“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”
— Margaret Mead
Our children grow up so fast. Before we know it they’re out there somewhere in the real world, and we’re left hoping that we’ve done enough to prepare them for everything they’ll encounter. Marc and I talk to course students and coaching clients on a daily basis — mothers and fathers alike — who share these sentiments. They worry about their children. They wonder if they’ve done a good enough job parenting up to this point. And Marc and I can relate too, because oftentimes we feel the same way. We’re concerned about our son Mac’s well-being and education, and we discuss it frequently just like most parents do.
In fact, from what we’ve researched and studied, the well-being and education of their children is more important to most parents than just about anything else — more important than health care, cost of living, public safety, and even their own well-being. And believe it or not, most non-parents say they’re concerned about the well-being and intellectual growth of society’s youth as a whole too; this concern seems to cut cleanly across gender, ethnicity, age, income, and political affiliation. So the reality is, to a great extent, we all collectively care about our children. And that’s a truly beautiful thing when you think about it.
Anyway, I awoke this morning thinking about all of this — especially the miraculous, life-changing responsibility of parenthood — and two related thoughts immediately crossed my mind:
- Whoa! Time flies. How in the world did Marc and I suddenly become parents to a boy that’s reading books, hanging out with friends, computer-gaming, and generally enthusiastic about learning and growing?
- There are so many more important truths I want to share with my son as soon as feasibly possible!
So I’m writing this post as a reminder to myself, and to all parents…
Here are 20 simple yet powerful truths you can add to your daily conversations with your child that will gradually change how they think about themselves and their place in the world, and ultimately transform how they live their life. Please remember, also, that it’s never too late to discuss these truths — in most cases they are equally relevant to youngsters, adolescents, and adult children alike.
1. Learning how to think is infinitely more useful than learning what to think.
A big part of your life is a direct result of the decisions you make; if you don’t like your life for some reason, it’s time to start making changes and better decisions. And the same is true for all of us, including our children. It’s crucial that our children gradually grow to understand that they must learn to make good decisions for themselves, without us.
Parents can only guide by example and put their offspring on the right path, but the final forming of a person’s character and life story lies in their own hands. You can walk beside your child most of the time, but not in their shoes. And someday, when you’re not around, they’ll come to a fork in the road that forces them to think for themselves. Which is why it’s important to teach your child how to think, not what to think. (The remaining points in this article will help you do just that.)
2. Everything is hard before it’s easy, and we get stronger as we go.
One of the best things you can do for your child as they grow is to let go and allow them to do things for themselves, allow them to be strong and responsible, allow them the freedom to experience things on their own terms, allow them to take the bus or the train and learn from life firsthand… allow them to be better people, allow them to believe more in themselves and do more by themselves. Journeying through life on your own two feet is a learning process — you become stronger as you go. It’s like a young teenage boy who struggles to find his way home from school for the first time without his parent’s help — doing it the first few times feels daunting and scary, but in the long run he’s safer and better off having learned the way.
3. The biggest disappointments in life are often the result of misplaced expectations.
When we are really young our expectations are few, but as we age our expectations tend to balloon with each passing year. The key is to help your child understand that tempering unrealistic expectations of how something “should be” can greatly reduce unnecessary stress and frustration. With a positive attitude and an open mind, we often find that life isn’t necessarily any easier or harder than we thought it was going to be; it’s just that “the easy” and “the hard” aren’t exactly the way we had anticipated, and don’t always occur when we expect them to. This isn’t a bad thing — it makes life interesting, if we’re willing to see it that way.
4. Worry is the cruelest enemy of personal growth.
On the average day worrying does nothing but steal your joy and keep you very busy doing absolutely nothing at all. When you spend time worrying, you’re simply using your imagination to create things you don’t want. And, as every child knows deep down, there are much better ways to use an imagination. Do your best to remind them of this.
5. Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.
