One of our favorite adages is, “He who aims at nothing hits it every time!” The truth is applicable to all of life, but it is particularly true in parenting. The target is so important. Now I’m not speaking in terms of the recently divorced woman when she spoke of her ex-husband saying, “I missed my husband today, but my aim is getting better.” When I speak of the aim we have for our children, be certain that they are not the target, but rather, their future, and more importantly, their character.
When speaking to groups of parents, I love asking questions about what they want their finished product to look like when their job is finished. Asking them to use a few words to describe their goals, in all my years of asking, never has a parent named a job, a degree, an income, or an accomplishment. When forced to think about it, I find that parents universally think of character traits, even as simple as a “hard worker.” The reality is that most parents do not stop long enough to really define what are the values that are most important to them. It is easy to say “good character,” or “a good person,” but is too general to aim at without a more refined description.
The more specific the goal for each child, the better, but universally noble character traits work as well, such as speaking the truth at all times, being cheerful, helping the weak, or being thrifty. Every character trait that ranks high would have skills, knowledge, or experiences that you would want to make available or encourage your child to pursue on his own. A mixture of books or stories about someone who was known for that character trait, encounters with real people great or small who live it out, and experiences that demand the development of the trait help to move a child along the path of development.
To make progress with our children, we often need ways to pace ourselves in our progress. The longterm view does help us to stay on track, but sometimes we have to set shorterm check-in spots to show the progress and measure the pace. We were always on the lookout for programs that had built-in goal setting along with skills and knowledge training. Boy scouts, 4H, music lessons, and speech and debate competition were among the things that helped us have that structure and system. There are lots of organizations that have character training components, and can easily fit into the plan. Many families use a variety of sports or cheerleading (which is now a sport) to pursue personal development. None of these things are completely automatic though. If you want it to produce results, it will take regular engagement with your child to groom his attitude toward growth, and to commend him on the visible character progress. It is during the engagement process that the five most powerful words in the English language must be used, “I am proud of you.”
In the long game of character development, there is nothing that propels like praise. But it is not praise for what they have done. It is the expressed honor you receive by who your daughter is becoming when you see her confident, pleasant greeting of a local leader followed by a kind, caring look into the eyes of an onlooking child that admires her. It is the “attaboy” offered to a son who got out of bed to go pull a neighbor out of a ditch, and didn’t complain when he got home to realize that the other siblings had eaten all the breakfast, except for a half piece of greasy bacon. He gives an encore by telling the younger siblings in graphic detail how he rescued the neighbor, producing cheers and fist pumps around the table.
I guess I should caution you, aiming high also has high costs and high risks. We parents have to live out those standards we aim at for the children. Despite the challenge, we chose to aim for the impossible, and that worked a lot better for us. But to clearer the image of your “target,” the better the aim. Remember the instruction given to sons in the movie The Patriot, “Aim small, miss small”?
So, what are you aiming at?