3 Lessons Learned Taking Our Children to Their Mother’s Funeral

One of the most fun parts of being a parent is providing experiences that open the curiosity and imagination of your kids.

We live in such a brilliant time for opening-up our mind for what is possible. Our possibility, in large degree, is based on our context, not on our willpower.

For example, if you had lived 100 years ago, you wouldn’t have the internet or the ability to travel the world like we do today. That would greatly limit your possibilities for choice.

All choice is shaped by context. If you don’t have options, you cannot make choices.

When my wife and I became foster parents of three children from a very limiting environment, we immediately saw how we could expand their horizons.

We wanted to introduce them to all sorts of things.

From a brain perspective, you cannot really learn and internalize something if you aren’t aware of it. Becoming aware of something is essential for memory development. Becoming aware of something, and then engaging deeply in that thing is how you shape your identity and eventually, your personality.

What you focus on expands.

What you focus on shapes how you view yourself, your future, and your past.

It is key that parents not only provide learning experiences for children but also model what successful behavior looks like. Clearly, the parents want their children to chart their own path. But modeling is how people learn.

Also, the parent’s lifestyle and experiences form the internal expectation for what is “normal” or “possible” for the children — at least initially.

So if parents are pursuing their curiosity and imagination — and if they are turning their dreams into external realities, then the children come to expect that this is possible for them as well.

It is completely fascinating. Just two days ago, as a family, we drove up to Clemson, South Carolina, where I did my PhD. That is also where our three adoptive children were born.

Their biological mother died last weekend at the age of 33. Two days ago was her funeral.

We were happy to take our children there, even though the biological family had no expectation that we would be there. And in fact, expected that we wouldn’t be.

True learning occurs when you can see the same thing with new eyes. They call this a Copernican Revolution. For example, when we as a people realized the sun did not revolve around the earth, but vice-versa. That single insight shifted how we saw everything.

We were looking at the same stimulus but with a new frame.

That’s what happened this week for our kids. They went back to their old environment and were with their biological family — but with a whole host of new experiences and education — they had a new lens on the experience.

Fundamental to that lens was empathy and love, not judgment.

If your lens of the world is not updating regularly, then you are not learning enough. Your lens of the world should continually be updating through experience, learning, and relationships.

The more intensive the experience and learning, the greater shifts to the lens. The more you can see the same things from totally different angles.

One of the insights our 11-year-old had when he was informed of his biological mothers’ passing was that, had he still been living with her, he probably wouldn’t be able to read right now.

We were grateful to honor their mother and never intend on banishing that part of their history. It’s important.

But the whole experience further opened our children’s minds to the lives they wanted to live. They were in direct contact with their biological family, most of which were living fairly limiting lives from our perspective.

Questions and curiosity lead to learning.

While driving home, our son began asking amazing questions, such as the following:

  • How did my mom die?
  • What is cancer?
  • How does someone get cancer?
  • Is it something you can avoid?
  • Is my biological father going to die young as well, since he smokes?

The conversation went deeper and deeper than any conversation I’d ever had with him. It was amazing.

I could tell his mind was racing. He was thinking about how his own life could turn out. He began asking questions about life, success, and God.

  • What types of work could I do where I help athletes?
  • How much school would it take?
  • Am I going to see my mom again?
  • What is she going to be like?
  • How can I make sure I don’t die young?

fundamental key to quality parenting, mentorship, and leadership is creating experiences that spark insight and learning —which lead to genuine questions and curiosity.

When questions are genuinely asked, then learning becomes far easier. As a parent, the goal is to provide a context where interested and curious questions are asked. The parent hopefully doesn’t have all of the answers but serves as a further propellant to sources, information, and experiences to further stroke that curiosity, learning, and transformation.

Experiences are fundamental to learning. If you’re shielding yourself or others from having powerful, and sometimes uncomfortable experiences, then you’re shielding yourself and others from growth.

Research shows that people progressively become less open to new experiences as they age. They stop putting themselves into difficult and emotional situations. They stop expanding their horizons.

Instead, they generally begin repeating the same common experiences over and over and therefore stop expanding their worldview.

Having new experiences isn’t enough, though. You need a process of integrating those new experiences into learning and change. For instance, my Aunt Jane, a brilliant entrepreneur was recently at a business conference with some friends.

At the end of the three-day conference, which was filled with far more ideas and takeaways than anyone could fully implement, Jane and her friends spent 60 minutes together after the conference each sharing their top-10 key takeaways. By sharing their ideas, and hearing the insights of each other, their clarity began to crystallize about what they actually needed to do.

They had a plan. They also had accountability, because the three of them have monthly calls to support and push each other.

When you have big experiences, you could do something similar. This is why journaling is such a powerful tool. It allows you to process and integrate your experiences, and begin applying what you’re learning into your life. If you’re not learning through experiences, then you’re repeating the past and not transforming.

Your life can and should transform. You seek experiences and then you integrate your learning to change your life and self. Constantly growing and expanding.

If you’re going to do something, you might as well push it to the absolute limits.

None of us are given the same set of circumstances in this life.

None of us will ever fully realize our potential. Like a painting, none of us will ever be finished. At some point, we will simply end in an interesting place.

