As I began crafting this first column of 2018, someone casually suggested that I write about the progress of my previous New Year’s resolutions and the those I’ll be making for the coming year. That sounded like a promising column idea except for the fact that in my nearly five decades on this Earth, I don’t ever recall having made a New Year’s resolution.
It’s not that I take issue with the idea of resolving to do better in one’s life. Rather I never quite understood the importance of January 1 as being the time to do it. That always seemed a bit arbitrary to me. If I decide to commit to losing weight, being a better husband, or putting more money in savings, why should I wait until January 1 to make that change?
Every day life presents us with limitless opportunities for self-improvement. Should I eat that second cookie or show some self-restraint?
Do I let today’s frustrations influence the tone I take with my wife or use kind words instead?
Should I buy that newfangled gadget or add that money to savings?
Literally each day we are offered a series of choices to make. We should take advantage of these opportunities to become a better person even if the date on the calendar happens to be May 28. Collectively, the choices we make signal to the world what we value most in life and ultimately that will define our character.
All this talk of the new year brings to mind the most important resolution my wife and I made together about 20 years ago. It wasn’t a commitment at the start of a new year, but it remains the central resolution that still guides our life as parents today.
Years ago I was attending a conference at the Yale Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy (now known as the Edward Zigler Center at Yale University). A member of the faculty there made a casual suggestion that still resonates with me two decades later. She wondered why parents aren’t more explicit about defining what they want their children to be like as adults.
She wasn’t talking about preparing a child’s life to be a doctor or to master the skill of playing the violin. Instead she was talking about values. She asked me to imagine my then-infant child as a 24-year-old adult.
What did I want that person to be like? What kind of values did I hope would guide their decision making? She posited that if we parents cannot define those core values during our children’s earliest days, how can we possibly expect to nurture those values within them as they learn and grow up.
This Yale professor was touching upon an idea that is central to every resolution, be it one we make on New Year’s Day or in the dog days of summer.
We should all endeavor to live a deliberate life. Rather than trying to predict what the future holds, we should define it for ourselves then work as best we can to realize that new tomorrow. Certainly the universe will present us with twists and turns we cannot anticipate, but unless we first define for ourselves where we’re going, how can we reasonably expect to get there.
Upon my return home from Yale, my wife Cari and I sat down and separately composed a list of values that we wanted our kids to hold most dear when they became adults. We then exchanged our lists and talked through the ideas. Eventually we defined a few key shared values that we hoped would guide our children’s decisions throughout their lives.
The ideas themselves were rather simple. We want our kids to be generous, confident and happy. We turned those values into active statements that we framed and placed throughout our home, many of which still hang to this day. Those prints remind our kids to be generous, to believe in themselves, and that family is everything (which we hold to be central to happiness).
We resolved to make these simple ideas the lens through which our six kids view the world. Our great hope was that when our children are confronted with life’s many questions, their answers would be shaped by these values.
What we didn’t anticipate was how much writing down our resolution caused us to change our own behavior. If these values truly are the most important characteristics we want to nurture in our children, then by definition, everything else is a secondary consideration. As a result, we just don’t get all that worked up over little things so long as they aren’t in conflict with the values we hold most dear.
In practical terms it means we’ve learned to accept that the bedroom of one of our daughters is going to be messier than we’d like because being neat and orderly isn’t on our list of most cherished values. But when our daughter found out that a friend didn’t have a tree this Christmas, she quickly used her allowance to buy one and secretly left it on her friend’s front porch.
We didn’t complain when one of our sons dyed his hair green because appearance isn’t a central value for us. Yet when one of his siblings was experiencing a personal crisis completely unbeknownst to us, our son was the rock upon which his sibling relied.
We’ve tried as parents to focus overwhelmingly on the values we hold most dear so that our children learn those lessons first.
Live deliberately. Spend some time thinking about what is most significant to you, your family and/or your children. Write it down. Then resolve to work toward that goal, whether it’s the new year or the middle of summer. Doing so will help you focus on what is truly important in life.
Although I wouldn’t mind if my daughter picked up her room a bit more often.
Bret Bicoy is president and CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. Contact him at [email protected]