Parents share a universal hope that their children will live happily ever after, with minimal worries and the ability to be successful as adults. Every parent tries to give their child a strong moral foundation, as well as the necessary life skills to thrive and be independent.
Unfortunately, raising a child is akin to painting a picture stroke by stroke, in strange combinations of colors and hues, without knowing how the final image will appear when complete. We have our children for only a brief moment, and can only hope that our gifts to them will be sufficient to sustain, protect, and comfort them when we are gone.
Gifts for All Children
The best gifts for children are intangible, though substantial; they cost nothing in material terms, but have a value greater than any treasure. There are several things every child should receive:
Being loved unconditionally gives a child a sense of self and value that doesn’t depend upon physical looks or abilities, inherited or acquired skills, or accomplishments of any sort. Being loved as a child teaches one how to love as an adult, how to be kind and compassionate, empathetic and sympathetic. While Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence,” loving and being loved is the foundation of happiness.
Children need a belief in themselves to face the fears of living, to be able to commit when necessary, and to exercise restraint when appropriate. Confidence results from doing, from experimentation and accomplishment; it is the foundation of courage and self-esteem. Parents teach a child confidence by allowing for failure and encouraging him or her to try again and again. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, “Parents must teach their kids to do that which they think they cannot.”
Some say the ability to dream – to see things not as they are, but as what they can be – is the greatest gift of all. Imagination is the leaven in life, the ingredient that animates the spirit and soothes the soul. Imagination encourages resourcefulness, spurs creativity, and breaks down boundaries. Encourage your child to imagine, and he or she will explore the universe and travel through time.
Beverly Sills, America’s most famous opera star, began her career in 1947 in a minor role of “Carmen” at the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company. Despite her critical acclaim in opera houses around the world, she did not appear at opera’s most prestigious site, New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, until 1975 due to the Met director’s predilection for Italian singers. Following her debut, she received an 18-minute standing ovation.
Having resolve and continuing to pursue a goal through disappointments, setbacks, and failure is found in the character of all successful people. As Ms. Sills said of her career, “There are no short cuts to any place worth going.”
Sorrows, illness, career setbacks, and financial hardships afflict everyone. Psychologists believe that an individual’s ability to cope with stress and adversity is learned during childhood and is the product of environmental “protective factors.” By providing love and support, parents promote a child’s ability to bounce back from adversity, skills that continue to develop over his or her lifetime.
The ability to postpone immediate pleasure in the pursuit of a longer-term goal is evidence of discipline. Physical and mental gifts without discipline are momentary, squandered and left to fade away; discipline, however, embeds them in the character and actions of their owner.
The hours of practice and the moments of failure and improvement are often forgotten when we see the final result – Tiger Woods at the top of his game, Van Cliburn at a piano, or Jonas Salk announcing his vaccine for polio. Discipline makes goals obtainable and dreams come true.
It seems that humans are hardwired to expect the future to be better than the past, to find silver linings in the darkest clouds. Experiments have shown that children who receive encouragement and positive feedback are more likely to succeed in tasks and adapt to difficult circumstances better and more readily than children who receive negative feedback or no encouragement. Research has also found that optimists live longer and healthier lives than those who are pessimistic.
There are no perfect parents, and no guaranteed philosophies nor proven theories of good parenting. Every parent learns on-the-job, relying on his or her own memories as children and observations of other families. All parents do the best job they can, and hope that they’ve done enough to provide their children with the tools for a happy and successful life.
What other gifts should we give our children?