Things I Tell My Children Differently

What many parents tell their children:

“You have to share”

I often observe parents urging or even coercing children to give their toy to another child who wants to play with it.

What I tell my children:

“You are obligated to share only within the family, with your parents and siblings. As for sharing with strangers, generosity is a good trait and it will be kind of you to share, but you don’t have to and I am not going to force you. There is such a thing as property rights. The toy is your property, and it’s up to you to decide whether to share your property and with whom.

This principle applies not only to toys, but, later in life, to money and to other kinds of property. With your immediate family, you must share unconditionally. With strangers, it’s up to you to decide whether to share, give a gift, or to engage in monetary or proprietary exchange. No one, for whatever reason or cause, has the right to force you or to guilt you into sharing and giving up your money, services, or property for free.”

What many parents and teachers tell children:

“You are supposed to do it like this”

When children play, learn, draw, play music, and do other creative and educational activities, many parents and teachers insist that children follow certain rules and instructions to do it the “correct” way.

What I tell my children:

“You have to observe basic safety rules; you should not damage someone else’s property or present a danger to yourself or others. Other than that, rules are meant to be broken. If everyone followed established rules there would have been no innovations. By all means, go ahead and improvise. You should be a leader, not a follower, and true leaders always find their own unique paths and invent their own ways of doing things.”

What many parents tell their children:

“This is for older/younger kids”

Adults like to segregate children by age. Classes, playdates, activities, playgrounds, toys, books – many exciting things are marked by some arbitrary “age appropriate” classifications and thus become off-limits to those children who want to participate but who are not of the “right” age. Yes, inappropriate content should be filtered out, but other than that, I see no reasons to limit access.

What I tell my children:

“I am happy when you play with kids of different ages or when you mingle with adults and participate in their conversation. Playing with babies can teach you to be kind and caring. Playing with older kids, if they are well-mannered, can teach you useful new skills. Conversing with adults can improve your speech and intellect. You don’t have to stick with simplified and dumbed-down “age-appropriate” books and movies; instead, you are welcome to read books for older kids and adults and to watch complex and deep movies. If you feel you can handle that big kids’ class or a Lego set or a bike – by all means, go ahead and try! Nobody should dictate what you can and cannot do based on your age. Don’t let your age define your social circle and don’t let it restrict your ambitions to try new things and to learn new skills.”

What many parents tell their children:

“Good job!”

Many adults are convinced that praise is essential for the child’s self-esteem. That may be true, but the problem is, parents often overdo it.

What I tell my children:

“I will praise you occasionally in case you do something exceptional, but don’t wait for my nod of approval. Do things not for a praise or a reward, but for your own satisfaction. If you achieve some useful or interesting results, reward will eventually come. However, with anything you do, don’t make reward and recognition your one and only motive.”

What many parents tell their children:

“Friends are whoever you play with”

Most people define friendship too broadly. Children and adults tend to call anyone a friend, be it playmates, classmates, coworkers, drinking buddies, or Facebook contacts.

What I tell my children:

“There is a difference between true friends and mere acquaintances. Acquaintances may be numerous, but true friends are few and rare. A friend is someone with whom you share basic principles, values, and common interests. A friend should be genuinely interested in you, and the interest should be mutual. A friend should be willing to discuss deep things with you, not just to have a small talk. You need to develop some life experience to determine who is your true friend.

For now, while you are young and inexperienced, it’s easier for you to understand who is NOT your friend. Someone who plays with you only when they are alone and bored and who abandons you as soon as they have other buddies to play with – someone like that is not your friend. Someone who is trying to be friends with you just to take advantage of you and to get access to your toys – this person is also not your friend. Someone who invites you to their birthday party while they don’t care to see you at other times – that person is inviting you for only one reason: to have a bigger crowd at their party. Someone like that doesn’t care for you and is not your friend either.

You can certainly play with all those people, but don’t count on their friendship.”

What many books and movies tell children:

“Family is not cool”

Most children’s stories and movies I read and watched, starting with good old fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and ending with newest Disney movies, have one striking similarity in common: the characters either come from broken families or, even if their families are intact, the fun begins only when they leave their home and venture out on their own (or with some friends) to experience amazing things and to become heroes. Parents and siblings are usually absent from their fun adventures and from their success stories. Family and home are, at best, just a nest to return to at the end of a fascinating adventure. Most commonly though, home is a boring place and family is an obstacle to success and achievement.

One of the most hideous portrayals of family I’ve seen is presented in the “Brave” movie from Disney, where the main character Merida turns her own mother (albeit by accident) into a bear as a punishment for being, plainly speaking, too annoying. Again, the problem is not just with Disney movies. Many classical stories and fairy tales share similar plots where the family plays an insignificant or even a negative role, if any at all.

What I tell my children:

“Your parents and your siblings are your best friends who will always be there for you, even if your other friends abandon you. You can explore, discover, and enjoy exciting experiences and adventures together with your parents or siblings, who will always stay by your side and who will help you achieve an even greater success than you would achieve on your own. If you need help, support, encouragement, or if you simply want someone to share a fun experience with, look into your own family first.”

What many parents tell their children:

“Fundraise/volunteer to help someone in need”

Many parents encourage children and teenagers to fundraise or volunteer. I sometimes see young children who, with the proud parents by their side, sell cookies or lemonade to raise money for donations; I know other parents who encourage their teenagers to spend extracurricular time volunteering for social causes. Fundraising or volunteering are considered the only way in which young people can help the world (in addition to scoring on their college application).