If you want to be effective in life, you can’t base your attitude solely on how things are. Instead, you have to choose your attitude so it also supports and expresses the way you wish life to be. It’s not about expecting the best to always happen, but instead accepting whatever happens and then making the very best of it. Truly, much of our long-term frustration and stress comes from the way we respond and react to circumstances, not the circumstances themselves. Learn to adjust your attitude, and all that extra frustration and stress is gone. Practice this in your own life, so your child can witness the results firsthand.
6. Reflecting on what we’re grateful for can make us happier.
In “1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently”, Marc and I discuss the powerful benefits of keeping a gratitude journal, and the really good news is it works for children too. In one celebrated example by Dr. Robert Emmons of UC Davis, teenage students were asked to keep a gratitude journal — over ten weeks, the young undergrads listed five things that had happened in the past week which they were grateful for. The results were astoundingly powerful; the students who kept the gratitude journal were up to 25% happier, more optimistic about their future, and got sick less often during the controlled study. They even got more exercise than usual. The bottom line is that children who keep a gratitude journal are statistically happier, more optimistic, and healthier. As soon as your child is old enough, help them start one.
7. The lifelong pursuit of happiness is about finding meaning.
Pursuing happiness is not at all the same as feeling happy, which is a fleeting emotion dependent on momentary circumstances. This is something that tends to confuse us when we’re young. Happy moments feel great and are often fun-filled. And if the sun is shining, by all means we should bask in it. But happy moments always pass, because time passes…
The lifelong pursuit of happiness, on the other hand, is far more elusive; it’s not based on a particular momentary circumstance. What you are really pursuing is meaning — living a meaningful life filled with daily progress. It starts with your “why.” Why are you doing what you’re doing every day? When your “why” has significance, you are living your life on your own terms, which makes the inevitable obstacles that arise on your path that much easier and more fulfilling to overcome. In essence, you are putting forth effort and pushing forward because doing so brings meaning into your life. (Do your best to help your child find their “why,” and let them know that it’s OK if it changes over time.)
8. The journey is the destination.
The most prolific and beneficial experience is not in actually achieving something you want, but in seeking it. It’s the journey towards an endless horizon that matters — goals and rituals that move forward with you as you chase them. It’s all about meaningful pursuits — the “moving” — and what you learn along the way. Truly, the most important reason for moving from one place to another is to see what’s in between. In between is where lessons are realized, love is found, strength is gained, and memories are made. You can’t get any of that without firsthand living. In other words, the journey is the destination. Remember this truth, live by it, and set an example for your child.
9. The most effective way to move away from something you don’t want, is to move toward something you DO want.
“Don’t think about eating that chocolate donut!” What are you thinking about now? Eating that chocolate donut, right? When we focus on not doing something, we end up thinking more about it. The same philosophy holds true in all walks of life, regardless of our age. By persistently trying to move away from what we don’t want, we are inadvertently forced to think about it so much that we end up carrying it’s weight along with us. But if we instead choose to focus our energy on moving toward something we DO want, we naturally leave the negative weight behind as we move forward with our lives.
10. Actions always speak louder than words in the long run.
Children have never been perfect at listening to their parents, but they have never failed to imitate them. Keep this in mind. Let your children watch you set an example every day in all that you do, and then reinforce your actions with verbal guidance. Ultimately, all of us — young and old alike — need to remember that what we really want in life comes from what we really do in life, consistently.
11. The willingness to do hard things opens significant doors of opportunity.
One of the most important abilities you can help a child develop in life is being OK with some level of discomfort. Because the best things are often hard to come by, and if you shy away from difficulty and discomfort, you’ll miss out on them. Mastering a new skill is hard. Building a business is hard. Writing a book is hard. A marriage is hard. Parenting is hard. Staying in shape is hard. And yet all of these things are amazing and worth every bit of effort you can muster. If you get good at doing hard things, you can do almost anything you put your mind to.
