5 Key Life Lessons Parents & Kids Can Learn Together

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Mother kissing her daughter in the temple

Telling your kids to toughen up is heartbreaking — and it doesn't actually make them tough in ways that enhance their lives or keep them safe. Yet, knowing how to teach your children when to be kind and when to stand up for themselves is confusing.

We send our children into a complex society we, as adults, haven’t completely mastered navigating. No wonder there’s so much confusion about parenting. After all, we can’t raise successful, accountable children until we're successful and responsible ourselves, right?

Often the lessons we teach our children are the lessons we're working on ourselves — distinguishing between what is/is not acceptable behavior, establishing healthy boundaries, being a kind, compassionate person, and handling conflict effectively yet compassionately.

Mastering these skills is a lifelong effort. We must embrace learning these skills while teaching them as we raise responsible, kind, strong children.

It takes a continuous effort to teach your child and yourself the skills of self-protection while still being a kind person. It is doable.

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Five key life lessons parents & kids can learn together

1. Being true to yourself means everything

Help your child recognize how unique they are. Show them how they possess a specific combination of skills, quirks, physical traits, giggles, etc., and the world is a better place when they let all of that shine brightly.

Just know, your child won’t believe "being true to yourself" means anything if, in the next breath, you’re comparing them to peers or siblings (whether about their grades, looks, talents, or personality) or say, "Why can’t you get straight As and be more outgoing like your sister?"

Your kids are also watching to see how bravely you shine your authentic self in the world. Do you constantly hide your true feelings, beliefs, or talents?

Children are excellent truth detectors and can see if you're practicing your advice about the value of authenticity. If they constantly overhear you criticizing and judging others for being unique, don’t be surprised when your child buckles under peer pressure and desperately tries to fit in.

Being true to yourself is an ongoing active challenge (at any age) that takes courage, not just platitudes. So encourage your kiddo’s uniqueness by showing them over and over how much you honor your own.

2. You're not the only person on the planet

Help your child shift from ego-centric to caring about others by teaching them empathy. Insist they show basic courtesies and manners, such as saying "please," "thank you," "excuse me," and waiting to talk while someone else is talking.

Show them, by example, how these behaviors aren’t reserved for family, teachers, or people you think are important. They are equally bestowed on everyone from grocery store clerks to the crossing guard at school.

Demonstrate this behavior by using these niceties with your little one. They matter, too, and you want to show it! It's not OK to talk over them and expect them to wait for you to finish speaking or reach impatiently for them to hand you something without first saying "please" and a sincere "thank you". You'll teach them (through your courteous treatment of them) just how nice it feels to be at the receiving end of these niceties.

If they catch you snapping at the garbage collectors yet turning on the charm 10 minutes later at a school meeting, you show them that people have a value ranking (according to their profession, income, looks, etc.), not based on who they are. You'll likely see them mimicking the same hierarchy in their social relationships.

Here’s an opportunity to teach your child how we're all different but still connected.

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3. Don't fear differing points of view

Discuss how it's perfectly OK if people see situations differently.

Actively expose your children to different ideas, religions, races, personalities, sexual orientations, etc., and teach how those differences are a natural and valuable part of life. Other people have various ways of looking at things. You agree with some, and some you don't. However, differences challenge us to think critically and look from multiple perspectives.

Encourage your children to value their minds by asking about their opinions. Just make sure you let them express their ideas (not simply applaud them when they agree with yours).

Once they share their ideas, offer examples of other ways to see the same topic, showing various slices of life. Viewing life through a wide lens of acceptance helps erase discrimination, anger, and judgmental defensiveness. Learning to see and think openly while young helps your child develop healthy boundaries while still learning to accept others.

Of course, for heaven’s sake, do not roll your eyes, snort, laugh derisively, or make snide comments when confronted with a view opposite to your own. Let your stage of life as a parent broaden your tolerance and willingness to appreciate others’ uniqueness. The patchwork quilt of the human race is what makes us thrive.

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4. You're responsible for understanding (and controlling) your emotions

Teach your kids that conflict is inevitable and anger is normal. We all experience it. Learning to deal with uncomfortable feelings constructively is what's important.

Children are inherently creative and imaginative, so make a game to help them understand and manage their emotions healthily. You can teach your child this exercise to help keep intense emotions from getting the better of them:

Step 1: Stop.

Step 2: Breathe deeply.

Step 3: Name the emotion (Abominable Anger, Slithering Sadness, Eeking Envy, etc). As you interact with your child, be sure to breathe deeply — they will copy your breathing pattern instinctively.

Step 4: Think of an action to accompany the emotion.

Often, stopping and discussing emotions offers a calming effect. Of course, some of the proposed actions (in Step 4) suggested by your child will likely be far from appropriate (i.e. I could punch them in the face!). Listen to your child anyway, and ask if that would impact solving problems in the long run. If not, what action might make them feel better and solve the problem that doesn't involve yelling, hitting, or getting impatient?

Suppressed emotions send a confusing lesson. If they see you holding back rage while talking sweetly to your neighbor or vindictively cutting off a car in traffic, it says some emotions are unacceptable and must be hidden (like anger).

Show your child how their uncomfortable emotions are normal. Being a successful person is learning how to express emotions honestly and appropriately.

If you’re furious, let an "anger-burning workout" dissipate some of that energy so you can diplomatically and kindly address the aggravating issue afterward. Then your child will see that everyone can get along without being unhappy and that there are practical, easy ways of working through challenging emotions.

5. Compassion and "giving back" are worth the effort

Making your child responsible for homework completion and age-appropriate chores is vital to preparing them for adulthood. Separate everyday duties from outreach to sick neighbors, or assisting an elderly acquaintance with yard work, etc.

Help them see how compassion for others is a part of contributing to the community you live in, whether it's helping one neighbor or volunteering for a large nonprofit.

Whatever you do, don’t let your children see you expecting praise for your compassionate efforts while insisting they act selflessly on their own. But do privately commend them for any extra thoughtful acts they do and encourage them to continue showing compassion to the larger world around them.

Make random acts of kindness part of your family culture by weaving compassionate actions into your daily whenever possible. When subjects like poverty, homelessness, or hunger come up, let your children think of ways to participate meaningfully.

There are activities appropriate for all ages — from hosting toy drives to volunteering hours on the weekend. Encourage your kids to think of ways to help, then follow through when they commit.

It won’t be difficult for them to think up ways to show kindness if they see you running errands for a neighbor, checking in on a friend going through a tough time, making soup for storm victims, or shoveling the driveway for an elderly neighbor.

Remember, parenting is about what you model, not what you say. So walk your talk, parents!

So, have self-respect, be confident, speak up (for yourself and others), and set healthy boundaries. And, by all means, reach out to others and show some human kindness. If you live by the standards you want your children to have, you'll both grow into wonderful, successful people!

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Jan L. Bowen is an author, keynote speaker, thought leader, and facilitator with over 25 years of successful corporate leadership who specializes in helping leaders find their balance.