My children are too young to have nuanced conversations about philosophies of life. Yet, I often think about the type of advice we should be giving them on how to live a meaningful life. While they may not recognize advice for what it is, at this point, I am mindful that we are already modeling the values and behaviours we believe most important. The result of my thinking on this is a simple and foundational list of recommendations:
Be kind. Be curious. Be useful. And create.
I see this as both a starting and ending point. Before starting anything, if you commit to being kind, curious, and useful, you will stand to make the most of it. When you’ve come to the end of a project or phase of life, no matter the outcome, and you can honestly say that you were kind, curious, useful, and that you created something, then you have succeeded.
Kindness is giving others the benefit of the doubt, listening to their stories, or stepping in when help is needed. We are dependent on so many people for so many things, but often take this for granted. Everyone has a story when the kindness of a loved one, neighbour, or stranger helped them in a time of need. No reciprocation expected. We are at our best when we have mutual respect for one another. We shed the weight of suspicion, hate, unnecessary competition. When we are kind, we allow others to flourish. We grow along with them. It starts early with our children. They see how we treat others. We must show them and tell them what it means to be kind.
One of the great joys of being human is our ability to learn. Children embody this for us. They have an incredible sense of wonder. A deep desire to explore everything. My four-year-old asks questions that I don’t know how to answer. “Why do we dream?” “Where does the wind come from?” What an amazing opportunity to learn together. This never has to stop. But it does. Something happens in adulthood. We become entrapped by the lives we have created for ourselves, with rigid schedules and rules. There’s no time to explore. But we must. Our children need to see the same joy in us, when we learn something new, that they experience themselves. Education, innovation, and progress depend on our insatiable curiosity.
To live in a vibrant and productive society we need people to put skills into action. Look around you. Everywhere you go there is evidence of peoples’ work. Children need to have this pointed out. How was our house built? Who put these roads here? How does that airplane fly in the sky? The answer, in each case, involves people coming together to do useful things for our mutual benefit. At some point, our children will have to decide where to focus their efforts. This will depend on their natural and learned abilities over time. We must help them know that there are more ways to contribute than one can think of. But above all, whatever you do, be sure that it’s useful. When we do something useful, we know that our work is valued and that we have given back to the society on which we depend.
Note that I have not said “Be creative.” I believe when people think of creativity as something that you are, rather than what you do, their view quickly narrows to the arts. While the arts are a beautiful manifestation of what people can produce, we can also create in other ways. Create friendship and community. Create love. Create joy. Create suspense. Create a new perspective. Create a car out of Lego. The possibilities are truly endless. The only limit is imagination, and our children should be encouraged to use theirs’ extensively. The peak of human achievement is when we have created something, together, that generations before would never have thought was possible. This is the power of humanity and a pillar of our sense of meaning and fulfillment.
These recommendations work together. Being kind forges strong relationships and opens doors before you. Curiosity brings you to the brink of what has not yet been created. Being useful develops your skills to contribute to the progress of society. Creating something for others brings us together and moves us forward.
If you’re looking for advice to give your children on how to be, I hope you find these simple recommendations of use. Discuss it with them. Model it for them. Grow together.