A Little Fellow Follows You
In 1939, nine years before John Wooden would be hired to coach the UCLA men's basketball team, a friend sent him a picture with a poem on it to celebrate the birth of Wooden's first child. The picture is a man on a beach whose son is running behind him, playing in his footsteps in the sand. Wooden hung the picture in his home so he might see it every day. The poem, which he memorized and liked to give as a gift, went as follows:
A careful man I want to be-
a little fellow follows me.
I do not dare to go astray,
for fear he'll go the self-same way.
I cannot once escape his eyes.
Whatever he sees me do he tries.
Like me he says he's going to be-
that little chap who follows me . . .
You don't have to memorize these words as Wooden did, but you better internalize their message. Your sons and your daughters follow behind you. They see everything you do. If you go astray, so too will they.
Never Let Them See You Act Like This
I think of myself as a philosopher only in the sense of being able to set an example.
There is a story in Seneca's famous essay "On Anger" about a boy who at a very young age went to live in the house of Plato to study under the famous philosopher. Returning home to visit his parents, the boy witnessed his father lose his temper and yell at someone. Surprised by this violent outburst, and with the simple innocence of a child are capable of, the boy said, "I never saw anyone at Plato's house act like that."
However we conduct ourselves in front of our children-particularly at home, in private-they will come to see as normal. If we are rude or unkind to our spouse, they will assume that is an appropriate way to treat people they love. If we are anxious and overly worried, they will come to think that the world is a scary place that must be feared. If we behave unethically or cynically, they too will begin to cheat and lie.
Their Faults Are Your Faults
Don't worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.
Your kids can drive you nuts. The way they can push your buttons. The way they can ask an interminable number of questions. The way they can mimic you.
"I love him very dearly I guess because of his faults which are my faults," the novelist John Steinbeck writes of his son. "I know where his pains and his panics come from."
Our kids have our virtues and our vices. That's what makes this whole crazy parenting thing such a wonderful opportunity. Because we are here to help them become the best possible versions of themselves. One of the ways we do that is to help them become like us in all the good ways. But one of the other ways is to prevent them from becoming too much like us in all the bad ways.
It can be an incredibly difficult balancing act if we aren't honest or self-possessed, if we let our egos get in the way. We can't let that happen. This is our chance, our time! To help them. To bolster them. To help them overcome flaws that maybe we never quite got over ourselves. To seize this second chance-to give what we didn't get.
More than that, it's a chance to understand.
Show Them How to Keep Their Cool
In 1952, Margaret Thatcher's father was driven out of office when a rival political party won a majority in the election. He was upset. He was hurt. And he could have allowed those emotions to drive how he reacted. But he didn't.
Instead, Thatcher's father made a statement of incredible restraint and dignity: "It is now almost nine years since I took up these robes in honor, and now I trust in honor they are laid down." He added later, "Although I have toppled over I have fallen on my feet. My own feeling is that I was content to be in and I am content to be out."
We could say that what he was doing was showing his daughter how to lose with grace. But it was much more than that. He was showing her that external circumstances don't make the man or woman, only how we respond to them. He was showing her how to bear adversity and how to never surrender your poise or self-control. These would all be lessons that Thatcher would use throughout her tumultuous life as a public servant, a prime minister, and a mother.
Your kids will need them too. So show them. Show by example, not just with words. Show them, when you've been screwed over and it really hurts, that still your personal code of conduct matters more. Because it does. Because it will.
Which Will It Be?
In his Broadway show, Bruce Springsteen explained the choice presented to all parents:
We are ghosts or we are ancestors in our children's lives. We either lay our mistakes, our burdens upon them, and we haunt them, or we assist them in laying those old burdens down, and we free them from the chain of our own flawed behavior. And as ancestors, we walk alongside of them, and we assist them in finding their own way and some transcendence.
Will you be a ghost or an ancestor to your children? Will you haunt them or guide them? Will you curse them or inspire them?
Of course, we all know which of those two we want to be, just as Bruce's flawed father surely did. But then our demons, our issues, the ghosts of our own parents, get in the way.
That's why we go to therapy and read good books. That's why we stay up at night before bed talking to our spouse about how hard this parenting thing is, to exorcise those demons by bringing them into the light. It's why, wordlessly, when we hold our kids, we promise ourselves to do better, to try harder, to not repeat the mistakes we endured growing up.
This isn't going to be easy. We're not going to be perfect. But we're going to keep trying. We're going to be an ancestor-someone who guides them and inspires them. We're not going to haunt their future selves like a ghost.
Hang Their Pictures on Your Wall
He could not have known what the future would hold. He could not have known how he and his country would soon be tested. But in 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave a twenty-minute presidential inaugural address to the people of Ukraine that foreshadowed how he would respond.
Despite being one of his country's greatest success stories, making a fortune in the entertainment business and then holding its highest office, Zelenskyy asked not to be celebrated or held up as a model. "I really do not want my pictures in your offices, for the president is not an icon, an idol, or a portrait," he said. "Hang your kids' photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision."
Then, in February 2022, in an act of brutal illegality and avarice, Russia invaded Ukraine. Zelenskyy stood and fought, refusing opportunities to be rescued. What could be motivating him? His own advice. He has two children, ages eighteen and ten, whom he fights for. The Ukrainian military and its citizen-soldiers were similarly motivated-fighting valiantly alongside him against incredible odds for the chance that their children might live in freedom and live proudly, knowing that when it counted, their parents were prepared to sacrifice everything on their behalf.
