What is the biggest mistake parents make when raising their kids?

When I watch well-meaning, well-intentioned, conscientious parents trying to raise their kids, there is one mistake I see them making over and over again, and that is, aiming their kids at a successful future. They want them to grow up to be a success. 

The problem with this has to do with how we quantify success. You see, we quantify success in material ways: wealth, beauty, power, and fame. We want our kids to make a lot of money, to have real handsome kids and turn heads. We want them to be somebody who can push their weight around and be well-known. 

There’s nothing wrong with these things, until they become embedded in our hearts as the things we most need to feel complete, because these are empty suits. They do not satisfy. They have a hunger that you can never quench. You have got to give them more than that. 

And that’s why I think the parents who figure this out, they step back and say, “You know, there is something far bigger in life than success—far more important,” and that’s what I like to call true greatness. You raise your kids to live for others, that you want kids to be others-oriented. 

Listen, my wife had a theory on when you should start teaching your kids this, and that was the second they start to breathe. That was the way it was in our home. She wanted our kids to be others-oriented from the beginning—always serving outwards. 

I grew up in a home like this. I grew up in Pennsylvania in my younger years, and Maryland in my teenage years, and we would get some big blizzards in. The night before, when I knew that the wind was howling and the snow was coming, I’d go to bed all excited, because when I would get up in the morning, I’d look out at that drifting snow and I knew two things: one, they’re going to cancel school; and two, I’m going to have a lot of money in my pocket by the end of the day, shoveling walks and driveways. 

My brother Tom and I would get our shovels and get a big breakfast, and we were going to go out to work, but my mother always handed us a little list of names with four or five names on it. It was always the same: “Now, go dig these people out, you cannot take a penny from them, and once you have got their sidewalks cleared and driveway, then you can go to the paying customers.” 

And these were elderly people, shut-ins, people on a pension. And that’s just the way it was. You didn’t question it, you just dig them out, and then you move on. 

When our kids, we would come to pick them up like in the nursery at church on Sunday morning, my wife would not let them leave there until they helped to put all the toys away, even if they didn’t play with them, hugged the teacher, and thanked them for the lesson, and then they could go. 

You’re at McDonald’s or a fast food place, and you’re eating, and when you’re done, you had to clean things up, and if somebody left a mess at the next table, you’d clean it up. 

I’d say, “But there’s a guy with a sponge . . .” 

“Forget it. Just clean it up.” 

It’s others-oriented. And when you raise kids for true greatness, you set them up for an adult life that is contagious. Everybody wants them to be part of their life. 

Now, when I say “true greatness,” there’s something that I have in my mind that helps quantify that, and that’s four qualities that you embed deep down in your heart, and that is humility, gratefulness, generosity, and a servant’s heart. 

You want to raise kids who are not about themselves. They are humble. They care about others more than they care about themselves. And they are grateful for what they have. They aren’t whining, they are not always wanting more. They are grateful, they are generous. They hold what they have in open hands, and then when it comes to their abilities, it’s always to help make other peoples’ lives better. You serve others. 

And you don’t have to wait until they are teenagers. You start now, and what’s great is there are all kinds of ways they can do it right there inside the home.