I had been attempting to write the same article all afternoon. Starting and stopping. Pacing. Distracting myself by scanning the contents of the refrigerator. The delete key on my laptop was getting quite a workout but I wasn’t getting anywhere. Except frustrated. I fell back into the folds of the couch with a dramatic groan.
“What’s up, Dad?” Naomi asked. She’d obviously come into the kitchen to grab a snack. The remnants of a wrapper were in her hand as she paused to take in my despondent attitude.
I quickly straightened myself on the cushions. “Oh, nothing.”
Ivan suddenly appeared just behind her, peering toward the couch and my abandoned laptop with curiosity.
“It’s nothing,” I said. “I’m just having a little trouble writing. I can’t get it right.”
Naomi wrinkled her nose. “What’s it about?”
I shifted on the couch uneasily. “Well, it’s supposed to be about important lessons to teach your kids.”
“Did you make an outline, Dad?” Ivan offered, smirking a bit. This was advice I’d given him hundreds of times when he was struggling with writing a paper for school. He was probably happy to offer it back to me with a side of sarcasm.
“Yes, Ivan. I did. It’s just… Well, it’s the tone. I can’t figure out how to say what I want to say without sounding … um…”
“Preachy?” Ivan supplied.
“Yes! I was thinking ‘sanctimonious,’ but same thing,” I exclaimed, relieved that he’d identified the problem and saved me from further explanation.
And then it hit me. What I should have done at the outset:
I should have asked my kids.
“What are the most important lessons you’ve learned?”
Ivan and Naomi looked hesitantly at each other.
“Like holding-hands-when-crossing-the-street kind of stuff?” Naomi chirped, puzzled.
I shook my head. “No. Like really important things. Big life lessons. What did you learn and how did you learn it?”
Honesty is the Best Policy
“Well, there was that time that I lied about staying after school,” Ivan said.
He looked sheepish. He had wanted to go to a friend’s house, but he was grounded. So he made up a little lie about needing to stay after school to work on a project. Of course, he got caught red-handed. I ran into the friend’s mother at the grocery store, and she casually mentioned that Ivan had left his coat at the house and she’d try to have her son take it to school.
It’s not that we hadn’t had conversations about honesty before. We’d had plenty. When I walked in the door that night and confronted him, Ivan was ashamed and embarrassed. And I was disappointed.
“Yep. That was a pretty big deal. What did you learn?”
Ivan squirmed. “That telling the truth isn’t only important because of being honest. It’s also about trust. It took you a long time to trust me again. That sucked.”
I tried not to beam. I had no idea I’d gotten through to him on that level. It was gratifying to hear.
Win or Lose … It Doesn’t Matter
Naomi was pretty much jumping up and down with excitement now. “Hey, Dad! I got one. Remember when I used to cry every time I lost a game?”
Ivan and I both groaned. Everyone remembered. From an early age, Naomi’s competitive spirit instilled in her a very high level of investment in the outcome of every game we played. It was exhausting to watch her become moody and then petulant and finally throw an outright tantrum if she did not emerge victorious. It would have been easier to just let her win. But we kept at it, focusing on instilling her with a better attitude and the importance of good sportsmanship.
“Right. That was tough. What did you learn?”
She hesitated. “I had more fun when I stopped worrying about winning and just enjoyed playing. And everyone else did, too.”
Maya, aroused from her room by the rising level of conversation, joined in.
“I learned something important, Daddy. Just last weekend.”
I furrowed my brow, trying to recall just what she might be referring to.
“What was it, Maya?”
It’s Better to Give Than to Receive
“We went to that soup kitchen, remember? And I saw that some kids don’t even have places to sleep and they have to be hungry all the time.” Maya’s eyes were wide with serious contemplation.
I leaned down toward her, speaking softly. “What did that teach you?”
“It felt good to give them food. It was nice to help.”
“Did it also make you appreciate your own warm home and full belly a little more?”
Maya nodded solemnly.
Naomi interrupted. “What about that time you had to teach Ivan about not being dumb on the internet? That was important.”
“Hey!” Ivan responded. “You’re not perfect either, Miss Goody Two-Shoes. What about when you were mean to that neighborhood girl at school?”