Each of us should be inspired and humbled by this example. But as Zelenskyy said, we don't need to put pictures of heroes on our wall. Instead, we can hang up pictures of our children and strive to make them proud, and this should inspire and fortify us when we have to make tough decisions for their future, for their safety, for their freedom.
It is our kids who compel us to do the right thing . . . because they are always watching.
They Learn from Home
It is constantly reiterated that education begins in the home, but what is often forgotten is that morality begins in the home also.
You tell them to be good. To be honest. To follow the law. To care about other people. That safety comes first.
You say these things, but what do you do?
You can't say that you care about other people and then speed through stop signs because you're late. You can't tell your kids that honesty is important and then lie to get out of the ticket. What's worth more to you, avoiding a fine or living your values? That's what you have to ask yourself in every situation, particularly the ones where your kids are watching. Is getting what you want worth teaching the wrong lesson and undermining the values you are trying to instill?
Those kids buckled in behind you-they are absorbing your example and assimilating the lessons that will shape them in the smallest and biggest of ways. From the kind of driver they are going to be to the kind of person they are going to be. They are watching you as you go through the world. Right now. They're watching you break traffic laws, break promises. They hear you when you lie. They feel it when your actions don't match your words.
Kids learn from home. They learn in the car. They learn from Mom and Dad. You set the standard, so be the standard.
How Are You Embodying Your Values?
On April 1, 1933, shortly after coming to power in Germany, the Nazis held a boycott of all Jewish businesses. It was the first small persecution of many to come. But too many mothers and fathers who had talked to their kids about doing the right thing simply went along with it.
Not everyone, of course. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's ninety-nine-year-old grandmother, for instance. On that day, she was out shopping and she refused to be told whose businesses she could support. She ignored or dodged the Nazi troops stationed in front of stores and shopped wherever she liked. Julie and her "marching past Nazi gorillas" came to be seen in the Bonhoeffer family as "an embodiment of the values they sought to live by."
That embodiment wasn't lost on Dietrich, who ten years later would lose his life plotting to assassinate Hitler. Even though he was a pastor, even though he had plenty of opportunities to escape Germany and live in peace and freedom in London or America, he stayed. His grandmother's example guided him, showed him how to live by his values.
Let the same be true for you and your children, whatever the future holds, big or small.
Protect This Great Invention
The author, educator, and cultural critic Neil Postman points out in The Disappearance of Childhood that childhood is a social construct. Genetic expression makes no distinction between who is a child and who isn't. Children, as we understand them, have existed for less than four hundred years. "The idea of childhood is one of the great inventions of the Renaissance," he writes, because it allowed children to develop, to learn, to have a safe space to play and explore and discover themselves.
Like any invention, childhood can disappear. How? With the disappearance of adulthood. Childhood, as both a social structure and a psychological condition, works when things like maturity, responsibility, literacy, and critical thinking mark an adult. But when things like long-form writing and reading decline, the gap between child and adult shrinks; the line between them blurs and then dissolves.
As parents, we have to protect this great invention. We have to increase the gap between childhood and adulthood. Let them be kids . . . but also make sure that you are being an adult. Be a leader. Be responsible. Be an example, a model they have to strive toward. Let them see you with a book they can't yet comprehend. Let them be around adult conversations they can't quite understand. Let them see you working and sweating and providing.
Let them see an adult-so they have something not just to look up to but to look forward to as well.
Your Living Is the Teaching
Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.
Socrates's students said of their teacher that for all the genius he possessed, Plato and Aristotle and all the other sages who learned from him "derived more benefit from [his] character than [his] words." So it was for Zeno and Cleanthes, the two earliest Stoic philosophers. "Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno," Seneca wrote, "if he had merely heard his lectures; he shared in his life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules."
Is there a better description-a better bar to set-for a parent than this? If you want to teach your kids, it's not going to be with words. It's not going to be with lectures. It's going to be through showing them that you live according to the rules you set and the values you are trying to tell them are important.
We Can Be That Gift
Marcus Aurelius's father died when he was young. But then this young boy who was cursed by tragedy received a great gift. A gift that all children who have received it know to be one of the most incredible things in the world: a loving stepfather.
Ernest Renan wrote that, more than his teachers and tutors, "Marcus had a single master whom he revered above them all, and that was Antoninus." All his adult life, Marcus strived to be a disciple of his adoptive stepfather. While he lived, Marcus saw him, Renan said, as "the most beautiful model of a perfect life."
What were the things that Marcus learned from Antoninus? He learned the importance of compassion, hard work, persistence, altruism, self-reliance, cheerfulness; keeping an open mind and listening to anyone who could contribute; taking responsibility and blame, and putting other people at ease; yielding the floor to experts and heeding their advice; knowing when to push something or someone and when to back off; being indifferent to superficial honors and treating people as they deserved to be treated.
It's quite a list, isn't it? These lessons impacted Marcus so deeply, he remembered them far into adulthood and recorded them for his own reference in what would become Meditations. What made the lessons so powerful was that they were embodied in Antoninus's actions rather than written on some tablet or scroll.
Copyright © 2023 by Ryan Holiday. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.