With our children, we don't have much choice about our role - we support. It's their show. They wow the crowds, pose for pictures, and win all the awards. And if we're the parents they need us to be, we're comfortable with that. The big question comes when we look at the story of our own lives. The one where we do get to choose our part. It's a role that's eventually defined by the answer to one question: do I want to devote my life to becoming the star of my own show, or making sure someone else stars in theirs.
I've admitted before, a fair amount of my life has been spent fighting like Bruce Willis in Diehard to have my star shine brightest, to have the story of my life heard as the fairest of them all. As I've grown older and wiser, though, I've begun to narrow the value of my life to how much of that wisdom I can pour into our boys - and others. I've lost all desire to walk on red carpets and hoist awards over my head for all of the crowd to see and applaud. Today, I measure the value of my life in thank yous. Those I give. Those I receive.
Immediately after our first child, our son Elliott, was born, I was overwhelmed with gratitude and dove head first into a thank you bender. I wrote thank you notes to family, friends, old teachers and coaches, a few pets, and a couple of strangers. It changed my life to recognize what they'd contributed to who I was today. Personally acknowledging them with cards, letters, phone calls, emails, and any other way I could think of, cemented that change in me forever.
That's what a thank you does. It preserves what can often be overlooked as a meaningless act of kindness or sacrifice as a lifetime treasure. Thank you says out loud that whatever we could ever dream to make of ourselves is small compared to what we've become with the help of others. It promotes the ideal that although we have the choice to be self-centered, the world spins through the days with a lot less friction when we not only accept our neighbor's star might shine brighter, but we encourage it to.
Too often saying thank you is seen as a good manner. Certainly it is. But when a thank you comes from a place that recognizes just how much someone else has touched our lives, and it is delivered with the intent that someone else feels the full value of their contribution, a thank you becomes more than the right response to a gift or a compliment. It becomes an attitude that will shape a life.
Many years ago a young man I'd mentored called me on the phone. It had been five years since we'd had any contact. The last time I'd seen him I didn't have high hopes for his future. He'd spent most of his adolescence in trouble and there was nothing to suggest he intended to leave trouble behind as he moved into his young adult years. That despite my best efforts to point him in a different direction. I was pretty sure the next time I'd hear anything about this young man I'd be hearing about his prison sentence or his death. Which meant I was pretty sure I'd failed him.
I was shocked when he identified himself on the phone that day. He didn't give me time to ask him if he was dead or in prison. He began rambling about the troubled life he'd lived since we last saw each other. But then came words I didn't expect to hear: thank you. He told me that although it took him awhile, he was prepared to change his life now, and he was confident he could because of the lessons I'd taught him so many years before. He didn't say anything else after that. A simple thank you and then goodbye.
I learned that day the power in saying thank you is rooted in completely understanding what it feels like to hear it. I'd spent years working with young people never knowing if I was making a difference in their lives. Hearing thank you that day told me I had. More important - it told me to keep going.
It's also why I came to believe gratitude and forgiveness are the driving forces in healthy relationships. The ones that move the world forward in love and encouragement, not suck it dry until there's nothing left but bitterness and envy.
So dads, teach your kids to live lives of gratitude. Constantly point out to them exactly what others are contributing to their lives. Whether it's their teachers or coaches or dance instructors, help them see they are becoming the products of what those folks are helping you pour into them. Teach them early to not only recognize, but also acknowledge those folks. Help them say thank you. Not the superficial, meaningless good-mannered one, but the one that comes from the heart. The one that says you've made a difference in my life.
And by all means dad, let them see you doing the same.