It’s amazing and sobering, how the unfiltered and unbiased voice and action of a child can keep you in check.

On a cold and damp Tuesday morning in early February, six words from my 5-year old son annihilated my very being as they shattered my ego and reminded me of the critical importance that integrity and personal accountability play in each moment of every day.

The coffee dripped, the rain poured, and my mind was flooded with the day’s to-do list. Bring the kids to school by 8:35am, get back in time for a 9:00am teleconference, finish a proposal by 12noon, meet a business colleague at 12:30pm, call in some prescriptions, pay a couple bills, edit an article sitting on my desk for too long, stop at the grocery store, and something else I was forgetting.

I glanced at the coffee pot and was momentarily mesmerized by the blissful image of sipping on a fresh cup after the kids departed for school. Five minutes of organically brewed caffeinated serenity before the first call of the day …that was going to happen. “Daddy, can I have more orange juice?” my youngest boy, a spirited five-year-old, piped up. Snapped back to reality from my mental oasis, I immediately fetched the OJ. His brother put in an additional request for some more breakfast, as I navigated the kitchen with the swiftness of a short-order cook. Keep in mind; precision is essential in the morning.

I was fully immersed in Phase 1 of “Operation: Get the Kids to School on Time.” My head was foggy. I felt the morning fluster as I fielded requests from my boys, and as a flurry of competing demands floated around in my mind.

There are three phases of this operation in case you were wondering:

  • Phase 1 is pleading and feed.
  • Phase 2 is clean and clothed.
  • Phase 3 is the on-time drop (off at school).

Now there are nuanced subtleties to all these phases. For example, in Phase 1, you also have making breakfast and lunches, getting school bags organized, and making sure homework was done.

Maybe more organized people drink their hot coffee as they get their kids ready. Perhaps people with more discipline get up earlier in the morning than I do. Both are logical options, but have yet to pan out for me, or my wife, I might add. We’re morning procrastinators, you know, the kind of people that play cat-and-mouse with the iPhone alarm snooze button until one of us wakes up gasping for air, arms flailing about, trying to temper a potential aneurism or heart attack. The ability to jump out of bed with the ferocity of an awaked Grizzly and make sense of one’s surroundings is a downright talent. It’s taken years of conditioning to get there.

“Eat up boys. After breakfast let’s wash our hands, brush teeth, and get clothes on for school.” I said. I could sense my boys, even at ages 5 and 7, rolling their eyes and saying to themselves “yeah, yeah, OK dad,” as if they had heard my line a thousand times before.

I looked at the two bags of trash near the back door. Then I remembered, it was trash day! And of course, it was raining outside. All mornings, especially school days, are hectic. And for some reason, trash day seems to magnify the frenzy. There are trash days when it is picked up very early, and then those that the pick-up is later in the afternoon. I’ve never been able to figure out the schedule. But instead of playing a game of trash-roulette with what time the waste hauler will arrive, I’ve resided to put out the trash first thing in the morning, before the boys go to school. This is likely a male-based fixation (and limitation) about when the trash gets taken out, but for whatever reason I’ve stuck with it.

As the coffee dripped in unison with the second hand of the clock, my entire existence felt as if it were being mocked. Isn’t it amazing how quickly time seems to pass when pressed for time and sits still when you are anticipating the future? This day was no different, and somehow thirty minutes flashed as if they were thirty seconds. We were now flirting with the fine line between being either right on time or late to school. Right on time would mean the boys had to finish up breakfast quickly and head upstairs where mom would help them complete Phase 2 of “Operation: Get the Kids to School on Time.”

With affirmation, I spoke out, “I will be right back. I’m taking the trash out. Please head upstairs so mommy can get you ready.” Begrudgingly I picked up the bags, opened the door, and let out a selfish wail of frustration, “uhg, arr, trash, bla bla, cold, wet, arrrg, bla bla.” I don’t remember the exact sequence of verbal drivel I had used, but it was the tone had said it all. Kids pick up on tone and temperament as much, if not more, than what the actual words are.

With trash in tow I opened the door, stepped off the back porch and proceeded up the driveway. The trash containers are conveniently located behind the detached garage, some 20, maybe 30 yards away from the house. On a sunny (and relaxed) day, the walk is great. Smell the spring air…hear those birds chirping…feel the warm rays of the sun upon your face…not today. Needles of mixed precipitation shot at and stung my face as if I were being blasted by a water gun. As I marched from sidewalk to driveway, I thought about the next five tasks needing to be accomplished to successfully accomplish “Operation: Get the Kids to School on Time.”

No sooner did my feet hit the driveway when I heard the backdoor swing open. The next sequence of events felt almost mystical, isolated within time. I swung my head and looked over my shoulder. My 5-year old, dressed in his pajamas, stepped onto the porch. He looked out at me and shouted, “C’mon daddy, you’re better than that!” He then retreated inside the house.

At first, I was perplexed, unsure of what my son was trying to say. Then, within a millisecond, it hit me like a ton of trash. I let out a hearty laugh to myself. When real truths are spoken, they can have a profound impact on one’s emotions. In this instance, my release was laughter. The frustration I had felt, fleetingly fighting time, and being caught up in my head instead of the moment, immediately lifted. My son’s words, innocent and honest, hit my heart and jugular like a dagger. My son had reacted to my raw emotion. He was right; I am better than that. Why was I so caught up in my mind? And why did I not see (let alone allow) my negative emotions reveal themselves? After all, I’m the adult, and should have been behaving like one.

I took the trash to the curb and then pulled the car down the driveway. A few minutes later my sons came outside, dressed and ready for school. As they hopped inside, I helped my youngest with his seatbelt. I looked him in the eyes and said, “thank you, you’re right, daddy is better than that, and I’m sorry for acting frustrated.” He looked at me and simply said, “It’s OK, I just want you to be happy.”

Happy. A simple word but one of the deepest emotions and behaviors humans can have. Happiness can be attained, but more often than not it is a deliberate emotional choice we have to make.

Negativity is insidious, and it likes company. That’s why negative emotions are often worn on one’s sleeve, to selfishly draw in an audience, letting them know that you are in pain or frustrated. But the self-centered martyr that seeks attention, only pushes others away, ultimately manifesting a reality marked by undesirable (and unintended) relationships and loneliness. Thus, when the ego thrives on negativity, one’s reality is rewarded in-kind, with a negative reality.

I’m guilty of having had moments in my life where my best self was subdued by a negative ego seeking spectators. I’m ashamed that my son felt the need to shake up and awaken my higher sense of self. I’m also quite embarrassed to share this story openly. But as someone who believes deeply in personal integrity, accountability, and trust, I believe it’s necessary for me to not only learn from my experiences but to open up and share them as well.

Think about your life and where you spend your time, energy, and personal attention. Consider the relationships you have, and who you believe you are as a person versus how others may perceive you. Ask, “do you present yourself, fully, and in your highest sense of self, with the utmost integrity and dignity?” How does that channel to through your character in all that you do? Are you a positive influence and role model for your children, your spouse, and in your community?

I think about my son’s words daily now. I cannot say I’m perfect by any means. I’m trying not to fixate on time or the hurriedness of life. Too much is lost in that futile exercise. And the most important things, such as love, relationships, and life itself are diminished when we allow the critical mind to propagate negative behaviors. Whenever I sense myself sliding down the slippery slope of ego-driven negativity, I think of the back door swinging open, seeing my son’s beautiful face emerge, and hearing his enlightened words, “C’mon daddy, you’re better than that!”

Whether it’s a daily chore or a life-long ambition, always be true to yourself and those around you. Allow your best self to shine through in every waking and the living moment you have.