What I tell my children:

“There is nothing praiseworthy about donating the money that was earned by someone else, not you. There is nothing noble about soliciting other people’s money, even for a good cause, if you yourself don’t know how to work and how to make your own money. First and foremost, you should learn to produce something and to earn an income.

While you are young, you should better spend your ample time and energy trying to set yourself up for entrepreneurial success. Experiment with starting a business and with monetizing ideas. While your parents provide for your needs and you don’t yet need to worry about supporting yourself, don’t just spend or donate your earnings, but reinvest them back into your venture to grow and expand your business.

Once you have an established business and can enjoy some spare time, you may volunteer for a social cause if you are so inclined. Once you are capable of earning your own income and sustaining yourself financially, then you can donate some of your money if you wish. If you grow a significant amount of capital, you can even start a charitable foundation, which will yield a far greater amount of donations than other kids can ever raise with their cookie and lemonade stands.

But keep in mind that the ultimate charity is not giving away money to people. The most sustainable kind of charity is giving people jobs. If you have a successful business, you can hire employees or vendors who will provide you with time-saving services, thereby improving not just your life, but theirs too.

Ultimately, entrepreneurship by itself helps the world. You can make people’s lives better and easier by improving or inventing a useful product or service which will be cheaper, better, and more accessible. The world, including its poorest populations, is a much better place today than it was even a hundred years ago, thanks to the free market and to entrepreneurs who constantly work to improve our lives by innovating and producing, by creating new ideas and products.“

What many parents tell their children:

“Respect authority”

Variations of this rule include: “listen to your teacher” or “do what the doctor says”, “trust the experts”, and so on. We are conditioned to follow the authority and we teach our children to do the same.

What I tell my children:

“You don’t have to respect someone just because they hold an official rank or a position of authority. You must be polite to everybody, but you should only respect those people who deserve respect due to their personal merits and achievements.

Having a diploma or a degree does not make one an expert. It takes much more to be an expert: professional and life experience, curiosity, well-roundedness, professional achievements, common sense. Not everybody can become a professional expert, but anybody can educate oneself enough to understand the subject matter and make informed decisions. Self-education has become a lot easier with the rise of the internet where you can get access to plenty of online resources: libraries, college courses, studies, expert forums and blogs, and yes, even forums where common people share their knowledge and experiences can be very useful. No teacher, doctor, scientist, doctor, or any other expert has the right to talk down to you and tell you that you are not smart enough to be able to educate yourself and to challenge their opinions. Think critically, do your own research and always question the authority, especially if the issue is controversial or if your common sense tells you that the official position is wrong. Before you decide to trust an expert opinion or an authoritative decision, always examine the motives and the agenda of the people behind it.”

*Related article: Trust the Experts or the Internet?

What many parents, teachers, and coaches tell children:

“Everybody wins”

Sometimes coaches or teachers give all children stickers and little prizes just so that no one is upset. Everyone is praised equally regardless of their outcomes. Parents often do the same within the family, especially with grown children, by trying to downplay the achievements of one child while shoving under the carpet the failures of another child. Perhaps, it’s done out of false belief that it will create a peaceful balance within the family where everybody feels good and happy.

What I tell my children:

“Praise is proportional to your behavior or to your outcomes. There are people who work harder, who are more responsible, and who strive to make the right decisions, and those people deserve more respect and recognition. Then there are people who are lazier and who don’t make responsible decisions, and those people should not be rewarded and praised the same way the harder-working people are.

Yes, anyone can fail and make mistakes. It’s understandable and we should not judge harshly as long as one tries to correct their mistakes and resolves to be better next time. We should help those who are struggling as long as they are committed to helping themselves. However, dispensing rewards and praises equally does more harm than good. If everyone gets praised and rewarded equally, then the lazy and irresponsible people will not have the incentive to work harder and to improve themselves, while the harder-working and more responsible people will give up their efforts to improve.”

What many parents tell their children:

“It’s the intentions that matter”

If a child does something wrong, parents count the child’s supposedly good intentions as an excuse for the child’s misdeed. It may be fine with very small children, but older children should know better.

What I tell my children:

“What matters is the result. Even if you didn’t intend to hurt someone but it turns out that your actions did, you are responsible. Later in life, you will learn how important it is to take responsibility for your actual outcome. Some doctors, scientists, politicians make grave mistakes that break many people’s lives, and then they try to excuse themselves by claiming that they had “good intentions.” Don’t be like those people.“

What many parents tell their children:

“Don’t judge”

Children are conditioned to believe that there is no clearly defined moral truth, that there are no moral lessons and rules, no right and wrong, only opinions and feelings. If parents refrain from talking to their children about other people who did right or wrong, how are children expected to learn moral lessons and form their own values?

What I tell my children:

“There are moral standards that come from our Jewish faith and from the Western tradition. These standards have been around for many centuries, and they are the cornerstone of the human morality. There are also Libertarian values upon which our country was founded. You should develop your own set of principles based on these standards and values, and stick to your principles no matter what others tell you and no matter what they think of you.

Don’t let anyone manipulate you into believing that your moral standards are nothing more than your subjective opinion. There is a difference between an opinion that’s subjective and a moral principle that’s based on the objective truth. Some people to things that are immoral or wrong, and it’s okay for you to judge. You don’t have to shame anyone publicly, but you can at least make a mental note to yourself. Judging someone’s behavior and mistakes is useful not because you are hoping to change the person, but because it helps you achieve your own moral clarity, avoid making these mistakes yourself, and teach your own children by showing them a negative example.”