The 21st century has a lot to offer us, but it’s also filled with challenges. This is especially true when it comes to parenting. I outlined the parenting challenges in a previous blog post, in which I started going through Matthew Kelly’s book: “Building Better Families.” It’s time to delve deep into the heart of Matthew’s book, and examine his formula for parenting success in the 21st century.
Before we do that, let’s have a quick look at Chapter 2, which is devoted to the family he grew up in. Skipping over the details (get the book if you want to read about his family), what struck me was the similarity between his family and my own. We both grew up in families with a daily rhythm including eating together, playing and working together (a.k.a., chores). Like him, my family would pray, eat, and then talk about what happened that day, what we were thinking, etc.
My parents families were similar too. I remember my Mother saying that the solution to so many problems she’s faced in life came from discussions at the dinner table when she was growing up. I learnt lots at the dinner table too.
The similarity between his family and mine, made me feel both grateful for my parents, and more confident in what Matthew Kelly had to say. So, let’s delve deeper…
What makes a successful parent?
What exactly is “success” for us as parents? What does it look like? We must be able to answer those questions. Otherwise our parenting would be aimless, and the end results would be adrift with the winds of time.
Most parents think they have done well, but according to what measure? Compared to your child’s peers? Or the neighbour’s kids? Do you measure their achievements? If children make horrible decisions, does that automatically mean they had bad parents? No, not necessarily. All these measures are very subjective and rather inaccurate. So, is there a more objective yardstick that we could use?
Matthew suggests a very simple yardstick to measure parenting success: virtue, and I’m inclined to agree. Life is about relationships. Relationships between spouses, parents and children, friends, colleagues, businesses, and even nations. As complicated as relationships are, two virtuous people will always have a better relationship than two who are lacking in virtue. Two trustworthy people will always have a better relationship than two untrustworthy people. Ditto for the kind vs the unkind, the thoughtful vs thoughtless, etc.
So, we want to raise our children to be kind, patient, honest, just, temperate, courageous, loving, humble, thoughtful, gentle, compassionate, and persevering. That’s quite a mouthful. Let’s simplify it down to one of Matthew’s favourite phrases: becoming-the-best-version-of-themselves.
The next question is how? You can’t force a child to be virtuous. However, you can lead by example; your children are masters of observation, and you are the role-model. So, you could measure your daily parenting success by asking yourself “Was I kind, patient, honest, just, temperate, courageous, loving, humble, thoughtful, gentle, compassionate, and persevering?” What example did I make for my child?
Are You a Great Leader?
You are role-model for your children, and that makes you a leader. You want the best for your children, so you must also want to be the best leader you can be. Assuming that is the case, you’d better learn what it takes to be a great leader.
This section of the book “Building Better Families” is incredibly rich. I could write an entire article about each of the nine qualities that great leaders work hard to develop. Maybe I will, some day. For now, here’s a brief summary:
- Great Leaders are Visionaries
What’s your vision for your family? Is it for every member to become the best version of themselves? Great! You know what you’re leading your family toward. Communicate that vision regularly.
- Great Leaders are Decisive
You’ll be facing thousands of activities and decisions every week, so you can’t afford to dilly-dally. Your vision (established above) can help you be decisive. Which decision bring us closer to our vision? Answer that question, and you’ll know the best way forward.
- Great Leaders Lead by Example
Authenticity matters. If you don’t practise what you preach, then people won’t listen. For example, if you want your kids to eat healthy, then you’d best be eating healthily yourself.
- Great Leaders are Trustworthy
Those following you need to trust that what you say is true. Lose their trust, and you undermine your ability to lead. This includes instructions you give. For example, if you tell your child to lie about their age to get a child’s entry fee, then you’re teaching that it’s sometimes okay to lie. You’re also teaching them that you’re a liar, because you’re teaching them to do the same. Let your word be your oath.
- Great Leaders are Storytellers
Stories are a powerful way to teach and inspire. Explaining a concept may make sense on its own, but a story demonstrating the concept really brings it home. What stories do you tell? I don’t mean just stories from books, but also stories from how you live your life (e.g., how you live your life, how you met their mother/father, etc.).
- Great Leaders are Collaborators
Parenting is a team sport, even for solo parents. You can’t do it all alone. Obviously, your spouse is part of your team (if you have one). But, how about your siblings, parents, trusted neighbours and teachers? Your older children can be part of your team too. In fact, even your children are part of the team (they’re the ones being parented). Communicate your vision, and enlist help.
- Great Leaders are Persuasive
There will be times when you need to put your foot down and use your authority and power as a parent (e.g., a tantrum in the supermarket). However, be a tyrant, and rebellion is inevitable; you’d do the same in the face of tyranny. Persuading people to do what is in their best interests is far more effective than trying to use raw power to force them. Study the art of persuasion.
