Five examples parents can set for teens

One of my college planning themes is that parents are always on stage. Your kids are learning from your behaviors even if you aren’t intending for those behaviors to be teaching moments. And beyond the obvious ones like “Don’t lie, cheat or steal” and “Be nice to people,” there are plenty of opportunities for parents to use their own interests, lives, and challenges as opportunities to set good examples for their kids. Here are five that will teach them skills that can help them get into college–and also be successful once they get there.

1. Share your own goals.
You probably have goals of your own. Maybe you’re vying for a promotion at work. Maybe you want to initiate a new project with the PTA. Maybe you just want to spend more time with your family. But whatever your goals, share them with your kids. Talk about what you’re reaching for and why it matters to you. Include the details about what’s difficult, intimidating, or just plain unknown. Setting and striving for goals are skills that kids can learn. And showing them how will be a lot more powerful than telling them will be.

2. Let them see and hear your passion.
What is it that you love to do? Practice law? Cook? Play golf? Whether it’s your profession, an obligation that you embrace, or even just a hobby, today’s kids need to be reminded just how much value there is in finding and doing what you love. So share your enthusiasm. Even better, invite them to experience it, too. They may shun you and feign teenage embarrassment. But even if they roll their eyes at how much Mom or Dad loves to go to work at the restaurant every day, or do home improvement projects, or watch their alma mater’s football games, you’re still showing them just how much joy can be found when you do what you love, part-time or full-time.

3. Show your love of learning.
Learning begins at home, and so does the love of learning. What have you spent time, energy, or even money to learn? Even better, where did you invest those resources willingly, not because you were obligated to do so? That’s the learning sweet spot, and it sets a great example for your kids. A former Collegewise student wrote his essay about how much his dad loved to read about business, how he’d sit in his easy chair with a highlighter and pore over a different book every weekend. This student didn’t have a personal interest in business, but the example his dad had set resonated with him. Many of today’s students are so focused on achieving high GPAs that they’ve lost (or never had) any joy around learning. Demonstrate at home that the opportunities to learn, and to fall in intellectual love with a topic, are everywhere. The attitude will leave a lasting impression even if the love-worthy topic hasn’t presented itself yet.

4. Don’t hide your failures.
Parents aren’t perfect. Sometimes we go for promotions that we don’t get. Sometimes we don’t handle a difficult situation as well as we should have. Sometimes we paint the bathroom and don’t realize until it’s over that we’re not as proficient with color choice as we thought we were. I’m not suggesting that you should create and celebrate a family culture of continuous failure. But kids need to learn that part of being successful means trying difficult things that might not work. If your kids see you not just fail, but also bounce back and keep going, that’s a wonderful example to set for them.

5. Focus on the right things.
When you’re elderly and you look back on your life, do you imagine that you’ll think, “I’m so glad I obsessed about my son’s SAT scores as much as I did,” or, “She’d be nowhere today if she hadn’t gotten accepted to Duke,” or, “My proudest accomplishment as a parent was the day I won the grading war with her high school Spanish teacher”? Those might seem like ridiculous scenarios to propose. But one way to evaluate your behavior today is to imagine how you’ll look back on that behavior many tomorrows from now. Your kids’ education is important. But GPAs, test scores, and admissions decisions from a particular college? None of those things are more important than family, health, and happiness. So yes, treat your kids’ college future with the attention it deserves. Combine high expectations with unconditional love. But don’t forget to appreciate the things that really matter in the long run. If you keep setting good examples, your kids will appreciate those things, too.