By: Aimee Tafreshi
Somehow, as a parent, in the midst of the day-to-day drudgery of raising children, I lost sight of the big picture. I didn’t see the forest for the trees, as the trees are loud, demanding and destroying my furniture. I had this epiphany the other night as I dragged my bone-tired body into my cozy bed and congratulated myself for surviving another day with the three hellions precious children.
It hit me like my toddler’s right hook to my unsuspecting cheek that I had the epic responsibility of raising these three tadpoles into well-mannered and fully functioning adults. And here I thought I just had to keep them fed, dressed in public and clean enough to pass the smell test.
As I felt the weight of this new responsibility sink in, I began to brainstorm what exactly I intended to accomplish with my three minions kiddos. What type of children did I want to send out into the world? The current ones scream out “Done!” in an abruptly loud voice when finished with a meal, waiting for their humble servant (that would be me) to come running over, wipe off their food-smeared faces and quickly remove them from the table. If I don’t hustle fast enough, they keep repeating “Done!” like maniacal robots. How would that scene play out in the real world? Do they realize what angry waiters can do to your food? It was time to implement some changes pronto.
I started out easy at dinner one night, requiring each one to say “May I please be excused from the table?”, as opposed to the super curt “Done!” The seven-year-old and two-year-old aced the new language (the latter’s was incoherent, but I knew what he meant), whereas the four-year-old would only scream the magic phrase at me with vitriol and hostility in his voice, defeating its polite purpose. I tried a different tactic and had him slowly repeat each word after me, as if reciting a wedding vow. Good enough for now, I thought, as he repeated each word in a neutral voice.
Since I am now embracing my new role as shaper of future human beings, what other values could I impart on these whippersnappers, in addition to basic politeness and good manners?
I came up with a list of 12 personality traits and/or behaviors to work on with the kids. Jotting down a concrete list helps because I can specifically work on each area instead of just shouting vague platitudes at them (“Don’t hit!”, “Be nice!”, “Share!”, “Eat your broccoli!”, blah, blah, blah.)
1. Work ethic
Work ethic popped into my head after picking my daughter up from a day at soccer camp. She seemed down and said that she didn’t want to play soccer in the fall anymore. After some probing, I realized that she was frustrated because a lot of the other players at the camp were more experienced than she was. She had overheard some of the boys say that she wasn’t a good goalie.
Besides the conversation on tuning out negativity, I focused on work ethic. I explained to her that she could be the most talented soccer player in the world, but unless she was willing to put in the hard work, she would never reach the level she wanted to achieve. As a novice, she should view the camp as an opportunity to learn new skills from soccer pros, as opposed to feeling frustrated that she wasn’t already the best player on the field. She should also realize that being surrounded by better players would elevate her own game and motivate her to play better.
Honor your commitments. Show up when you say you will. Do what you say you will do. Others will rely on your word. One of our children had a meltdown at the end-of-season dance recital and didn’t perform in two of her dances. We respected her decision to take a break from dance; what we didn’t like was bowing out of each dance at the last minute. The instructor choreographed the routine for a certain number of children; now there was a hole on the stage where she should have been dancing. We didn’t berate her or make her feel bad, but we did use the experience to launch a discussion about honoring your commitments. You can quit something, but wait until the season is over.
Patience is a tough one. I know my kids are watching me, so I have to watch what I say when frustrated in line at the grocery store behind a check writer or in a slow lane of traffic. They will follow my example. We live in an instant gratification society. Patience will make my children stand out as adults and perhaps keep their blood pressure in check.
Tolerance is a complex issue with difficult conversations ahead. Tolerance toward different races, different socioeconomic groups, different gender identities, different sexual orientations, and so on – it’s hard to keep some of the discussions age level appropriate, so I basically address these issues as they come up.
For instance, my daughter told me about someone at school who dressed as the opposite gender, so I took the opportunity to tell her about some kids who may look one way on the outside, but they feel differently on the inside. I told her she should be nice to this person because they may face a tough time at school.
I hadn’t yet addressed race with my kids – I wanted them to be color-blind. When my daughter started innocently referring to African-Americans as “the dark-skinned people,” I had to explain that they are black or African-American, and that they simply have a different skin tone. We are all the same on the inside, and all uniquely different on the outside. I am proud that when she tells me about a new friend at school, the fact that the new girl is of a different race doesn’t even come up. Everyone is the same to my daughter, and that feels like my biggest accomplishment so far.
I want my children to have compassion for those less fortunate. I want them to have compassion for animals and wildlife. I want them to be able to place themselves in someone else’s shoes before they judge them for their life choices.
Honesty seems like a no-brainer but it can be difficult to achieve. Children can be masters of the tall tale. I’m okay if my kids mess up, but please don’t lie to me about it. I’m more hurt by the omission or lie than by what actually transpired. Own up to your mistakes in adulthood – others will respect your integrity and give you their trust. Cherish that trust.
I don’t want my kids to grow up to be chronically stressed-out adults. I want them to be able find their Zen place or activity that centers them or brings them an inner calm. Walking on the beach, jogging, rock-climbing, surfing, kayaking . . . whatever the outlet, I want them to discover the means to unwind and let go.
8. Environmental Stewardship
Nothing makes me happier than seeing one of my kids drop a piece of plastic into our recycle bag. I can confidently say that my kids understand what can be recycled and why recycling is important. Now we do have room for improvement here – we could do a compost pile, and we could grow our own veggies, but at least we fill up our recycle bin to the brim every week. I want my kids to value the earth and realize the ramifications of our actions and inactions. My daughter already gives me a hard time for driving everywhere instead of walking. (“Why don’t we walk? The animals walk, and we are animals too.” I can’t argue with that, kid.) Now all we need is better mass transit…
Did I follow my passions when looking for my dream job? There were aspects of my past career that intersected with my interests, but honestly the more pressing factor was financial security. However, it’s hard to spend the majority of your time doing a job for which you don’t feel a strong passion. I encourage them to follow their passions – ballet dancer, artist, dentist, engineer – I honestly don’t care what they choose, as long as they are listening to their hearts and intuition about what will bring them personal fulfillment (and yes, there is a good chance I will have starving artists adult children living with me someday).
I don’t want my kids to grow up thinking that wherever we are living is the best place on earth, and that anywhere outside the United States is strange or inferior. I want my children to have a slight wanderlust and desire to learn about different peoples, cultures and religions. Sometimes you have to leave your own bubble to learn what is great about where you live and what needs improving. I want them to be proud Americans, but not pompous or naive ones.
Respect for your elders. Respect for the cab driver. Respect for the guys who pick up your garbage each week. Treat everyone with respect, from the sanitation workers to the CEO of your company. Everyone deserves respect. Respect others, and they will have your back every time.
Stay humble. There is nothing more off-putting to me than someone who is full of himself. There is nothing more appealing to me than someone who is full of talent but has remained humble and down-to-earth. (Compare Kevin Durant to Johnny Manziel.) I don’t care if you are an Olympian, POTUS or the designer of the next viral app. Stay humble. I will be more impressed with your humility than your accomplishments.
And on a related note, go easy on the selfies – they can be construed as narcissistic.
Now while I am trying to imprint all of these worldly lessons onto my children during the short time they are under my actual control, perhaps I can work on myself too.