Last summer, my wife and I adopted a baby girl. It's tough to express how much becoming a dad changed my life for the better, and how much joy our daughter has brought my wife and me.
I doubt anybody is ever truly ready for parenthood, but we sure tried. We took an infant care class, spent a ton of money at Buy Buy Baby, and devoured everything we could find on becoming good parents.
The best advice came up over and over. It's that everything comes back to parents demonstrating good habits and behavior themselves.
(Bonus content: I've written a lot about this at Inc. over the past year, and I've also put together a free e-book on this subject: How to Raise Successful Kids: Advice From a Navy SEAL, a Stanford Dean, and Mark Zuckerberg's Dad (Among Others). It's in its third edition, and tens of thousands of people have downloaded and read it. You can get your copy here.)
Here's a quick summary of the top things I've learned--a compendium of the best of the best advice you'll find in the book. If you want to raise successful kids, you must ...
1. Demonstrate how to love.
Everything starts with love. Even a tough Navy SEAL whose advice I found especially poignant, former commander Eric Greitens, starts out talking about love. But he's not alone.
"Love them fiercely. Love everything about them, even the annoying stuff. Love them for their actions and their intentions," author Christie Halverson says in her super-viral article on raising teenagers. "Let them know in word and deed how much you adore them. Daily."
2. Demonstrate the pursuit of opportunity.
The best definition of entrepreneurship I've ever heard is "the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled." The first half of demonstrating that is to show respect for people who follow their dreams, and pursue their most-desired opportunities.
That's why I found the advice of people like Mark Zuckerberg's dad, Dr. Edward Zuckerberg, so compelling: "Rather than impose upon your kids ... recognize what their strengths are and support their strengths and support the development of the things they're passionate about," says Zuckerberg.
I also liked the way Marie Kondo makes the same point in her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, as she talks about finding your passions (and helping kids to do so as well): "Think back to your own school days and the things you enjoyed doing. ... At their core, the things we really like do not change over time."
3. Demonstrate acceptance of failure.
One of the many ironies of parenthood is that if you encourage children to take risks and pursue opportunities, they will sometimes fail. So, it's important to help them understand failure in context--something that almost never has to be the end of the story.
"We want so badly to help them by shepherding them from milestone to milestone and by shielding them from failure and pain. But overhelping causes harm," former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haimes wrote in her book, How to Raise an Adult. "It can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will, and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life."
4. Demonstrate that you know your role.
You can be a progressive parent--but remember that kids are kids. They don't need you to be a friend or a peer. They need you to be their mom or dad.
"Not every risk is a good risk to take," Greitens says. "Sometimes we all need an experienced, more authoritative person to show us the better way."
Dr. Leonard Sax, author of The Collapse of Parenting, made the same point: "It's not about the abdication of authority," says Sax, citing the example he's seen of
parents who allow their 8-year-old children to make the final decision about what school they should attend. "I know of cases where the kid was clearly making the wrong decision, and the parents knew it but nevertheless felt completely powerless to overrule their child. The child is the one who suffers."
5. Demonstrate your faith.
I'm not going to evangelize and tell you what your spirituality should be. My own journey has been meandering enough. I don't pretend to have all the answers.
But having faith in something, and demonstrating it for your children comes up again and again as an incredibly important ingredient. It's a matter of modeling belief that things will turn out all right, and thus impacting outcomes through the power of positive thinking.
As Halverson puts it: "Stand back and watch the magic happen. If you let them, these glorious creatures will open their hearts and love you more fiercely than you could possibly imagine. ... They are just about the greatest gift that God gave to parents."
6. Demonstrate trust in them.
Easier said than done; the key here is to be willing to get out of the way and let your kids tackle challenges in a way that gives them experience and builds confidence.
Again, you're a parent, not a god.
"Your children should know that you're always there for them, and that they can call on you when needed," says Greitens. "But give them the opportunity to learn to solve their own problems."
Lythcott-Haimes makes the same point: "If you're arguing with teachers and principals and coaches and umpires all the time, it's a sign you're a little too invested. When we're doing all the arguing, we are not teaching our kids to advocate for themselves."
7. Demonstrate balance in life.
We talk a lot about the pursuit of work-life balance, but this experience has made me realize it's not only for your benefit. It's for your child's benefit, too.
My dad puts this succinctly: "At the end of the day, go home."
But some people are able to take this to an extreme, like Zuckerberg's father, a dentist whose office is located in his home.
"We had a unique situation because my office was in the house," he said. "I highly recommend it if it works for your occupation. It did afford the ability to work and be home with the kids at the same time."
8. Demonstrate pride.
This goes hand in hand with love. Offer your kids unwavering support, and also demonstrate your pride in them when it's warranted.
The caveat here is that kids are more perceptive than adults sometimes think. They know when you're being sincere, versus praising them for things that aren't really praiseworthy. In other words, no participation trophies, please!
"The first thing is to teach humility," Sax says, because so many kids have "been indoctrinated in their own awesomeness with no understanding of how this culture of bloated self-esteem leads to resentment."
9. Demonstrate responsibility.
If you've read this far in this article, I think you're probably going to have this one covered. If you want your kids to take responsibility and demonstrate a good work ethic, it helps to show them a good example.
"Teach your children early not to pass the blame or make excuses, but to take responsibility for their actions," says Greitens.
You can't always determine what you get out of something, but you can often control what you put into it. So show them that you can put your all into everything, and then remain sufficiently detached not to worry excessively over the result.
It reminds me of the advice my dad would give me when I was a kid and I'd stress out about some school assignment. He'd always say the same thing afterward: "Did you give it your best shot? Then forget about it."