing with their lives.
For example, my stepson is one of the most creatively-minded people I’ve ever encountered. Not only is he creative, he also has the math and engineering skills, at age eight mind you, to make many of his ideas possible. The problem is that sometimes the creativity gets in the way. When he imagines something, he sees it in finished form, complete with an appropriate color scheme and decoration. The creative part of him gets excited about the decorating and coloring and he frequently starts with that, using so much time with the decorating that he runs out of time to actually build anything. Helping him learn to prioritize what he needs to do and setting time limits helps him to better reach his goal.
This is very much one of those skills that is best taught by example rather than verbal instruction and that means it is on us as parents to get our acts together so our children can observe what we’re doing and model our behavior appropriately. To tell children they need to prioritize their tasks while failing to do the same ourselves is a level of hypocrisy that children recognize and identify all too easily. You are naive if you think that they won’t call you out on it, too. Our children critically need this skill, though, as the demands they face are greater than anything we’ve encountered. Get those ducks in a row and make sure they’re ready.
5Children who separate truth from fiction make stronger leaders
Those of us of a certain age grew up with reasonably reliable sources of information. For my generation, network news anchorman Walter Cronkite was one of those sources. Newspapers were another reliable source. For our children, though, the world of information is a lot less reliable. They are flooded with information, all of which claims to be accurate, but something less than 60 percent of information from the best sources is typically reliable. As parents, we have to help them develop bullshit filters so they are better able to cut through the nonsense and not be distracted by attempts to divert their attention from critical information.
Where we have to start, of course, is by being honest with children ourselves. Calling out falsehoods of others is supremely hypocritical when we’re constantly lying to our children. Justify it however you want, a lie is still a lie and sooner or later your child is going to catch you. When they do, they understandably question everything you’ve ever told them.
Our children need to understand that one does not simply make claims that cannot be supported by reliable evidence. They also need to learn how to quickly identify sources of information that fail to provide such evidence. While there are always matters of perspective and opinion, children, as they grow, need to develop the ability to separate perspective from opinion and how both relate to facts.
Where this skill comes home to roost is when one starts making critical decisions that affect their future. Those who have the ability to separate truth from fiction inevitably end up leading those who are distracted by false information and fall for stories that are deliberately inaccurate. Liars may sometimes have their moments of deceptive power, but truth ultimately wins out and we want our children to be on the correct side of that equation.
6Children who know they don’t know everything become innovators
One word that constantly drives every parent a little nuts is, “Why?” Yes, we understand that when children continually ask that question they’re attempting to learn and understand, especially at a young age. Still, the repetitive question, heaped on top of all the other questions, pushes us ever closer toward the brink of insanity. Yet, if they ever stop asking then we are truly in trouble because they have reached a point where, for whatever reason, they no longer think they need to learn.
There has always been a bit of an anti-intellectual thread to Western culture; we can trace it all the way back to the third and fourth centuries when certain entities destroyed information or kept it secret for fear that informed peasants would rise up and unseat them from their places of power (which was likely a correct assumption). We have, for better or worse, brought our children into a world where that anti-intellectualism is experiencing renewed vitality, however, and it is up to us to make sure our children develop a habit of constant learning to fight back against the ignorance.
We have two warning signs against which we need to guard. One is the child who doesn’t want to learn because they feel it’s not necessary. The second is the child who wants to learn because they somehow think they already know everything. We have dealt with both and both are formidable in trying to replace such attitudes with an excitement and desire for learning. I wish I could tell you a sure-fire way to turn the attitudes around, but this is yet another example of where methods that work for one child inevitably don’t work for the next. The best I can do is encourage parents to stay vigilant and try different things.
Children who develop a love for learning never stop and those who are always looking for answers are inevitably the innovators that develop new ideas and concepts in answering problems and issues that have plagued us for generations. We desperately need more of these forward-thinking, learning individuals in the future. We need those who want to learn and explore and discover. Without them, we risk repeating the horrors of the Dark Ages all over again.
7Children who understand risk better understand life
I mentioned earlier something about letting children take risks and climb trees and such. Research from the past several years indicates that introducing children to risk through their play is an important part of their development and preparing them to function more successfully as adults. When we look at the society that our children are inheriting, understanding risks and risk management have never played a more critical role in helping our children succeed as adults.