“All right, all right.” I held up my hands and tried not to laugh. “I guess we’ve learned a lot. Thanks for the help. I think I’ll take it from here now.”
Important Lessons to Teach without the Preach
Lesson One: The Truth Will Set You Free
At a certain age, children learn they can manipulate the truth and get away with it. And once they do, it can become a struggle to help them understand why honesty is important.
Practice what you preach and your kids will follow. Emphasize that honesty is an expectation that everyone in the house strives to live up to.
Too often, we communicate values without really providing their rationale. Take some time to explain why honesty is important. Include ideas about the value of trust. Also, emphasize that while telling the truth is a priority, in some situations, it is best to reserve comment. (That is, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.)
Dishonesty stems from a few motivations. Either your children want to avoid a consequence or they are attempting to bolster their self-image with a less-than-truthful version of a story. You’ll need to understand why your child is lying before you can jump in and address the problem. Find ways to reward honesty in the face of negative consequences. For kids who are looking to inflate or exaggerate, examine whether or not you may need to take some action to improve self-confidence.
Lesson Two: Win or Lose … It Doesn’t Matter
Some kids are born with a competitive spirit that makes being a good sport challenging. Encouraging acting with grace in the face of failure is an important but difficult life lesson.
Everyone likes to win. Acknowledge that reality. But strive to show them by example that the primary goal is not to win the game but to play the game. A good analogy to teach them is that playing the game is like their favorite cake, and winning the game is like the frosting on top. They can enjoy both.
Ever played a board game with your kids and allowed them to win? Don’t. They need to have the experience of losing early so they can learn to embrace it.
A good way to encourage sportsmanship is to get your child to always congratulate the winner and shake hands. Watch some games together and call out when others show good or bad sportsmanship.
Talk about the game and what happened. Kids may lose because they’re too young and inexperienced to have mastered the concepts of the game, or because they may not have the skills to play well. Discuss how they might improve and give them feedback, but wait until they’re ready to hear it if they’re still feeling emotionally sore about the loss.
Lesson Three: How to be Generous
A study at Harvard showed that “kids may value academic achievement and individual happiness over caring for others.” That’s likely because those are the values we are spending time reinforcing. Let’s change that. Teach kids that generosity isn’t just kindness; it is also about empathizing with others and recognizing their humanity.
Help your kids round up gently used toys, clothing and other items and donate them to those in need.
Pitch in and do some volunteering at a soup kitchen, an animal shelter, a nursing home, or any other place in your neighborhood that you know needs some help.
Look on the internet together and see what charities support causes you are interested in. Let your children choose the charities of their choice and donate an amount of money each week from their allowances.
Lesson Four: R-E-S-P-E-C-T (Just a Little Bit)
The best way to teach respect is to show it.
Respect is an attitude of admiration or esteem toward others, yourself, and your possessions. Children who are respectful take care of their belongings and have a sense of responsibility. They also strive to listen to and cooperate with peers, parents, and authority figures like teachers.
Even toddlers can be encouraged to treat things with care. Gently admonish them for misuse of a book or a toy. As they grow and develop the capacity for empathy, this can be extended to people.
Kids are like wonderful, terrifying machines of mimicry. You will see yourself in them one day and either cringe or smile. Show the same respect for their feelings, space, and possessions that you expect of them.
If they act disrespectful, identify exactly why their behavior is unacceptable and what they could do differently.
Lesson Five: How to Be a Good Friend
Friendship can enrich our lives beyond measure. Teach your kids the value of their relationships with others and ways that they can build healthy, supportive friendships.
Kids who have good self-esteem will tend to choose friends who are supportive and positive.
Kids learn what it means to be in a healthy relationship by watching their parents. Demonstrate the importance of good friendships by valuing and investing in your own.
We may assume that kids grow up naturally understanding the concept of friendship. Don’t make this assumption. Have a little discussion early on about what friendship is, how to choose good friends, and how to keep them.
This can be an especially hard concept for preschool children, but continue to emphasize it and you’ll get there. If it doesn’t feel good to you, it probably doesn’t feel good to anybody else either. This goes for both physical and emotional conflicts.