12. Uncertainty is inevitable and must be embraced to achieve anything worthwhile.
When we act with some level of uncertainty, this uncertainty often chases us out into the open where opportunity awaits. Truth be told, if we need to know exactly how every little thing will turn out, we’ll avoid many life-changing projects, career moves, relationships, etc. Starting a business could be a very worthwhile thing to do, but if you’re scared of uncertainty you’ll skip it. Continually cowering in the face of uncertainty like this means you will never know anything for sure, and in many ways this unknowing will be worse than finding out your hunch was wrong. For if you were wrong, you could make adjustments and carry on with your life without constantly looking back and wondering what might have been. Thus, learning to embrace uncertainty relatively early in life is a must.
13. Lack of effort is what holds most people back (not lack of intelligence).
It doesn’t matter if you have a genius IQ and a PhD in Quantum Physics, you can’t change anything or make any sort of real-world progress without putting forth diligent effort. There’s a huge difference between knowing how to do something and actually doing it. Knowledge and intelligence are both useless to a person who’s unwilling to put in the effort and take action. Remember this, and do your best to praise your child for their effort, not their intelligence.
When you praise your child’s efforts you are bringing attention to something they can control — the amount of time and energy they put into their work. This is immensely important because it teaches them to persist, and that progress through hard work is possible. They come to see themselves as “in control” of their success in life. Conversely, emphasizing God-given intelligence takes progress out of your child’s control, and it provides no good formula for responding to failure. In turn, your child may begin to think that innate intelligence is always going to be a missing element for them, and thus disregard the importance of their effort to learn and grow.
14. Not everything will go as planned, but we can still be prepared.
For every youngster that succeeds in doing exactly what they set out to do in the exact time frame they set out to do it in, there are dozens of others who start strong and get derailed. Help your child understand that if this happens to them, it isn’t a bad thing. Unexpected obstacles may come along to shift their perspective, to strengthen their resolve, or to change their direction for the better. And the destination they fall in love with someday may not even exist now. For example, just a few short years ago the esteemed career paths of working at TikTok or SpaceX didn’t exist. Neither did the possibility of being a professional coach and blogger at Marc & Angel Hack Life.
So if a child can’t plan out their future in its entirety, what should they do? Focus a little less on the future and focus more on what they can do now that will benefit them no matter what the future brings. Read inspiring books. Learn and practice useful skills. Write in your journal. Build things. Be adventurous and seek real-world experiences. Help people. Cultivate healthy relationships. These efforts will assist in any future circumstances that come their way.
15. Significant, life-changing journeys can be traveled gradually with tiny steps.
Most people squander their free time away on things that don’t matter, like Netflix, social media scrolling, Candy Crush, etc. A year of that and you have absolutely zero to show for it. But if you painted every day, or practiced a skill, or or trained for a sport (even an esport), or updated and perfected a video channel on YouTube, or started building a side business/passion project, or spent more time networking with the right people… at the end of a year you’ll have built something interesting. And you’ll have some great life experiences too — experiences you can point to and say, “I built that, and I learned this,” which again, many people can’t do. And of course, the younger you are when you start, the more these great life experiences compound.
16. Goals don’t make positive changes happen, daily rituals do.
What’s the difference between goals and rituals? As a parent, your goal is to be a great role model, while your ritual is the time and energy you commit to setting a great example for your child each day. If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to grow a successful business, while your ritual is your daily work ethic combined with your management, marketing, and sales processes. If you’re a fiction writer, your goal is to write a novel, while your ritual is the writing schedule you follow each day.
Now think about this: If you ignored your goals for a while and focused solely on your daily rituals, would you still get positive results? For example, if you were trying to lose weight and you ignored your goal to lose 20 pounds, and instead focused only on eating healthy and exercising each day, would you still get results? Yes, you would. Gradually, you would get closer and closer to your goal without even thinking about it again. The earlier we learn this in life, the longer we have to make our positive daily rituals work in our favor. But it’s never too late either. (Marc and I build tiny, daily, life-changing rituals with our students in the “Goals and Growth” module of the Getting Back to Happy Course.)