I have to admit that I dropped the ball with my boys on this one. While they understand that risks are inevitable, they are still frequently too cautious and afraid to take the steps necessary to move forward. I grossly underestimated how frequently and critically they would encounter risks that dramatically impact their lives. This is one of those areas where I wish I could go back and do things a bit differently.
With the young ones the challenge is helping them manage the risks they encounter. As parents, we are constantly astonished at the risks facing our children. When is it safe for them to ride their bikes in the street rather than on the sidewalk? Do we allow them to play games that have Internet access? Is that zip line safe enough?Are the precautions we’ve taken appropriate to encourage them to try things for themselves?
What we as parents have to come to grips with is the fact that our children’s growth is worth the occasional broken bone, scratches, scrapes, and possibly even a few stitches. The dangers they encounter while playing as children help prepare them for the dangers they encounter as adults, dangers that as their parents we cannot foresee nor prevent them from experiencing. We can’t hold their hands through everything. Those who develop the skills necessary to handle risks appropriately will move more nimbly through life than their reticent counterparts. Yes, that means not everyone survives. Sometimes we miscalculate and get hurt but what we learn gives us the ability to avoid making that mistake again. They grow stronger and move forward.
8Children are more likely to succeed when they are encouraged to dream
Motivational speakers around the world love telling us the benefits of chasing our dreams, provided we pay them a lot of money to feed us a load of what is mostly bullshit. I’m not inclined to fall for all the banter because too often it creates a fantasy that minimizes the fact that dreams take a lot of hard work if we expect them to come true. However, what they get right is that it is people of vision and imagination who are the most successful. Several such people come to mind, such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg just to name a few. Everyone our children are likely to consider as role models almost certainly started with a dream and were encouraged by someone, somewhere, to make that dream a reality.
All one has to do to understand how imaginative our children are is stand on the playground while a group of toddlers explores a playground. They love slides and swings and doors that open and shut, but what we see almost instantly is that they don’t use those amusements in the way they were intended. Instead, they try climbing up the slide, use the door as a swing, and turn the swing into a launching pad. Their imagination leads them to find different ways to utilize the resources they’ve been given.
And we ruin it all by telling them, “No, that’s not how it’s done.” Sure, sometimes that warning is for their safety, but getting back to that whole risk thing, if we let them continue we might be surprised at what they might learn to do.
I firmly believe there lies within every child a vision not only for what they want to be but what they want their world to become. As parents, part of our job is to make sure those dreams are kept alive and given the nourishment and encouragement they need to grow. Not to be sexist here, but this is especially true for little girls who have for too many generations told they have to shelve their dreams in order to settle down and have families. We are seeing more women reject that stereotype and explore their own path but as we raise children for the future it is critical that we emphasize that women can be just as visionary and just as successful as anyone else who has ever lived. The only boundaries are the ones they establish for themselves.
For everything we’ve listed here, it all comes to naught if our children don’t know how to dream and how to develop their vision. If we pass down only one trait to our children, please let it be the ability to believe that they can create something better than the mess we’re handing down to them.
Wrapping it all up
There is no secret method for raising successful children. Despite all our efforts our children are going to be themselves and that means they frequently will make decisions contrary to what we think is good for them. The sooner we accept that the calmer we can be about our role as parents. We can’t fix every problem, we can’t protect them from every danger and we can’t ensure their success in life no matter what advantages we try to give them. In fact, there is a point at which our attempts to help do them more harm than good. We have no guarantees.
What we can do, however, is try to instill at least some of these eight traits in our children. While I’m not foolish enough to think that any of them are sure-fire paths to success, at the very least they give our children a reasonable advantage that they can mold to fit their personality and imagination. None of us can predict the future, but from what we see from here these are the traits that are most likely to help them navigate the inconceivable mess they are inheriting from us.
Most importantly, we need to instill in our children the belief that they can make this world better despite the failures of previous generations. With each new generation comes the ability to improve, to bring the world closer to peace, harmony, and mutual understanding. Where we have failed they have an opportunity to succeed. We owe it to them and the world to help them realize that opportunity and chart a course for getting there.
Do the best you can.
Abide in Peace,
The Old Man
And now, we pass the hat