“If I could teach parents just one lesson from all the parenting books that I have read, and all the lectures I have heard and all the articles that I have either read or written, there is absolutely no question in my mind that what one lesson would be. It is the most important message I tried to convey in my last book, Children of Character (Canter & Associates, 1997), and it is simply this: be the kind of person you want your children to become. That’s it. That is the single most important parenting lesson that you can learn – the power of setting a good example, of acting as you would want your children to act when they become adults.
It seems like such a simple idea, yet I can’t tell you how many parents over the years in my workshops and lectures throughout the country have shaken their heads in disbelief and told me my standards for parents are just too high. They are intimidated by the notion that the words they say, the things they do, the choices they make, the behavior they exhibit in front of their kids is sometimes the single most important determiner of the kind of adult their children will become.
It’s an awesome responsibility to be a parent. In the words of a wise poet I once read, “Being a parent is choosing to have your heart run around outside your body for the rest of your life.” It can be a daunting responsibility for those parents who take their parenting seriously, and the realization that your children are forever using you and your behavior as their number one, primary model for what is right and good to do can be frightening.
Of course, I truly believe that anyone who wants to can become a terrific parent. It is really a matter of making the decision that parenting is important enough to spend time on, that raising your children is important enough a task as to merit learning the key skills necessary to do the job right. If you decided to learn to ski, you would know in advance that it’s important to take lessons, practices the skills you are learning and concentrate on following the rules that you have learned. The same is true for any skill, and parenting is no different.
The skills of being an effective, caring, successful parent are learnable by anyone who cares enough to take the time and invest the energy and commitment. Being a parent is the most important job in the world, for you hold the very future of life itself and the quality of the society in which we will all live in your hands. It takes courage to be a parent, and it takes courage to admit when you need help. If as many people who go to classes and study just to get a simple driver’s license would put the same amount of time and effort into learning how to parent, our world would be a remarkably transformed place.
It is a great and demanding challenge to measure yourself by the same standards of ethical behavior, character, and personal worth by which you measure your children. If you cannot feel good about yourself with regard to your values, your integrity, how you treat others and the contributions you make to the life of your community, how can you expect ethical behavior of your children when they grow up either?
In the words of the famous poster, “children learn what they live.” And since they live with you, it will primarily be a result of the environment which you create for them as they are growing that they will learn the important lessons of ethical behavior and positive social interaction.
It takes courage, optimism and profound faith to undertake the task of raising ethical children. To do so even with the realization of how much is beyond your control is truly an act of great love and trust in yourself and the future. It would often be easy to throw up your hands in despair and give in to the pervasive influences of materialism, consumerism, and instant self-gratification. When in spite of it all you persist in learning all you can about parenting, overcoming frustration, and doing your best to create a legacy of values and moral behavior, you ought to feel proud of your commitment and dedication.
Every time your teach our children by word or deed what it is to be an ethical human being, you boldly declare that the actions of a single individual really do make a difference. And this lesson is important enough to be taught again and again until it is shared by every person, every parent on our planet.
True there are no magic answers, no money-back guarantees, or unassailable techniques that will guarantee that you will become the ideal parent. Yet I believe absolutely that life has meaning and purpose that you can discover together with your children. I believe that you can help bring your children to an awareness of their own power to make a difference in the world around them, and that the primary way in which you teach this lesson in by demonstrating to them each day that you believe that you make a difference as well.
You have to have the courage to make mistakes and be imperfect. You have to have the courage to then admit your mistakes to your kids, tell them how you ought to have acted and how you intend to behave the next time a similar situation arises, that through that real-life role modeling, you will be setting the kind of important example that will empower them to be able to admit their own mistakes, figure out what they can learn from them and move on as well.
You must have the courage to believe that despite your imperfections and mistakes, your children will still love you. In fact, sometimes it is because of your imperfections and mistakes and your willingness to show that you are human, that your children love you all the more. If you demonstrate that you can grow emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, then they will learn that such growth is possible for them as well. Have the courage to believe that they will grow up to be emotionally healthy, compassionate human beings of outstanding character, and they will believe it too.