In the 2008 book Outliers, author Malcom Gladwell artfully described the “10,000-hour Rule” as a foundation for mastering skills and achieving success. My oldest son turns nine in March, and his younger brother turns seven in May. I can attest that my wife and I are well beyond the 10,000-hour marker post and have yet to master being a parent.  

Years ago, somewhere between hour one and hour 100, the reality set in: Being a parent is tough. After the baby is born and you transition away from the cooing and coddling stage of bliss, somewhere between a hungry baby and a cold cup of coffee, you realize that sleep, shaving, and sex are no longer part of who you are.

Personal hygiene and wellness aside, you’ve discovered that you could not be happier being a parent. Who would have thought? All those years burning the midnight oil, studying hard and cramming for final exams, or staying out late with friends was basic training for the physical, mental, and emotional strain you would encounter as a new parent.  

Fast forward tens of thousands of hours, many doctors’ appointments, vacations, first days of school, new friends and old friends, sick days and birthdays – and we are still not experts, on anything. I can say with fervor and pride that my wife and I developed Ninja-like reflexes useful for changing diapers as well as capabilities for diffusing epic battles over Legos that would wow diplomats of the State Department.

Take, for example, a recent bedtime story conversation between my youngest son and me. He had come home with a new library book, “Snakes! Snakes! Snakes!” Like many of his peers, my son loves learning about all different kinds of wildlife. (Did you know that there are more than 3,000 species of snakes in the world?) As we read the book, he shared his top three favorite snakes in this specific order: rattlesnake, yellow python, and king snake.

The book talked about predator-prey relationships and expanded upon the diverse diet of snakes, which includes insects, mice, birds, rabbits, eggs, goats, and antelope. When we finished the book, he yawned and said, “Thanks for reading to me, Dad,” in the sweet way only your child can do. He turned over and asked if I would rub his back a little.

“Of course,” I said. “I’m glad you liked the book.” For a moment, all seemed quiet – Operation Night-Night was a go.

For a brief moment, my mind shifted to the kitchen. I thought about having an 8 p.m. snack. Maybe ice cream…popcorn…or some nachos. On the other hand, maybe, I thought, I will have something healthier, like a green tea and relax. Yea, that sounds like a plan. A warm green tea with honey.

“Dad?” my son said, as he turned back toward me, jolting me from my food fantasy.

“Yes, what’s up?”

“Do humans have predators?” Ah, there it was. An awesome and enlightened question from my six- and soon to be seven-year-old.

I did a quick 360-degree mental situational check and thought about my audience, the clock, and the answer I was about to give. The image of my wife’s face came to me, like an apparition, as if to say, “Do not [choose your expletive wisely] this up.”

My thinking brain began to cloud my judgment. I thought about aliens, murderers, terrorists, and other unknown species that may be roaming the Universe. My science mind kicked in. I desperately tried to rationalize something logical, like how humans are at the top of the food chain, mightier than lions, more majestic than eagles. We are a predator’s predator, I thought.

But saying that to my son will not work – he loves animals. This makes humans sound so dreadful. What was the right answer? What was the honest answer? What in the hell should I say? Perhaps my son’s question originated from a place of fear and anxiety. I did not want to feed that beast.

I thought about the uncomfortable and naked truth – that humans are our own worst enemies. Frankly, we cannot get out of our own way. We are predators unto ourselves. The divisiveness, rhetoric, and crass behavior that characterized the recent Presidential election flooded my brain. I felt my own body tense and my anxiety rise.

I froze. I breathed. I looked at my son, patiently waiting for a response.

I said, “Do you love animals?”

My son replied, “I love all animals.”

To lower any potential level of anxiety I chose to say, “There are no predators of humans.” My son looked relieved. “However,” I continued, “humans can sometimes be mean to each other and to animals.”

“I will never hurt an animal or person,” he said.

I smiled and praised him for being so thoughtful and sweet. Then he fell asleep.

I recognize that I could have handled the brief exchange differently. But in the moment, the approach felt right. The exchange sat with me for a couple days. I reflected on the role of a parent in a child’s life.

I believe most people would agree that being a parent is the single most important job anyone can have. The responsibility for fostering peace and kindness, tolerance and acceptance, dignity and respect, curiosity and passion resides with each of us as citizens. It is up to us, each day, to live life with a sense of purpose, mindfulness, and compassion. As parents, we must teach, empower, engage, and lead our children with these values from our homes and our hearts.

We shape and influence our children in many ways. Children learn by watching our behaviors. They trust us. We need to be self-aware and careful with these relationships. Parents are in a position to provide, without judgment or restraint, balanced guidance to those spontaneous questions that come up at bedtime. While we may not provide the best answers every time, we can show our children that we are listening, that we care, and that we support them.

Humanity is unhinged, or at least feels so. Whether directly or indirectly, our children are experiencing the political discourse, outright distortion of information, and blatant disregard for human dignity. In this environment, we need to double down on our role as accountable citizens.

Most of all, we need to nurture the next generation to be better than we are. Creating a more peaceful, sustainable, and just society begins, and ends, at home.