As parents, we worry about having all the right answers.
But I think it’s better to focus on asking the right questions.
The right question at the right time can change the course of a life, can still a turbulent situation, can provide a totally different perspective.
While every situation can generate its own, here are 15 questions that have challenged and helped me the most every day both as a parent and then as a writer, as I researched and wrote what became The Daily Dad: 366 Meditations on Parenting, Love, and Raising Great Kids, (it would mean so much to me if you could preorder it!!!). These 15 questions from some of the wisest philosophers, most incisive thinkers, and greatest parents that ever lived.
I’m not saying I know the answer to any of them, but I can say there is value in letting them challenge you. Certainly they have challenged me and continue to challenge me…
Start now by asking:
Will I Be An Ancestor or A Ghost?
In his Broadway show, Bruce Springsteen—whose songs have often focused on the painful legacy of our parents—explained the choice that all of us have as parents.
“We are ghosts or we are ancestors in our children’s lives,” he said at the beginning of his broadway show Long Time Comin’. “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 be the kind of example they need? Will you leave the kind of legacy that will guide them? That will inspire them to be decent and disciplined, great and good? Or will you haunt them with your mistakes, with the pain you inflicted on them, with the things left unsaid or unresolved?
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. Because we want to be an ancestor—someone who guides them and inspires them. We don’t want to haunt their future selves like a ghost.
Am I Cherishing The Garbage Time?
We save and plan for elaborate vacations. We anticipate for months and months. And when it inevitably isn’t as special or elaborate or photo-worthy as we’d hoped, we feel awful, like we’re not enough, like we haven’t done enough.
Yet the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who has three kids, questions the “quality time” that so many of us chase.
I’m a believer in the ordinary and the mundane. These guys that talk about “quality time”—I always find that a little sad when they say, “We have quality time.” I don’t want quality time. I want the garbage time. That’s what I like. You just see them in their room reading a comic book and you get to kind of watch that for a minute, or [having] a bowl of Cheerios at 11 o’clock at night when they’re not even supposed to be up. The garbage, that’s what I love.
Special days? Nah. Every day, every minute, can be special. All time with your kids—all time with anyone you love—is created equal. Eating cereal together can be wonderful. Blowing off school for a fun day together can be wonderful—but so can the twenty-minute drive in traffic to school. So can taking out the garbage or waiting in the McDonald’s drive-through.
In my pocket, I carry a medallion that says Tempus Fugit (”time flies”) on the front and “all time is quality time” on the back, so I’m constantly reminding myself to cherish the “garbage time.” Because it’s the best kind of time there is.
Am I Doing What I Want Them To Do?
The bestselling author and father of two Austin Kleon talks about how this is the hardest part of parenting: You have to be the kind of human being you want your children to be. You have to do the things you want your kids to do.
“I find this with parents all the time,” he said. “They want their kids to do things that they don’t do themselves.” He wants his kids to be readers, so he makes sure they see him reading. He wants them to explore different hobbies and interests, so he makes sure they see him practicing an instrument or tinkering in a sketchbook. He wants them to work hard and find work they care about, so he makes sure they see him working in his studio. He wants them to treat others with respect and kindness, so he makes sure they see him giving their mother something he made for her.
Who you are forms who they will be. So be who you want them to be. Do what you want them to do. It’s hard, but it’s the only way.
Does This Really Matter?
Your kid wants to go swimming, but you have to make this phone call. Your kids want to wrestle, but you have to cook dinner. Your kids want you to come tuck them in, but it’s a tie game with forty-two seconds left in regulation.
We pick these things because they’re urgent. Because they’ll only take a second. But mostly, we pick them because we can get away with it.
If something seemingly more urgent or out-of-control were to intervene, you would push the phone call. If you were stuck in traffic, you would order delivery. If the boss called and needed something, you would find out later who won the game. Yet here you are, telling your kid (and their earnest request to spend time with you) that they are not as important. Here you are choosing it over your kid.
Most of whatever we’re doing can wait. Not indefinitely, of course. No one is telling you to put it off forever. But this moment right now, you won’t get back. Take it. Play. Sit with them. Talk with them. Pause the TV. Save the draft and come back to it. Let dinner get cold. Tell so-and-so you’ll have to call them back.
Your kids are more important than any and all of that stuff.
What Am I Putting First?
Queen Elizabeth II had just returned from a six-month trip abroad. Her kids had been aboard the royal yacht for days, eagerly awaiting her return. Did she have presents? Would she tell them wonderful stories? Would she smother them with kisses?
As she stepped aboard, Prince Charles ran to her. Always a stickler for protocol, however, the queen politely greeted a group of dignitaries first. “No, not you, dear,” she chided him, finishing her business before embracing her family.
