What Values Are You Rewarding?

Pretty much every parent wants to raise kids who turn out to be good people. Almost no father thinks: I’d love for my son to be rich, but awful. Or I’d love for my daughter to be famous, but vapid and cruel. It’s a given.

And yet, when you look at most of what we do and say as parents, especially as our kids get older, it’s clear that what we’re actually encouraging and incentivizing is for our kids to be successful.

We want to hear how they did on their math test and whether they came in first running laps in PE. We want to know what college they want to go to, and how their extracurriculars are going. We nudge them toward a field of work that’s lucrative, that’s exciting, that will mean they won’t have to worry about money. The problem is that none of this has anything to do with what deep down we actually know we want—that we want them to be good and kind and wonderful to be around.

So, clearly, it’s time to rethink some things. As Adam Grant and his wife, Allison Sweet Grant, wrote in a wonderful piece for The Atlantic, maybe the key is to stop trying to raise successful kids. Maybe the key is to change what you give attention to at home and in conversation. Instead, you need to actively discuss and reward thinking about the values that have to do with character. As they write:

“To demonstrate that caring is a core value, we realized that we needed to give it comparable attention. We started by changing our questions. At our family dinners, we now ask our children what they did to help others. At first, ‘I forget’ was the default reply. But after a while, they started giving more thoughtful answers. ‘I shared my snack with a friend who didn’t have one,’ for example, or ‘I helped a classmate understand a question she got wrong on a quiz.’ They had begun actively looking for opportunities to be helpful, and acting upon them.”

Brilliant. And practical and actionable.

It’s worth every father building into their breakfast and dinner conversations and time driving in the car. Don’t ask them about the things that don’t matter in the big scheme of things, don’t teach them that they can impress you with accomplishments alone. Show them that excellence is what matters—moral excellence. That being a good person is not just what you pay lip service to, but what you are always thinking about.

So they will too.

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