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9 Life Lessons That Can’t Be Taught, But I Hope My Son Learns

My four-year-old son knows that he should “be nice with his friends,” and yet it’s so hard for him to do. Something disappears in the moment— Felix loses control in frustration, gets bored and so acts out, or is unable to control his excitement. As I wrote yesterday, it’s frustrating trying to figure out how best to teach him to behave.

When it comes to educating our kids, it seems like all we parents do is worry. Are our kids understanding the material? Are their skill levels improving? Will they make it to the next grade? Are they learning all the stuff that they need to know?

Knowing your ABCs and 1, 2, 3s is essential, no doubt. Equally important to success, and perhaps, I’ve come to think, even more important, are the values that can’t be easily taught or measured. Creativity. Kindness. Lightness of heart. But wait, every minute of school should lead to some quantifiable gain! Obsession with data and statistics ranks high in American culture, especially among educators. (“Ranks high” — Oy. Even I can’t avoid sounding like a statistician.) If we can’t test it, then it doesn’t belong in the classroom. I don’t know if I agree with that approach.

When I taught at a private school in East Harlem, the administration developed a character rubric which kids used to assess their values, ranking how kind or patient they believed themselves to be. Teachers filled out the chart as well, and then each child sat down for an evaluation, like a performance review, to find out how they were doing not academically, but attitudinally.

Just like some kids have a knack for words, or memorizing facts, so too did some children have an innate kindness in them, or demonstrated natural leadership abilities. The question was, of course, how do you help the kids gain the virtues that they’re lacking? I don’t think you can, at least not in the same way that you instruct them how 1 + 1 = 2.

The most important life knowledge is impossible to teach. We develop our personalities over years, and even as adults we change and shift. Some situations profoundly affect us, but more often our values set slow, over time. We tell our kids to “be nice” or “have good manners,” but it takes years of repetition before they finally get it, if they ever get it at all. At some point, something clicks. We just have to believe that they’ll get it one day, and continue delivering the message in the sweetest, gentlest, and least annoying way possible.

With that in mind, I made a list of the values that I hope my son has when he reaches adulthood — or wait, let’s give him some leeway and say: these are values that I hope he holds by the time he’s thirty. How I’ll teach him these, I don’t know. By example, I guess. And I can only hope that he pays attention.

  • Some Lessons Can’t Be Taught… 1 of 10
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    But I hope that my son learns them! Click on to find out more...

  • Always act with compassion 2 of 10
    compassion

    A fundamental human trait is treating others people, animals, living things in general — with compassion and kindness. To paraphrase The Buddha, nothing feels better than doing a good thing for someone else. But if you need a more self-serving reason to be selfless, I've got one for you: Compassionate acts engender good will in return. This is really what is meant by karma, I think. You go out of your way to be nice to someone else, even a stranger, or even — especially — someone who is a bit of a jerk or expressing a bad attitude, and that kindness is repaid to you by others. Somehow we smell kindness on other people, I think. We get a good vibe from good people. A vibe that only comes from being nice.

  • Never sell yourself short 3 of 10
    sellshort

    No matter how nice a person you are, there will always be haters out there, people who say negative things because they want to take you down, or, maybe worse, because they're inconsiderate or unthoughtful. You have to learn how to brush your shoulder off and retain a sense of self-esteem. People who feel bad about themselves make unhealthy, rash decisions. It's important to remember that you're a valuable person on this planet, and that you matter to the people who love you.

  • Be patient and tenacious 4 of 10
    tenacious

    Some things come easy, and some come hard, but the important thing is never to give up trying to achieve what you want to achieve. Take your time and forgive yourself your failures. Think about what went wrong, and try it again. Accept that sometimes you can't control whether or not you'll succeed at a task you set yourself. Again, just get back up and try again. Maybe one of these days you'll get lucky! I really believe that with a consistent, relentless effort, most of what you want to obtain can be within your reach, assuming that you set realistic goals for yourself.

  • Don’t be so afraid that you don’t take risks 5 of 10
    take risks

    Besides patiences, bravery is required to live a full life. I mean, come on! This world is a scary place. I would never have moved to New York, or tried my hand at writing, or traveled to different countries, or even become a father if I lived paralyzed by fear. That doesn't mean I wasn't scared. It just means that I used that fear to motivate me to take a leap into the unknown. Sometimes, we have to go to the dark places in order to seek the light.

  • Take care of your environment 6 of 10
    stewardship

    Just like a flower needs sunshine and fresh air to grow, even if it's blooming in a dump, so you can't be a strong, healthy, functioning person unless you're living in a clean, fresh place. So whether it's your room, your backyard, or the planet, take care of it, eh? This goes for your emotional environment too. There are toxic people out there, people who ooze fear and anger through their mouths. Don't let those people pollute you. Be a steward of where you live, and your life in general.  

  • Follow your gut and be yourself 7 of 10
    beyourself

    You know better than anyone else what is right for you. Don't be swayed by the crowd, or adjust your dreams and desires because they don't conform to other people's expectations. Be strong, and do what feels right for you. As I wrote last week, I'm just starting to feel comfortable and secure in my self image. My image hasn't changed instead, I just stopped worrying and started loving myself. I wish I had done this ten years ago! Ah, well. Hindsight, right? Have no fear dancing to the beat of your own drummer. Instead, dance with joy.

  • Be thrifty, but not cheap 8 of 10
    thrifty

    This sounds more practical than some of the other advice on this list, but I'm not just talking about money. You should save your dollars and cents, sure. You should also spend wisely, and remember that some investments might be better than others. But on a more metaphoric level, you have to conserve your shine. A life is long (not long enough, maybe), and you want to save some of your energy for later in the race. So take care of yourself, and don't burn the candle at both ends, and don't give all of yourself away. Save a bit for later.

  • Keep it real 9 of 10
    keep real

    Never shy away from taking a hard look at yourself, and recognizing your successes and your failures. People who lie to themselves, or don't acknowledge their mistakes or missteps, end up living in a dream world. Ask the hard questions, especially of yourself. And never be afraid of the answers.

  • Approach the world with a smile 10 of 10
    smile

    As Oscar Wilde said, "Life is too short to be taken seriously!" Something I only remember because my dad had a coffee mug emblazoned with it. Don't forget to laugh. And, to quote Monty Python, "Always look on the bright side of life." Lead with a smile. It's your most fetching feature!

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