17. Trustworthiness is at the foundation of a person’s long-term potential.
The underlying key for all of us is to be trustworthy in our relationships. When someone gives someone an employment or business opportunity, the biggest fear is that this person is not trustworthy — that they’ll slack off and try to cheat the system. Someone who has established a positive reputation over the years will likely be more trusted, and more likely to be recommended. So do you best to teach your child to be trustworthy by being honest, admitting mistakes and fixing them, and generally going above and beyond the call of duty in personal and professional commitments. When we adhere to this philosophy, we end up building a good reputation and people appreciate and endorse us more openly, which is the best way to get a job, a business investor, or another good friend.
18. Life is filled with good and evil, and good can always triumph over evil.
Walt Disney said it best, so I won’t try to reinvent the wheel here: “Children are people, and they should have to reach to learn about things, to understand things, just as adults have to reach if they want to grow in mental stature. But it’s also important to admit that life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful, insincere, and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows in the world. Most things are good, and they are the strongest things; but there are evil things too, and you are not doing a child a favor by trying to shield him or her from reality. The important thing is to teach a child that good can always triumph over evil.”
19. Who we choose to be around matters.
Spend time with nice people who are smart, driven and open-minded. Relationships should help you, not hurt you in the long run. Surround yourself with people who reflect the person you want to be. Choose friends who you are proud to know, people you admire, who love and respect you — people who make your day a little brighter simply by being in it. Ultimately environment is everything, so the people surrounding you on a daily basis make a big difference in the person you are capable of being. Life is just too short to spend time with people who suck the happiness and potential out of you. And of course, all of the same is true for a child’s life and relationships.
20. Some people will judge us unfairly, no matter how wonderful we are.
A beautiful life is about spending your time meaningfully, being a peace with who you are inside, giving back, and not worrying about people’s petty judgments. We simply do not need everyone’s approval to be happy or to live a good life. Challenge your child to make this their lifelong motto: “I respectfully do not care.” Encourage them to be respectful, but also to stand up for themselves and speak their motto to anyone who passes unfair judgment on something they strongly believe in or something that makes them who they are. Truth be told, there will always be someone — in each and every one of our lives — who decides to judge us unfairly at some point, and that’s OK. We affected their life; let’s not let them affect ours.
Afterthoughts… On Being a Good Parent
All details aside, no one is ever quite ready for parenthood — every parent is caught off guard, again and again. Parenthood is a role that chooses you every day, not the other way around. And perhaps a week in, a month in, or even a few years in, you open your eyes to look at the precious child in your arms, and suddenly awake to the realization that of all the things there ever were to juggle, this is the one you should not drop.
But of course it’s a far cry from easy. The nature of being a parent seems incredibly thankless sometimes, until you fully embrace the fact that you are choosing to love your child far more than you have ever loved anyone before them — perhaps even more than you love your own parents. And, within this realization that your own child can’t possibly understand the depth of your love, you come to understand the stressful, and yet immensely beautiful, unrequited, unconditional love your own parents have (or had) for you.
So when times are tough and the stress levels are high, just do your best to be mindful. Give it time. Take it one day at a time.
Remind yourself that being a parent is a daily ritual, not a biological relation. To be in your child’s memories tomorrow, you have to make time to be in their lives today, even if it’s a bit stressful and inconvenient. Every day of our lives we make deposits in the memory banks of our children. The more present we are, the more deposits we get to make. Be with them, and teach them to have faith in themselves by being a person they can have faith in — a person who listens — a person they can trust without question. When you are old, nothing else you’ve done will have mattered as much.
And no matter how great of a job you do at parenting, especially if you truly do it right, your precious child won’t stay with you. They will eventually break away. It’s the one job in life where the better you do, the more rapidly and surely you won’t be needed as often down the road…
That’s the bittersweet reality of being a great parent.
Let’s appreciate it today, together. 🙂
And before you go…
Marc and I would love to hear from YOU.
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