Now if you are not a liberal, and yet are continuing to read this, you were warned in the title so I don’t want to hear about it later!
I am by no means a parenting expert. I was only 19 when my oldest was born and 46 when my youngest left. That is almost three decades of learning on my part. I can honestly say I am not the same person, nor the same parent I was when I started out. I have very unusual children. Now if you know them you are saying “yeah no kidding” but if not, let me explain. Not one of them just took the usual path of graduating high school, going directly to a four year college and settling into a job. Every single one of them has done unusual amounts of service work, traveled around the world, had crazy interesting jobs and incredible, unusual educational experiences in a variety of colleges across the country. Each one of them is also uniquely talented in their own mediums: painting, drawing, writing, photography. Yes, I am bragging here a little, it’s my blog I get to!
However, what I really love the most about my kids is that they are all also very brave. They have not slid cautiously into their adult lives, they dove into the deep end, head first! I take no credit for any of this, but assuming I had some influence over the years, and because friends with younger kids often ask, here’s what I did!
The answer is simple. If you want your kids to do something different than you did, achieve greater things, go farther places, than you have to really work to expose them to different, greater, more incredible things. You have to expose them to every bit of art and music you can find, anywhere you can find it. You have to turn off the TV and hand them books. You have to insist that they put their shoes on and go outside and then you have to go with them. You have to take them with you in cars and buses or boats and planes, anywhere you can afford to take them. Children should be exposed to people who think differently, live differently, and love differently. They need to be taught from a very young age that they are part of the family of humankind. They need to understand that just like each member of their family has different responsibilities in the home, each individual citizen has an obligation to do their part in the world as well.
My 21 year old daughter, my youngest, recently shared with me that the other students in her political science class thought it was weird that I brought her to political rallies and protests before she old enough to vote. The memories of attending anti-war protests with me when she was only 14 or 15 years old, while her big brother was himself preparing to go to war, are very vivid and helped shaped who she is today. For this I am grateful.
I have always been a very socially active person so it was normal for me to bring my children along. One of the first bits of volunteer work each of my children ever did when they were very young was picking up trash around town on Earth Day every year. They were with me when I helped paint the playground at their elementary school. They were with me when I coached their t-ball teams and sold snacks to pay for uniforms. They came with me when I volunteered at pot luck suppers at church and when friends and I walked in fundraisers for M.S. or cancer. They came with me to election speeches and candlelight vigils. They joined me in-utero, in baby packs, and in strollers but our not doing these things was never an option.
I remember one time in particular, the same daughter was going through a rather normal, but self-centered time in her early teenage years. I was taking my middle daughter and a group of kids to the homeless shelter to make dinner that night. I told my youngest daughter she was required to go, no arguments. This was the last thing she wanted to do. She was so mad in fact that she sat on the pavement outside the kitchen door and refused to come in and I just let her sit there. After a little while she warmed up and joined us in the kitchen, a little while after that I handed her a serving spoon and gave her a job.
Later, when we had cleaned up and dropped everyone else off at home, she and I were driving in the car and she said to me “you know what, they didn’t LOOK like homeless people at all!” That was her lightbulb moment. That was exactly the lesson she was supposed to learn, that they are no different than you and I, that they could be you and I! (This same daughter went to Ghana last year, all by herself, to volunteer). For me those experiences are more important than giving them a list of commandments to follow! You can preach to them about feeding the poor or you can roll your sleeves up, get out there, and do something about it together. The second approach is far more effective.
This was the philosophy I instilled in them almost without realizing I was doing it at the time. It’s our duty to do our part. Not because someone tells us to, and not to earn our place in heaven but because we are all in this together. We are all family. If you see a need, and you are able to meet it, you do it. If you see a cause and you are able to help, you help. If there is something that needs to be done, be the person who steps up and does it.
If you do this, you end up with kids who travel the world to do their part. You end up with adults who do disaster relief in hurricane torn areas, work with disadvantaged urban kids, and build trails in national parks with Americorps. You end up with adults who travel to Peru to teach English and Art to school children or you end up with a son willing to guard children in Baghdad so they can have the same chance to go to school safely that he and his sisters had.
Parenting children is a privilege. It is a gift. It is also a great responsibility not only to the children you are raising but also to the other people they are going to share the planet with. That was always my goal, to raise good decent human beings. My ego was never tied up in their success or failure. I never cared if they became doctors or lawyers. I care that they are safe. I care that they are happy. I care that they try their best to do good things. I want them to feel passionate about things and they don’t have to be the same things I feel passionate about. I want them to have people they love and who love them in return, the details of all that are up to them.
No it’s not always going to work. No they are not always going to agree with you or always do the things you wish they’d do. Sometimes they will make horrible, awful choices, but they will be THEIR choices! There are never any guarantees. What is guaranteed is that you have given them the best tools you could to make the best choices possible.
Then what you have to do is tell them, and truly believe it, that they are capable of doing anything, absolutely anything that they want to do with their lives. And then you have to let go and let them do it.
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” Mahatma Gandhi