Several years ago, my wife and I took our kids to the beach on a beautiful Florida afternoon. We decided it might be nice to take a walk as a family, so we gathered all three kids and started a leisurely stroll together. My wife and I walked side by side as we spoke with our oldest son while our two younger children followed close behind picking up shells and running around like little wild banshees. At one point, I turned around to make sure the littles were still with us and I was surprised to see the funniest scene playing out directly behind me. My eight-year-old son was expending tremendous amounts of energy to step directly into my footprints in the sand about 6 feet behind me. He was managing to keep up and was clearly proud to be following my lead even though the stride was requiring lots of concentration and effort. I looked further back to see my little girl, who was tiny even for a 6-year-old, struggling to walk in my footsteps as well. There was no way that she could walk normally and get anywhere near the next step, so she would jump as far as she could and attempt to land right in my footsteps. Sometimes she didn’t even get close, but man she was determined to walk right where Dad had walked. At first, I thought it was just downright hilarious, but then the profound nature of what I was witnessing hit me like a ton of bricks. My little babies were enamored with the idea of following in my footsteps. The idea that they would work so hard to model my behavior was a metaphor for what they would do for the next several years or even decades of their lives. The steps I took in life, the decisions I made, the character I demonstrated would be incredibly important to the development of all three of my kids. They would work hard to follow my example and I had the power to lead them towards health and wellness and hope and peace. Or I could model toxic behaviors like selfishness and arrogance. As they watched me and the way I lived my life, I would teach them to be either passionate or passive. Kind or cruel. It was simultaneously a humbling and terrifying realization, but it became clear to me that day at the beach that my children would follow in my footsteps.
My experience on the beach is relevant for all of us as we draw near to the end of 2020. It would be an understatement to say that this year has been a challenge. COVID-19 has changed the world forever and has created tremendous disruption, fear, and anxiety for many people. Racial tensions, and the resulting riots in many cities across the country, have spurred a division that we have not seen in many, many years. Politically, it’s been a mess no matter which side of the aisle you sit on. My question for all of us at this point is simple: are you proud of the behavior that you have modeled in response to all the stress of this year? Collectively, are we proud of what our reactions say about who we have become as a nation? As you answer those questions, remember the little ones are watching you. Have you demonstrated good character, self-control, thoughtfulness, consistency, and empathy to your children, your grandchildren, the younger people you mentor at work, or the generation below you? I’m sure some of you have. But as a group, we are a giant failure. The adults of this country have acted like children and we have not modeled how to respond to difficult events or even difficult people with grace and mercy. Just walk on a college campus and see how students respond to those with divergent views and you will quickly see that we are modeling anger and reactivity as an acceptable response to adversity. We can do better. We have to do better. Role models help younger generations envision who they might be in the future. They inspire young people to be the best version of themselves that they can possibly be. Whether you’re a 25-year-old or 75-year-old, how you react going forward matters, because you’re instructing people through your behavior about who they should become. Moving forward, let’s make the decision together to draw a line in the sand and to do our part to model healthy behaviors to those that are younger than us. Here are some principles that might help us all as we make the healthy changes.
1. Trust in your ability to overcome obstacles
We are not victims. We are fully capable to respond to the injustices and obstacles of our life with a firm trust in our ability to think through problems and find solutions that work. I know this is difficult in times that seem very uncertain, but we cannot approach the challenges of 2020 with an unhealthy belief that we are entitled to live a life without obstacles. Unfortunately, that’s not how real life works. Just ask 2020. Our kids need to know that no matter what adversity we face, success is possible. Younger people admire mentors who show them that success is possible in the face of adversity. In fact, Role models play an important part in inspiring younger people to learn how to respond to challenging situations, overcome obstacles, and understand that positive values can be lived each day. If we’re going be the kind of leaders that speak life to those around us, we have to understand the battle ground is in our mind. Whether it’s a financial struggle or fear regarding some political ideology, we have to start believing in our own ability to overcome and focusing on the healthy thoughts that will encourage healthy behaviors. I know 2020 has been hard but trust yourself and your ability to thrive going forward.
2. Demonstrate clear commitment to values
If we are ever going to model healthy behaviors for those that are walking in our footsteps, we will have to demonstrate a clear commitment to live out our values in consistent ways. We can’t just talk the talk; we have to walk the walk. Translation: we can’t say that we value other people who are different than us and then turn around and respond to others expressing divergent views with sarcasm, anger, or even violence. Younger people will sniff out that inconsistency and brand us hypocrites. Character is about who you are when no one is looking. Don’t just talk about your values, live them out even when no one is watching. That kind of commitment to our moral compass will give us the credibility to speak life into younger people and to inspire them to live in ways that are consistent with their own values.
3. Communicate passion with maturity
If there’s anything 2020 has done for us, it has unlocked passions in us as a people. Scroll down your Facebook or Instagram feed and you will quickly see that people are incredibly passionate about everything from PPE masks to political policies to opinions about race and inequality. This is complicated for us in that we seem to be increasingly polarized as a nation as to how we think about these kinds of issues. If we want to inspire younger people to be hopeful about the future, it is incredibly important that we check ourselves in regard to the manner in which we talk about our passions. It is 100% acceptable, and even healthy, to be passionate about things that really matter. But the time for angry arrogant sarcasm and rebuttal is over. We all have to make the personal decision to take responsibility for how we communicate about our passion regardless of what other people say or do. One of the hallmarks of emotional maturity is the ability to speak the truth in love. It’s important that we stop normalizing anger and emotional dysregulation as an acceptable way of communicating about our passions. Instead, it’s up to us to model maturity to the younger generations. Whether you’re a 22-year-old college student or a 60-year-old CEO, it’s important for us to take personal responsibility for how we treat other people by committing to communicate about our passions in a way that facilitates dialogue and deep respect for other people.