Being Who I Want Them To Be.
I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want my sons to be like. I am forever wondering who they’ll turn out to be and what character traits I’d like them to have. I hope they’ll be courageous and considerate, diligent and determined, generous and grateful, kind and conscientious. I long for them to be adventurous, creative, and full of faith. I’m desperate for them to be well-rounded people who will bless those they come into contact with, who will put more into their communities than they take out, and who will make the world a better place. I devote a lot of time to thinking and praying about these aspirations. I think about what I need to do now to start sowing these seeds and I ask God to make it happen. I try and teach my boys the right principles and use the right kinds of discipline to back up what I teach.
All of this is good, but gradually I’ve come to realise something: it’s not enough. It’s not enough to tell my boys what I want them to be like, I have to live it out for them. It’s not enough to teach them the theory but leave out the practice. It’s not enough to discipline them if I’m not disciplining myself. It’s not enough to just hope they’ll turn out right, I have to make it happen. Parenting, I’ve realised, goes beyond teaching, hoping and disciplining – it’s a whole-life imitation game. It’s not just something I do on top of everything else, it’s interwoven with everything that I do. It’s not something I can do on the side, it’s an all-consuming vocation. Being a good parent goes far beyond thinking, speaking and even doing into being.
I’ve got to be who I want them to be.
If I want them to be courageous, I have to be courageous myself. If I want them to be generous, they have to see me being generous first-hand. If I want them to make time for other people, then that’s exactly what I have to do. If I want them to honest, they must see me modelling it by being open with people and owning my mistakes. If I want them to be creative, I have to show them my own creativity and be creative in how I interact with and entertain them. But it works the other way too. If they see me being lazy, guess what? They’ll be lazy. If they see me prioritising TV over time for the family, they’ll learn to think that’s OK. If I normalise short-tempers and stress in their environment it’ll become second-nature for them before they’ve ever had a chance to learn anything different. For every character trait that I want to see in them there’s a corresponding prerequisite in myself. And for every stain in my character there’ll be a blemish in theirs too.
This means parenthood is not just the art of growing other people, it’s also a major driver of my own personal growth. The last four years have held up a life-sized mirror in front of me and shown me in vivid detail all my shortcomings as a person. Even more than getting married, having kids has really shown up my weaknesses and flaws. Now there are three other people intruding on the bounds of my selfishness, not just one. Having miniature versions of yourself demanding all you’ve got all the time is a fine way of showing me how selfish, stingy and quick-tempered I am. And looking in that mirror is a great incentive for change. I want to see a better me reflected in that mirror. I want to know that when they look at me they’re seeing something worth imitating. So parenthood makes me a better person. It forces me to be, because the stakes are higher. Suddenly it’s not just my own life riding on my habits and decisions, it’s theirs as well.
The more I think about who I want them to be the more it shows me who I want myself to be, and who I have to be if my hopes for them are to be anything more than just a mental wish-list. The truth is, if I can’t embody it then I’ve got no right to expect it. I can’t expect from them what I’m not able to willing to exemplify myself. If I can’t model it, they can’t learn it. It’s like that old maxim for military leaders: don’t ask the troops to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on myself, you might be thinking. Well yes and no. Yes, because it’s good to be aware of these things and have a good kind of pressure that drives positive action. No, because I’m under no illusions of striving for perfection. I know I’m never going to be the perfect role-model for them, any more than I can be the perfect person. Nor do I want to be, because I don’t want them to be perfect. I don’t want them growing up thinking that they have to be perfect, or that perfection is something healthy to aim for. It’s about mindfulness and focus on the habits and traits we want to develop, not hitting any particular standard. Excellence is a far healthier aspiration than perfection. And of course, last but not least, it’s not all down to me. It’s the Holy Spirit within me that will achieve these goals. This is all underpinned by God’s power, not just personal effort. So as well as praying every day for my boys I pray for myself too that I’ll have the strength and vulnerability to be who I want them to be.