The essence of great parenting is much sought after and rarely discovered.
Maybe it is because the secret of great parenthood isn’t so much hidden, as it is difficult to accept.
To explain this, we must begin at the very end. And the end is simply this: What kind of child do you want to raise?
A Kid of Character
Ok, so a lot of the time I was simply praying that my kids would live another day! My goals weren’t particularly ambitious.
But the real goal, the holy grail, the pinnacle of success that comes from being a truly good parent, is raising a child to have great strength of character.
We want so many things for our kids. We want good grades, good friends, good schools, good vacations, good books and good experiences. We want them to be knowledgeable, successful, talented and well rounded.
We want them to be socially adept and civic-ly minded.
The foundation of all those good things is character. It is traits like patience, perseverance, honesty, humility, self-discipline, focus, kindness, compassion and generosity. It is consistency in attitude through tough times and sweet times. It is a belief that all will be well, and a single-mindedness to make it so.
Out of character comes success. Persons of character never lack in confidence or ambition. If knowledge is required they obtain it, if work is needed, they do it, if patience is important, they endure and press on.
A person of character is always “successful”. This is because they define success based on Godly and ethical principles. The integrity of their character demands that they achieve success as they’ve defined it through their personal moral framework.
How does this relate to being a great parent? What kind of parent develops a child of character?
It is Not What We Say or Teach, but Who We Are
Character is developed in our children in one way and one way only. That is by modeling it.
That’s why great parenting is actually very difficult. You can’t fake who you are and you can’t model good character more than a few minutes if you don’t have it.
If only kids would just do what we say and ignore what we do. It would make parenting a lot easier if we could tell our kids not to use bad language, or to be patient with their little sister, and expect them not to listen to the words flying out of our mouths when we throw temper tantrums ourselves.
The hypocrisy implicit in the difference between what parents do and what parents say is the leading cause of mistrust between teens and parents.
If I want my child to learn discipline, they need to see me getting up at the same time each day and sticking to a task until it is finished even when I’m exhausted.
If I want them to appreciate knowledge and education, they need to see me asking tons of questions, reading books and delighting in and sharing what I’ve learned.
If I want them to perform well in band or basketball, they need to see me practicing at my own work and hobbies, always making refinements, always improving.
If I want them to be forgiving and non-critical, I certainly can’t carry chips around on my shoulders and hold grudges.
The difficult truth is that kids rarely learn from what they hear us say. They always learn from what they see us do. Sure, they need a little “how-to” style instruction from time to time, but all the important things they will get from watching.
You are probably seeing now why I said that parenting is harder than it looks. It is becoming clear that parenting isn’t simply:
- Knowing what to do and say
- Giving children the tools and environment to be successful
- Crafting a life plan for the child to expose her to the right people, places and experiences
- Living in the right place and buying the right stuff
Those are all good things. But the truly difficult part is actually being someone you want your child to emulate.
“Person”-ing Not “Parent”-ing
Whether or not you consider yourself successful relationally, materially or otherwise, you have the capacity to be a person worthy of imitating. You do this by developing your own strength of character.
If you feel like a failure in certain important areas, that is actually not all bad. Why, because everyone fails, usually repeatedly, and one of the most important character traits is how you deal with it.
When you fail, you acknowledge your failure, you put a plan together to succeed the next time, and you work your plan. As you do this you are engaged in the most important character building of all. In fact, the skills needed to get back up when you fall, are among the greatest of character traits to model for your child.
You may feel overwhelmed by weakness or addictions or destructive tendencies. That’s okay. Those things won’t change overnight. Modeling the process of change, showing your kids how to fight the battle – that’s the hidden gift in those weaknesses.
Great parents are made not born. They are forged through fire. Some moms may start with a stronger foundation but all need to be refined. Kids are the perfect invention for shining light on what needs to be fixed.
What About Love?
I read a book many years ago called “How to Really Love Your Child”. I considered it transformational. The premise was that the majority of parents really do love their children deeply but don’t always show it appropriately. The book provides some really practical ways to develop habits of loving.
I wondered while I was reading whether it is true that parents automatically love their children? Let’s be honest, my actual question was personal: “Do I really, truly love my children in an unselfish, unconditional way?” Was I reading the book to be able to learn techniques to show that I loved them fully, whether or not I actually did?
This too is a question of character. Can I choose to love my kids on those days when it is really difficult? Can I do it when I myself am exhausted, sick, lonely or depressed?
Face it, love is more than feeling. It is a decision and a commitment. It is a responsibility.
The kids are mine. For better or worse, I must love them. That love is based on my character and is greater as my inner strengths grow.
Love is selflessness, sacrificial and giving for the long term. Like it or not, wanting to be those things is not the same as actually being them.
Love is a part of character. Maybe it is the sum of character. If you are not convinced that great parenting is rooted in great character, maybe you’ll accept that the heart of a worthy parent is, first of all, a heart of love.
The love of a mom or dad for their child is in some part instinctual and biological. But real, persistent, lasting, demonstrative love flows from character traits that take a lifetime of effort to develop.
Being a Great Parent Starts with Being a Great You
If the essence of a great parent is a great person, what is the process of becoming that person of character you need to be?
I am a Christian and I believe there are purposes and values designed into the working of the universe. The more my life is in alignment with those principles, the more character I have and the more successful I will be.
Whether or not you believe values and character are ultimately derived from a creator, you do have a way of deciding which values are most important to you. As you think about it, let me propose a process for character development:
- Assess your character as it is today. Which attributes do you have that you would be happy for your child to also have? Which character traits are sadly lacking and you would be disappointed if your child ended up with the same deficiencies?
- Having identified the areas for growth, set character building at the top of your priority list. It must go beyond reading an article and musing, to commitment and action.
- Discuss those areas with family and friends. It is okay to commiserate but don’t stop there. Tell people who you want to be and how you want to develop.
- Find a way to assess and measure your progress. Journal. Create a monthly status report to give to your spouse.
- Devote mindshare to these goals. Read about it, talk about it, do it. Practice patience. Practice getting to bed on time. Practice being honest when it is inconvenient. Then use your measurement process to capture the results.
- Celebrate your victories of character as you would celebrate a promotion or big win at work. Growth in character is real, it is meaningful and worthy to be acknowledged and esteemed.
Last but not least, involve your child. A child will learn what good character is by watching and imitating you.
But more importantly, the child will learn how to develop character in his or her self by watching how you go about developing your own character.