Our Own Kids Matter the Most to Us, but They Don't Matter the Most

Clicking on parenting advice articles that pop up in my newsfeed always makes me feel a little on edge, because there’s absolutely no way that I can or will be the perfect parent. I will always fall short of implementing ideologies or methods or routines that come highly recommended, so sometimes I wonder why I bother clicking to begin with.

BUT.

Sometimes they reignite a passion for certain aspects of parenthood that make me really excited for the ways I can influence the wellbeing of my children—and is there anything we want more in this world than to help our children be deeply, truly happy?

A few days ago, I read an article titled I raised 2 successful CEOs and a doctor—here’s one of the biggest mistakes I see parents making. You should definitely take a few minutes to read it—it’s not long—but the gist is that raising your children to care more about the world around them than about themselves is the driving force behind instilling purpose, independence, and ultimately, the joy of living.

Nearly three years ago, I wrote THIS post about the best way to find happiness based on THIS New York Times article that had the same theme—the more you serve, the happier you are. Lots of supplementary reading here with interesting stats, folks.

While I’ve always known that “giving back” is a major component—if not the key—to happiness, I hadn’t thought a ton about what that looks like in parenthood until the most recent article I read. Helping my child find a purpose in life that motivates him to wake up each morning happy to take on the day is a massive, overarching ideal that seemed too lofty to grasp in these years of diapers and one-sided food fights.

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This article reminded me, though, that empathy can never start too young. That helping our kids get excited about their own ability to do big, world-changing things can never start too young. Helping them identify opportunities to better the world and lives around them can never start too young. Most importantly, the concept of actually DOING something, taking action— not just talking about these things— can never start too young.

The line that stood out to me most in the parenting article was this: “It’s sad to say, but I’ve noticed more and more kids completely focused on themselves. Where they want to go to college, vacations they want to take, things they want to buy.”

Those things aren’t bad, right? Most of us want our kids to be excited about college. We want them to explore the world and enjoy themselves. But the problem is that American society puts SO much emphasis on personal success and gain that no one’s actually all that happy. And as parents, we often exacerbate this unhappiness in our kids by making them think they’re the most important people in the world because, lovingly, we emphasize that they’re the most important people to us. But those are two different things.

As the article outlines—and we all plainly see around us—we live in a time where depression is an actual epidemic. Yet we also live in a time where we’re more encouraged than EVER to put ourselves first, both by the media and by loved ones. (I’m also a huge believer in getting off technology and encouraging ‘boredom’ outside, but that’s for a different post.)

I like to think I’m a pretty empathetic, driven person who takes tangible action about issues I care about, and for the sake of others when I see a need. I also like to think I’m a pretty happy person. Yes, I have my moments—sometimes some really big, tearful, dramatic moments of “what am I doing with my life”—but overall, I am genuinely grateful for how awesome my life is, and feel a deep sense of purpose in my existence. Since you must know, I believe my purpose is to use my strong ability to communicate in a way that makes other people feel loved and included (be it through my writing, developing friendships, etc.), as well as to be a light for God’s kingdom. I am CERTAINLY not perfect in fulfilling my purpose, but the point is that I am confident my purpose exists.

Anyway, one of the main factors in feeling this level of contentment in my life— stemming from a mix of empathy and purpose, as the article stressed— is because of how I was raised. I genuinely want my kids to be as happy as I am at age 31 (though less emotionally intense would be fine), despite inevitable life struggles that arise. I’ve had some big ones— my parents divorced, my mom died young, my first 3.5 years of marriage were spent 50% apart— but I’m hoping to give my children the same tools my incredible parents gave me to develop genuine happiness and to find their purpose.

The number 1 thing to recognize is that PURPOSE is never about “me.” Purpose is always about other people, and some form of action to accompany the notion.

When I showed interest in Indian culture after watching a documentary in middle school, my mom encouraged me to talk to our pastor about doing a missions trip over there. By the time I was 16, the trip became a reality, and I spent weeks working in AIDS homes and leper colonies in Chennai, India—even getting to return a second time when I was 18.  

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When I expressed interest in elementary school about running for school office, my parents encouraged me every step of the way, teaching me that leadership was about listening to what the other kids wanted and needed to be successful. I never won because I was supremely unpopular, but hey, the lessons were still there.

In sixth grade, I met a boy with severe cerebral palsy. I remember talking to my mom about him, and she helped me process what it must be like for him to go through life nearly immobile. One day in the empty hallway at school, I was on my way to the bathroom and saw him drop two books he was trying to carry. At the same time, two 8th grade boys appeared and started making fun of him. Little 6th grader me marched right up to those older boys, told them they were being jerks, and picked up the books. I remember feeling so enraged—and empowered—in that moment. How could people possibly be that mean to someone else?? That reaction was in large part due to my mother’s lesson in empathy and deep conversation about the struggles of others. 

(Before anyone thinks I’ve forgotten my non-saint-like moments, rest assured that my selfish, insensitive, or downright despicable behavior throughout life still make me cringe— and will probably rear their heads again since I need Jesus— but they’re not the point of this post.)

Serving others and caring about the world around us can come in so many forms. It can be something as obvious as a missions trip to India, or something as small as standing up for someone in need. But what all of those actions have in common during a person’s childhood is that they were fostered by parents or a loving adult. (For mine, I am so grateful.)

It’s funny how God puts things on our hearts and then really hammers them home. Just a day or two after reading this article and discussing it with Aaron at length, brainstorming ways we can help Anders develop empathy and get him involved in service-based activities, our church service skipped the sermon and instead brought up a panel of four members who just finished a missions trip to Africa. The entire panel was about this same theme—serving people around you and finding purpose, emphasizing that this does not have to take place in a third world country. There are opportunities all around us to help the lives of other people and, in turn, be helped, ourselves.

Let this be a reminder as parents to not love our children so much that we accidentally foster selfishness, and ultimately, unhappy adolescents and adults. I never realized just how easy that parenting mistake can be. Our hearts are so invested in what’s best for them that they might start thinking they actually matter more than other people. No—they just matter more to us. They don’t matter more, period.

Distinguishing that line is crucial not only in creating safer, more thoughtful future generations that can cultivate a world much better than the one we live in now, but is also crucial in creating genuinely happy, healthy, successful “doers” we all pray our children grow up to be.

Shannon Leyko