It was an amazing night. My daughter Quinn was named valedictorian of her high school class. Exactly one year ago, my other daughter, Kelsey, was named valedictorian of her class. Both were in the National Honors Society with 4.6 GPAs and résumés filled with extracurricular activities and community service. They're thoughtful, compassionate, creative and funny. Kelsey (on the right in the picture below) is now at one of the nation's top film schools, and Quinn is headed to another major university to study international social entrepreneurship.
While I am very proud of them, I have never placed a "proud parent" bumper sticker on my car, and I speak about their accomplishments only when asked. That said, I have been asked countless times what we did to raise such amazing young women, but the truth is, I don't really know. If I did, I'd write a book. Instead, I'll write this -- my best attempt at an honest answer.
We all know that bad parenting is a serious epidemic, but sometimes even our best isn't good enough to overcome the forces of modern culture, genetics, surging hormones, bad friends, bad relationships and bad luck. We've been very lucky. Not all parents are as fortunate.
We made their well-being our top priority but didn't build our lives around them. We continued to pursue our dreams while nurturing theirs. We respected them as individuals and demanded that they do the same.
While we played with them like children, we spoke to them as adults. We ate dinner together every night and engaged them in conversation almost before they could fully form sentences. We celebrated their ideas, respected their opinions and suggested alternative thoughts. They learned to think independently and to enjoy the mental sparring of a lively discussion. Unlike most children, they never asked to be excused from the table.
There was nothing we enjoyed more than being with the girls, so we took them with us nearly everywhere we went. Even as toddlers, they knew how to behave in every social situation. They knew what it meant to respect others and respect occasions.
While we never hit or spanked the girls, we had no problem letting them know very clearly that they were misbehaving and that it had to stop -- right now. I've always thought that a parent should be able to control a young child with little more than a look. From the very beginning, they understood that throwing fits never got them what they wanted. Never. Whining was never rewarded. Bedtime was non-negotiable -- determined by the hands on the clock, not the mood of the child.
Somehow my wife taught them that studying was not a chore, a threat or an obligation. It was an opportunity and a responsibility they eagerly embraced and actually seemed to enjoy. We never forced them to study. In fact, we regularly suggested that they slow down, take a break, chill out. In 12 years of school, neither girl ever got anything less than an A, yet we never offered rewards for good report cards or threats for bad ones. We did make certain that they understood how amazing their accomplishment was, how proud we were of them and how we would love them just as much if they got all Cs.
So what did we do? We taught them to think. We taught them about actions and consequences. We instilled in them the value of every human being and helped them appreciate the blessing and the responsibility of being born in a land of opportunity. We put them in good schools and helped them learn the difference between good friends and bad. Somewhere along the way they became self-motivated.
The only thing I know for certain is that love has been behind every decision we've made for the past 18 years. I was reminded of that recently while leaving swimming practice early one morning. As I climbed into my car, I paused to admire the shiny black Mercedes parked on one side and the long white Lexus parked on the other. I was rolling in the Nissan minivan from work. As I glanced at the Mercedes, I instinctively thought, "Some day." I've been saying that to myself for 18 years. But this time I realized that I no longer meant it. I no longer wanted it.
As I drove home, I reflected on the choices we made from the moment we were blessed with two beautiful daughters -- choices that made the ownership of a shiny black Mercedes impossible. My wife becoming a stay-at-home mom cut our income nearly in half, and what little discretionary income was available went to good schools, laptop computers, movie cameras, dance and guitar lessons. Their mission trips replaced our vacations. Yes, they were spoiled, but mostly in the things that money can't buy, because money was always tight. When it came to the kind of things we all dream about but don't really need, my wife and I would happily say to ourselves, "Some day."
As I pulled into the garage I was overwhelmed, not by how much we have sacrificed but by how much we have received in return. When I opened the door and saw Quinn sitting at the counter eating breakfast, I asked, "Do you have any idea how much I love you?" She smiled and answered, "I think so."
The next morning when I got up there was a hand-lettered sign on the counter that read, "Dad, do you have any idea how much I love you?!" That sign is now on the wall in my office. In a very real way, to receive it I traded a Mercedes, a bigger house, Hawaiian vacations and other things we didn't really need. It's the best deal I ever made.
I've seen what a young person can do to make the world a better place. Along with my wife, great teachers and a power greater than us all, I've helped raise two of them. Both brighten every room they enter. Both make those around them better. Their kindness and compassion are only exceeded by their humility.
So what's the secret? I know only this. It begins and it ends with love. All the stuff in the middle is a never-ending act of faith and improvisation -- and occasionally saying, "Some day."
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