Even some sixty-five years after the fact, even if you have an important job, even if you’re an avid rule follower, even if you don’t like Charles, it still breaks your heart. Especially when we know that she knew better, having moved her weekly meeting with the prime minister to be there for her babies at dinnertime.
But now, after that much time apart, those were her first words to her six-year-old son? What changed? Couldn’t she see the awful symbolism? Literally putting work before family? After having already put them on pause for six months?
Your kids must come first. Not just in the very first months or years but always. You must say to them, “Yes, you, dear,” and never the opposite.
Am I Setting Them Up To Thrive?
Several years ago the writer Malcolm Gladwell pointed out how surprising it is that even in the NBA, which is filled with objectively talented and elite athletes, it sometimes requires a team change or a head coaching change (or a mental skills professional) for a player to thrive. They might have bounced around to two or three places, had multiple disappointing seasons and then suddenly, when the environment around them is right, when they have the support they need, bam, they’re great.
His point was this: If athletes being paid millions of dollars to perform need this, how can we possibly just expect kids to succeed in any old classroom we drop them into? We are so quick to write kids off—even our own kids—as not good at math, as a so-so student, as ADD or whatever. So quick!
But of course, environment is everything. The right supporting cast is everything. Timing is everything. We have to be patient. We have to be flexible. We have to take a page from these sports teams that, understanding they have a very valuable asset on their hands, do not despair when things don’t immediately click. No, when things aren’t working, they invest more. They don’t blame the star. They blame the system…and then try to fix it.
Am I Making Deposits or Debts?
Here’s a quote from Charles R. Swindoll: “Each day of our lives we make deposits in the memory banks of our children.”
Deposits are made when we love them, when we support them, when we protect them. Being there, helping them, nurturing them, cheering for them, giving them space to make mistakes and grow—this is how we fund that account.
But we also have to understand that we make debts our children will have to pay. When we lose our temper, fight with their mother or father, forget about what really matters—these things linger and haunt them for years and years into the future. This is why the writer Jancee Dunn got the advice from a therapist to keep a photo of their daughter in the bedside table:
Whenever I was about to lose my temper with [my husband], he told me, I was to run to the bedroom, pull out the photo, and say to it: I know that what I’m about to do is going to cause you harm, but right now, my anger is more important to me than you are.
As you can imagine, she writes, this was an exercise that did not need to be done more than a few times. Which is why we should each try a version of this in our own lives. Because so much of what we get angry about is not only not more important to us than our children or our marriages…it’s not important at all.
What If We’re Actually Just Hungry?
Any experienced parent can tell you about the magical panacea called food.
Why is your kid screaming? Why are they terrorizing their sibling? Why can’t they focus during homeschooling? Why can’t they fall asleep? Why is your teenager so moody?
The answer is simple. They are hungry. They’re hangry. And they don’t know it.
Moms have long carried snacks in their purses for a reason. Because it will solve most problems. Soothe most frayed nerves. Calm down most difficult situations.
Somebody always forgets to eat. So feed them. Ask them if they’re hungry. Remind them that they’re hungry. Keep a tight meal schedule. Watch what happens.
Oh, also, when you’re grouchy and frustrated and anxious and short with your spouse and your kids—you might be hangry yourself. In 2014, researchers from Ohio State University found that most fights between couples are because someone is hungry. So, like taking a walk or taking five deep breaths, grabbing something to eat will probably solve most of your adult problems too.
What Are They Really Trying To Say?
It doesn’t matter how old your kids are. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or how many tutors you’ve hired for them. It doesn’t matter if they’ve gone to therapy. It doesn’t matter if you have the most connected and open relationship. It doesn’t matter if they’re in college studying language.
The primary language of children is behavior. Not words. This is for one simple, undeniable reason: they don’t have the words yet.
This is why we need to ‘listen’ to our kids in more ways than just the obvious, literal way. We have to watch them. We have to be patient. We have to understand that a tantrum—even if it’s screaming about the iPad—is almost certainly about something else. We have to understand that lethargy or sliding grades are statements. So is wanting to dye their hair, so is getting arrested. It’s your child speaking to you through behavior. They’re telling you they are hungry. They are telling you they are stressed. They are telling you they don’t feel secure, that they need something, that they need someone. Even if they are saying the opposite of those things.
The question is: Will you hear them? Will you be able to talk to them about it? Not just with your words but with your own actions.
What Am I Measuring?
Tracee Ellis Ross has a famous, successful mother: the singer Diana Ross. You might think someone that successful would care a lot about success. Indeed, it’s a pretty common pattern: the driven parent drives their children—to get good grades, to win games, to be the strongest, prettiest, or most popular. They want to continue their pattern of excellence down through the college their kids go to or the profession they work.