- Great Leaders Make Mistakes and Know They Don’t Have All the Answers
Your kids will eventually discover that you make mistakes and don’t know it all. So quit pretending, and be vulnerable and real. This does two things. First, you maintain credibility because they won’t discover one day that you’re “a fraud.” Secondly, it gives them permission to be human too. That said, “I don’t know” is a poor response, unless it’s followed up with “but let’s find out…”
- Great Leaders Persevere
You’re going to have setbacks. There will be days when it seems like everything is going wrong; when it seems like everything is falling apart. Great leaders persevere. So, never ever give up, especially on your kids.
Too much? If your head is spinning right now, relax. Take things one step at a time. But, do step up and lead. If you don’t, then someone else will, and I doubt they’ll have your child’s best interests at heart. Nobody is born a great leader. In Matthew’s words “Leaders are forged one decision at a time.” So, start studying leadership, and work at it.
What do Children Need?
Everyone has legitimate needs (and wants masquerading as needs, but that’s a different matter). The most basic ones are the physical needs: food, water, air to breath and shelter. Without them, we die. However, there are other needs too. Emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. We won’t die immediately without them, but neglect of these will lead to physical and psychological illness, and great unhappiness.
Your children also have specific needs, and they need to be met now. Yes, I mean now. Psychologists believe that children have developed their value system by age twelve. It might not be set in stone, but their “true north” is set. So, the first twelve years are critical (and the first two years even more so).
So, what are your children’s needs? Here’s Matthew’s short-list:
- Your Children Need You to be a Parent, Not a Friend
I hope you’ll have a great friendship with your kids. However, your children will make plenty of friends, but they only have two parents. When you have to choose between being a parent and being popular, be the parent. They need the parent.
- Children Need Heros and Mentors
Heros and mentors inspire us, and make us want to be like them. Be careful who you look up to and champion, because your children may want to grow up to be just like them. And I mean exactly like them. You may be able to separate an artist’s art from their personal life, but your children probably won’t (or can’t)
- Children Need Your Time (More than Anything)
Children hunger for their parent’s time. After all, we give our time to who and what we love. Comedian Mike Kingi once said: “Children won’t remember the playstation games you bought them, but will remember you were never there.” The hectic world we live in constantly tries to pull us away with the seemingly “urgent.” So, remember what really matters, and make spending time with your children a priority.
- Children Need to Develop a Strong Sense of Self
By this, Matthew means “children need to know who they are and what they are here for.” Encourage them to develop their spiritual side. Teach them to be comfortable being alone, in their own company. It’s in silence and solitude where we can truly find our own identity (separate from the crowds). If you believe in God, then encourage them to listen to His voice. Ask your child: “What is God saying to you today?”
- Your Children Need Your Love
Love is the most powerful force in the universe. It transforms relationships, communities, and nations. So, love your children. Do things for them purely out of love, completely detached from self-interest. Make sure they know that they are loved for who they are, and not what they do. Unconditional love will set your children free to become all they were meant to be.
You can use the list above as a checklist from time to time, to see how you’re doing.
What are you willing to sacrifice?
I bet you saw the title above, and assumed that this will be about needing to make sacrifices for your kids. Yes, and no. Yes, you will absolutely need to make sacrifices for your kids because love demands it. It helps to see those sacrifices as part of the path to become the best-version-of-yourself and to help your children at the same time.
However, it’s not so simple. I wrote previously about the dangers of parental burnout, and how to avoid it. It is possible to sacrifice too much. You have legitimate needs too, and disaster strikes if those needs are continually pushed aside. Sure, you can temporarily put your needs aside in times of crisis (e.g., someone is sick). Nevertheless, you had better decide where the boundaries lie. What sacrifices are you willing to make? And what sacrifices won’t be made?
This is where team-work between you, your spouse and possibly extended family and friends can help. That way you can juggle responsibilities amongst each other, so that all needs can be met.
There’s one other peril to be wary of: false needs. Addictions, dysfunction, and codependency cause those we love to continually ask us to give up our legitimate needs to satisfy their wants. Giving in is bad for you and for your children, because it teaches them to be selfish. Teaching them to respect your legitimate needs also teaches them how to have healthy relationships based on mutual respect.
Dreams and Fears
Dreams and fears are two powerful forces in life, and they both come from within. Dreams propel us forward. Fear paralyses us.
We have dreams for our children. This is normal. However, we must remember that our children have dreams of their own. It’s important that our children live their own dreams instead of ours. Push your own dreams onto them too hard, and it’s impossible for them to be happy. Why? Because they’d literally be living someone else’s life instead of their own. So, help your kids to live their own dreams.