“Yeah, I know that kid is a little strange. That’s okay. We’re all different.” Try to help your kids embrace friends as they are. This can enable some delightful, long-lasting relationships with the unlikeliest but staunchest of allies.
Fights happen. Misunderstandings occur. Sometimes they’ll cause a rift and kids may drift apart for a while. Teach them not to give up on their friends and encourage them to continue repairing their relationships.
Lesson Six: Feelings. Let’s Have Them. And Talk about Them.
As parents, we play a major role in helping our kids to recognize their feelings and feel safe expressing them. How we do this determines whether our kids will grow into emotionally intelligent and well-adjusted people. (I know. No pressure.)
We tend to tuck these away around kids, playing the role of impervious, strong parents. That’s not helpful when teaching kids that emotions are natural. It’s important, though, to express feelings such as rage, frustration, sadness, and stress in appropriate ways.
Younger children struggle with this, and they’ll need you to step in and provide guidance. Sometimes just giving voice to the emotion that is overwhelming them allows them to relax and adjust better to a stressful situation.
Your kid is crying and it makes you panic, brimming over with guilt and frustration. Often, we comfort kids by telling them not to cry or express emotion. Rather than tell them to hide their feelings, we should acknowledge the emotion and extend what comfort we can. We will do enough just by being there and giving our calm, unconditional love.
It happens. You get stressed out and you blow up, or a little mess makes you overreact. Talk to your kids afterward. Acknowledge the emotion you were feeling at the time, apologize for handling it badly, and start over.
Lesson Seven: Internet Safety and Security
We live in a world filled with technology, and our kids are spending more and more time online. Dangers lurk everywhere, and our kids need serious supervision to stay safe.
If your kids come across something inappropriate, they should shut down the computer and tell you or an adult. Define “offensive” for them. They might be rather clueless still. You’d be surprised.
Kids need to understand that not everything they read online is true. (What?! Crazy but true. That meme you just shared is totally fake.) Help them identify good sources of information. (Hint: not Facebook.)
What they post can take on a life of its own. Some of it can be downright damaging to them or others. You can find a few powerful examples to show them online. (“You don’t want to be that kid. Trust me, buddy.”)
If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t say it online. Words have power and can wound just as fatally. Teach kids that this kind of behavior online isn’t just rude but criminal.
Don’t do it! Seriously. Just teach your kids not to click on them. Ever. For any reason. You’ve learned this lesson the hard way. So have I. Let’s save them from it.
Your kids should only chat with people whom they know and trust. Encourage them to let you know if they are approached by someone online.
Kids should always ask permission before uploading or downloading anything. Or clicking on that button that says “Purchase.” Remember the time your kid racked up nearly a hundred dollars in game fees on your mobile device? Yeah, me too. It’s happened to everyone. Disable purchasing and warn your kids.
Double-check your privacy settings and make sure that your kids understand that they should never share details about themselves online. With anyone or any site. Warn kids not to put their name, age, school, address, or any other personal information on the internet.
Lesson Eight: How to Cope with Loss
Loss is a difficult but inevitable part of life. Whether it’s the loss of a friend when you move, a beloved dog that has passed on, or a favorite teacher that has left, kids need to be allowed to deal with their grief. While you may want to shelter your child from any sadness, teaching them how to deal with loss will be invaluable to them as they grow.
Let them explore their feelings about it, as often and as long as they need to. Different kids will need different amounts of time and involvement to cope with loss.
Identifying your own feelings of loss may help your kids get a handle on theirs.
It’s normal to feel sad, overwhelmed, or even numb. Reach out to your kids and let them know that whatever they are feeling is acceptable, and at home in your arms is a safe place to express it.
Often we seek to insulate our children from loss but we misjudge how their involvement might actually help them cope. Ask younger children if they’d like to write a card, attend a funeral, or make some sort of gesture of comfort. Older kids can be more involved in the process and might benefit from saying goodbye or witnessing a pet pass. Ask your children how they would like to participate. Trust that they’ll let you know if it’s too much for them.
Sometimes after a loss, there may be an awful lot of silence. Learn to listen to the small things and look for clues that your child needs your help to deal with feelings of grief or sadness.
Got another great lesson to teach instead of preach? Leave it in the comments.