“Who is the most important person in the world?”
It’s a question I ask my kids on a near daily basis and not for the reason you’d expect. I ask it because I need them to understand who they are and what they need out of life. Because when you know you, it makes it a whole lot easier to reach out and make a difference to the world around you.
Insidious, I know.
It’s an important starting point – know that you’re the most important person in the world. Then do everything you can to understand others. I chose the word “understand” very carefully. I’m not simply asking my children to “accept” others, but to go the next step. Don’t “accept” someone who thinks or learns differently from you – understand who they are. Understand how they see the world. Understand why they’re important and what is important to them.
Shorthand specialists might call this “empathy,” but I want my kids to go further than empathizing – I want them to be active in looking at and understanding the world around them. This one ability makes them better listeners, challenges them to ask better questions and to drive the sorts of wonderful conversations that make everybody’s lives better.
“Yes, yes – good luck with that Jason,” you’re saying. My kids are busy punching each other in the backseat of the minivan and you want them to understand each other?”
I actually do. We all have our moments as kids, but the ability to understand is important. My biggest questions is how I get them to do that.
I’m early in understanding how I coach this – mainly because I’m focused on some of the other “rules for a great life.” At no point in the average day will I touch all 10. Instead, I look for the opportunity to have the conversation about understanding others. When my 13-year-old says she “hates” every second thing, I challenge her to think about others. When the 12-year-old boy doesn’t seem to care that he hasn’t showered in five days, I ask him to understand what others need and expect out of him. When the two-year-old throws stuff all over her room, I show tell her how I feel (I know she’s not at the right stage yet, I’m just creating a pattern for her).
I’m trying out two different ways to help the kids to understand others. The first is my parenting go to – model it. If you understand others, they understand others. This one isn’t rocket science – we all know that parental modeling is like air for kids. I make a conscious and dedicated effort to let my kids see me interact with friends, business colleagues and strangers. They see how I listen. They watch my body language. And they emulate.
The other thing I’m trying to do more of? Asking questions instead of giving answers. I’m famous for asking the kids questions about their days and lives. I ask better questions than “how was your test” on a math test day. Instead, I’ll ask “how did you feel when you read the first question?” This gives me a better understanding of the way they process the world around them. When it comes to understanding others, I draw them out with my questions (“what’s your new friend’s name? What kinds of things do they like?”) and get them to do the same. One of the best victories I’ve had here is to see more than one of my kids say hello to someone, ask their name and ask what kinds of things they like – the first steps to understanding others.
When you give your kids that ability, you give them the ability to vet friends, fall in love better, help where it’s needed, debate effectively and be better citizens of the world.