But Tracee got lucky. Her mom did it right. While most parents would ask their kids, “How are your grades?” “Did you win?” “Are you number one in your class?” Diana Ross would ask, “Did you do your best? How do you feel about it, Tracee?” Tracee, who amidst some fits and starts would go on to become a very accomplished actress, would explain that her mother’s emphasis taught her an essential perspective shift: “How to navigate a life through how it feels to you, as opposed to how it looks to everyone else.”
What really matters? Not school. Not grades. What matters is what your kids learn about the world through these things, the priorities they pick up and the values they absorb. So that’s the question: Are you teaching them that test scores matter, or that learning counts? Are you teaching them that success is winning arbitrary competitions, or that it is becoming the best version of themselves?
Results don’t matter, not the obvious ones anyway. What counts is the person you are shaping them to be. What counts is who they are shaping themselves into.
How Can I Use This?
In the 2008 American presidential campaign, Barack Obama famously used the Reverend Wright scandal as what he later called a “teachable moment”—a chance to discuss race with the American people. Whatever you think of Obama’s politics or of that scandal, it’s hard not to like that phrase. A “teachable moment?”
It’s an essential fact of parenthood: everything that happens is an opportunity, a chance to teach your children.
The question is, will we seize that chance? Will you take advantage of that opportunity? And are you paying close enough attention on a regular basis to notice when these opportunities arise?
The mistake your daughter made. The knock on the door at 2 a,m, from a police officer bringing your son home, having caught him getting into trouble. The failed math test. A room they forgot to clean, again. That nasty remark you heard them make. None of it seems good, but there is something teachable inside each one of those things.
It might not be obvious, and it won’t necessarily be easy, but you have to find it.
What If I Took A Walk?
Seneca said that “delay is the greatest remedy for anger.” That’s the truth.
And there is no better way to delay than by taking a walk. Because a walk is the best way to let your mind clear, to make sure you don’t do something you will later regret. Anger is an exaggerator. It magnifies the worst in every situation. Anger is an exacerbator too. It takes a bad situation and makes it worse with the overreaction it produces in us.
Taking a walk makes sure that doesn’t happen, that anger doesn’t win. The next time you’re angry, take a walk and see if you can get yourself that wound up again. It’s next to impossible.
No one is saying you can’t respond at all. You probably will have to address whatever has made your blood boil. You will have to say something. But wait a minute. Take a walk and think about the best way to respond. Make it a teachable moment. Teach them that it’s possible to control how you react.
Am I Being A Fan?
Jim Valvano wasn’t yet out of high school when he first told his dad he had decided what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He wasn’t just going to be a collegiate basketball coach, he told him: “Dad, I’m going to win a national championship.”
A few days after Jim told his dad about his dream, his dad called him into his bedroom. “See that suitcase?” his father asked, pointing to the luggage in the corner. Confused, Jim replied, “Yeah, what’s that all about?” “I’m packed,” his dad explained. “When you play and win that national championship I’m going to be there. My bags are already packed.”
“My father,” Jim would later say in his legendary ESPY speech, “gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person: he believed in me.”
Have you given this gift to your children? Our job is to spur our children to conceive of big dreams, to encourage them to go after them, to give them the greatest gift anyone can give another person: belief. If you don’t believe in them, who will? If you aren’t their biggest fan, who will be?
Will I Have A Crowded Table?
It’s helpful to sit back and really think about what parental success looks like.
First, of course, it’s having healthy kids who survive to adulthood—that’s obvious.
But second, when you flash way forward into the future, what is it? It’s that beautiful phrase captured in the title of the Highwomen’s hit “Crowded Table.” At Thanksgiving. On birthdays. At some summer house on the beach you all rent as a family. That is, having kids whom you get to see, whom you have a good relationship with, whom you want to spend time with . . . for the rest of your days.
If you want a garden, the song reminds us, you’re going to have to sow the seed.
And if you want a crowded table, you’ll need to make the right decisions now so they’ll want to make the decision to fly from their homes to yours when they’re older and have families of their own. You’ll have to plant a little happiness, give a little love, if that’s what you want to reap.
You’ll need to set the table today to have the one you’ll want tomorrow.
Ask Them This Question Every Day
Those are 14 questions for you.
But here’s a question to ask them every day, one I try to ask my son when I pick him up from school each afternoon
What did you do that was kind today?
Instead of asking your kids if they behaved well or performed well or even if they had fun, be sure to check in with them about whether they did something kind. Ask them, every day, What good turn did you do today? What was something you did for someone else? Who did you help?
Think of the message this sends. Think of how it makes them think about their own day—to review their own actions through the lens of empathy, how their actions affect others. Think of the priorities it sets through your monitoring–that their parents are on top of not how many answers they got right but how many right things they did. Think about how much better the world would be if everyone thought this way, if everyone was raised this way.