Rather than being upset about what happens, it is best to simply use this life to see how far you can go. Rather than attaching to exactly how it all turns out — you simply want to remain open, humble, engaged, excited, and always pushing the boundaries. Always investing further and further into the growth and possibility of what you’re doing.

One of our sons wants to be an aerospace engineer. He loves outer space and rockets. We have been fueling that. Yesterday, we were at the Kennedy Space Center and watched a live rocket launch. It was epic.

The more interested our son becomes — and the more personally invested — the further he can explore.

Human beings are designed to explore.

We’re designed to rise up to challenges.

Most people waste huge amounts of their life because they aren’t actively chasing a challenge that summons their greatest focus and creativity. They aren’t pursuing one or two things for years — and watching the compounding effect of long-term goals.

Dan Sullivan, the founder of Strategic Coach, teaches people how to set 25-year-plans.

When you give yourself 25 years to accomplish something big, you really can think 10X or 100X bigger than the normal person. You’ve given yourself enough runway to actually build something big and meaningful. You then leverage productivity strategies and short-term goals to ensure you’re making powerful progress and continually updating and refining your definition of success and priorities.

You only have one life to live. Richard Branson once said — why not go straight to the top? Why not go big at what you do? Why not be focused?

Why not dedicate yourself to something that will completely transform you through doing it?

Why not see how far you can do something?

Why not continually stroke the fire of your imagination, and then relentlessly chase that imagination?

Never over-identify with what you’ve done. Never get stuck in your past, whether failure or achievement. Take the past for what it is: information. It is information which is constantly adapting and changing based on what you’re currently pursuing and focusing on.

If you’re going to do something — do it great. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Whatever you are, try to be a good one.”

Truly live your life.

Push boundaries — your own, but also your industry’s. Push the boundaries and take on huge challenges.

See how far you can go.

Create experiences that become Copernican Revolutions.

As you have new experiences and grow in maturity, your priorities will continually enhance. What may have been interesting 1–2 years ago will no longer be interesting. What may have been a brilliant opportunity last month is no longer worth your time.

Essentialism.

Focusing on the essential.

Focusing on what absolutely matters to you.

Raising your standards for the type of work you do, the people you spend time with, and how you spend your time.

Taking my three children to the funeral of their biological mother was a humbling experience for me. It forced to me face some of my own values and beliefs. For instance, that week I was supposed to be a headline speaker at an event being put on by a friend of mine.

The event went from Thursday-Saturday. Clearly, I couldn’t be at the event on Thursday, since that was the day of the funeral. Friday wouldn’t work either since I was driving my family of seven (including two 3-month infants) from Clemson back to Orlando, a 12-hour drive when accounting for stops and baby-feedings.

“But I could make it on Saturday,” I thought to myself.

Then three things happened:

FirstI had a conversation with a friend who had experienced a lot of death in his family. He’s about 10 years older than me and one of my best friends and mentors.

He told me I needed to spend this time with my kids. That these next few days and weeks are extremely pivotal for them in how they process this.

SecondI thought of the book, Essentialism, wherein the author Greg McKeown tells the story of going to a work meeting on the day one of his children was born. This is something he is still greatly embarrassed by. 

He realized his life was completely built on the “non-essential” and that he needed to really focus only on those things which truly mattered to him. Only then could he build the life that he felt really mattered. 

He is now much better at saying “no” to anything and everything that misaligns with his highest values and aspirations.

Third, I thought of a story I heard at a Mastermind. I heard the story of a man who spent 10 years working 365 days per year and was even found on his laptop when his daughter was born.

When his daughter was nine years old, she emotionally shut down, so much so that she even lost the ability to function her body. By that time, this man’s company had grown to 30 employees and he stepped away indefinitely to try to help his daughter.

He spent the next year literally re-teaching her to walk. They did all sorts of physical, emotional, and family therapies. It became apparent that this girl was harboring deep emotional pain.

Over time, she regained the functioning of her body. She can walk, run, dance, and play again. Emotionally, she’s doing better but still hurt. This man, her father, has vowed to himself to never put work before his family again

With tears running down his cheeks, he told us in the audience, Never put your work before your kids. There is so much pain and confusion and trauma in the world right now. Our kids need us more than ever.

In reflecting on these three concepts, I decided to cancel my speaking arrangement. Leaving the day after my children’s funeral was not the message I wanted to send to them.

I’d be willing to throw away everything I’ve achieved for my kids. As the American educator and religious leader, David McKay, said, No other success can compensate for failure in the home.

If you don’t have values to live by, then you don’t have convictions. The deeper your values become, the more powerful and clear become your goals and actions. 

The more courageous you will become. As Alexander Hamilton questioned the conviction-less Aaron Burr: If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?

Designing your life to propel your highest values and aims.

Your life can be designed as the ultimate “forcing function” — a system designed to keep you focusing solely on the things that truly matter to you.

As you increase in success, your opportunities will also increase, as will your distractions. At some point, most people plateau and stop progressing on their initial journey. 

They became satisfied with a particular status they’ve developed, and shift their motivation from approaching the next evolution to merely maintaining the success or station they’ve attained.

If you’re not growing, then your best work is not being produced.

The best work generally comes in response to taking on something that has a high probability of failure. While chasing something big, your best work emerges.

Are you going to invest your time on this beautiful planet continually expanding, learning, and designing? 

Or will you live day-to-day, never realizing the power of imagination and creation?

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