I wrote in a previous post that one of the ways my military career has influenced my parenting is the idea of “starting with the end in mind.” For military professionals, the planning process cannot begin until you have a clearly defined end state. Or in the words of a mentor of mine, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”
When my oldest was not yet a year old, I was at sea on my third deployment and communication with my wife was limited primarily to email. Although such a constraint can feel like a hindrance, it also opens up avenues to deeper discussion than verbal conversation. Case in point, we began an email thread in which we shared our thoughts on what kind of adults we wanted our daughter (and future children) to be when they grew up. In a very real sense, by agreeing on certain character traits that we sought for them, we were establishing “end states” for the important work of instilling values in our children. The consensus we reached would serve to inform many of the choices we make as parents. It is a conversation that my wife and I continue to have as we hone the list and adapt our parenting strategies to account for our children’s varied personalities.
Ultimately we came up with the following list of traits:
-Culturally and spiritually literate and tolerant. The educator E.D. Hirsch defined cultural literacy as “that shifting body of information that our culture has found useful…the foundation of our public discourse. It allows us to comprehend our daily newspapers and news reports, to understand our peers and leaders, and even to share our jokes. As an example, once my daughter began reading about Greek and Roman Mythology, she enjoyed the “Percy Jackson” series at a much more profound level and understood why the NASA craft currently in Jupiter’s orbit would be named “Juno.” Ultimately, we want our children familiar with as much culture as possible, including the world’s religions. Such familiarity we hope will breed tolerance vice contempt.
-Able to think for themselves. This is the step beyond cultural literacy. In the words of Hirsch, “Cultural literacy is shallow; true education is deep.”  We try to encourage critical thinking. Sometimes this involves answering a question with another question. (“Why do YOU think it gets cold in the wintertime?”) When discussing topics such as politics and religion – which we don’t shy from – we often suppress our own opinions, or at least make clear distinctions between facts and personal opinions.
-Confident in their values, morals, and decisions. This might be the toughest yet most important quality to instill. Being a “navy brat” and having to adapt to new situations can lead to a chameleon-like qualities. How do we prevent that? I have no easy answers. We try to model appropriate behavior and give our children opportunities to make the types of mistakes that build confidence. Even before they get to the wider socialization at school, we work to ensure our children, in their interactions with siblings and peers, can strike the balance between cooperation and standing up for themselves.
-Willing to respectfully question authority. With confidence instilled, we want our children to then be comfortable in speaking truth to power. (That includes to their parents.) The other night, my daughter and I were watching “The Martian.” There is a great scene where the mission director must make a choice between doing what he thinks is right or obeying the direction provided by his boss. I paused the movie, and we had a lengthy discussion about when it’s acceptable to question and even disobey authority.
-Intellectually curious. This can’t be forced. Instead, it’s a spark that must be lit through a variety of activities: reading to them, taking them to museums, asking questions. One method that’s proven successful for us is linking current popular culture interests with wider intellectual topics. For example, Harry Potter and Star Wars can lead to a discussion of archetypes and why so many great stories include similar characters, like the wise wizards represented by Dumbledore and Obi Wan Kenobi.
-Equally comfortable in the outdoors and in the city. Whether navigating a hiking trail or a subway system, both environments require specific survival skills. My wife, born and raised in Philadelphia, handles instilling “street smarts”, while I rely on my scouting and military experiences to show them how to use a map and compass or build a campsite.
-Competitive but sportsmanlike. This transcends participation in sports, and builds on the previous discussion of confidence. We want them to shine as individuals, but never at the expense of the team. To always strive for greater improvement but within the framework of fair play.
-Hard Workers. There is a tendency, when we talk about “talent”, to assume that at a basic level, you must be initially good at something to eventually be great at it. Instead, we want our children to understand that even if a skill or activity (math, swimming, playing an instrument) doesn’t come naturally to them, it doesn’t mean they can’t eventually master it. We foster this by how we give praise (“You worked so hard” vs. “You did so well”) as well as discussing times in our own lives when we had to work hard to overcome a lack of ability.
-Willing to embrace failure and learn from mistakes. This is closely related to the previous discussion about work ethic. A fear of failure might prevent them from trying, and becoming, whatever they want. This is tough, because as parents we spend a lot of time correcting our children and pointing out mistakes. Much of this is necessary for their development (and basic survival). However, I know I can do a much better job of giving my kids the space they need to make mistakes and learn from them. (This applies to leadership at work as well)
-Successful. This has nothing to do with income or status. It means achieving whatever occupation or vocation they want, as long as it's honest work and it gives them fulfillment.