Likewise, we have fears for our kids, and they have fears of their own. Fear of failure, of rejection, of being laughed at. It can be debilitating. We need to remind our kids that it’s okay to fail. In fact, the lessons learnt from failure helps us to achieve success. Matthew gives examples from sports to illustrate this point. For example, if you win 1 out of every 10 golf tournaments you play, then you’re among the world’s best. That’s a 90% failure rate!
One of the best ways to encourage your children to live their dreams and overcome their fears, is by example. Talk about your own dreams and fears. No, not pie in the sky dreams, but realistic yet challenging dreams that you are genuinely working to make reality. Seeing you attempt to accomplish goals and dreams will encourage them to do likewise. Yes, even if you fail to achieve them in the end.
Similarly, honestly talking with your kids about your fears will let them know that it’s okay to have fears, and that they don’t need to paralyse us. That said, make sure the fears you talk about are fears for yourself, and not your fears for them. Otherwise you’ll burden them with your fears. Instead, focus on fears from the past that turned out to be nothing. That’ll teach your kids a powerful lesson that most of the things we worry about never actually happen.
What are the Best Things you Can do for Your Children?
We’ve covered a lot so far. Maybe too much for you to handle. So, given all of the above, what are the best things you can do for your children? Here’s what Matthew suggests in the book:
- Dedicate yourself to becoming a better-version-of-yourself every day
The writer James Baldwin once said: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” They are masters of observation. So, if you want to teach your kids something, then live that something!
- Live with passion and purpose
Want your children to live passionate and purposeful lives? Live that way yourself. Work hard not because you have to, but because working hard and paying attention to detail helps you become a better version of yourself. This gives work a purpose and meaning. Make time for persuing and enjoying your passions. Your children will see this, and start thinking about their own passions. And thus, begin on one of life’s greatest adventures.
- Have a great marriage
Many reading this will be divorced or single parents. However, I’m sure most people still agree that the ideal situation for children is being raised by their own biological parents within a great and loving marriage. When a couple love, honour, respect and bring out the best in each other, they create an incredibly nurturing environment. A refuge from the world where we can truly be ourselves, and grow. But, a great marriage takes time and effort. Set aside time for your marriage.
If I had to summarize it all in one sentence, it would be: be the kind of person you want your children to become. That is, lead by example. Expanding on that a little: identify what’s most important (e.g., your marriage), and prioritise that. Don’t let the stream of seemingly urgent things crowd out what’s important.
Tough but Fair
This last section comes from Matthew Kelly’s habit of asking people about teachers, coaches and mentors they most respect and admire. The answers vary wildly, but he identified one common ingredient: they were tough but fair.
There’s a lesson in that observation. You need your kids to respect you as parent, and that means being tough but fair. Be too soft, and your kids will see you as a pushover. Be too hard and never let them exercise their free will, and you’ll be seen as unreasonable. being unfair will cause frustration and resentment. Both extremes will cause them to lose respect for you, and your leadership is undermined.
What it comes down to is holding everyone accountable. Being held accountable brings out the best in us. A lack of accountability results in us spiraling out of control. Holding children (or anyone) accountable works best when we give them a clear vision that we’re working toward. Let them know you love them, that you want to help them become the best version of themselves. And, let them know it’s your responsibility as a parent to be tough but fair.
Sure, you’ll get it wrong from time to time. Sometimes they’ll think you’re being too tough, and other times they’ll think you’re being unfair. When this happens, discuss with your spouse whether it is or isn’t true. In the end, you can only do your best.
Let the deep love for your children be the source. Encourage and support your family daily. And, have an open and understanding heart.
This chapter of the book covers a lot of ground. No surprise really, because parenting is complicated. To help you digest it all, here’s a quick summary of the key points:
- Clearly establish what you’re trying to achieve (help everyone in the family become the best versions of themselves)
- Know what success looks like
- Be aware that you are a leader
- Study great leaders, and develop the traits needed to be a great leader yourself. Learn to apply them to parenting
- Lead by example
- Determine what you should and shouldn’t be willing to sacrifice. Set priorities accordingly
- Determine what your children’s legitimate needs are, but be aware of your own needs
- Acknowledge the powerful role dreams and fears play in our lives
- Focus on the most important things, and not just the urgent. This includes making time for your needs, and your marriage/relationships
- Dedicate yourself to becoming a better version of yourself every day
- Parent toward your vision (established in the first step)
- Be tough but fair
That’s enough for today. Next time I’ll go through the next chapter: “Raising Amazing Children,” which is packed with even more great advice. Sign up to our newsletter, so you’ll know when the followup blog posts are published (click here).
You may also wish to get the book itself, because it goes into far greater detail than I can do here (this is meant to be a summary and reflection of the book). The stories he tells to illustrate each point helps make everything clear.
Cover photo credit: Image by Pexels.