The Story of Your Life Is Your Legacy

Dear Mr. Dad: My father died when he was 48. He was a great dad, affectionate, playful, and a fine role model. And he had life insurance so the family was provided for. But when my brother and sister and I were going through his stuff after the funeral, we realized that we barely knew him. He was always interested in our lives, but almost never told us anything about his own—the things he did as a kid, what he liked, or anything. I’m 47 now—just a year younger than my dad’s age when he died—and I’m very involved in my children’s life. But I don’t want to make the same mistake my father did. How can I be sure my kids will know me after I’m gone?

A: Although both of my parents are, thankfully, still alive, I’ve been thinking about this exact thing for quite some time, and I know we’re not the only ones. As parents (and especially as dads), when we talk about providing for our children, the discussions tend to focus on the financial—insurance, college savings, and so on—and we overlook the kind of intangibles you mentioned. But giving our children the knowledge of who we are, our life experiences, our triumphs, our failures, our family history, and our personal philosophy is a gift that’s just as important as money. Maybe even more so.

Just think of all the knowledge we have about our kids: We know how much they weighed when they were born, when they rolled over, when they took their first steps, the name of their favorite stuffie, who their friends are, what size shoes they wear, whether they wet the bed or not, who their favorite—and least favorite—teachers are, what they like to read, the trouble they got into, and the story behind every scar—real or imagined.

But how much do our kids know about us? Probably not a whole lot. And that’s a mistake. By not telling them about ourselves—where we came from and how we became who we are—we’re doing them a tremendous disservice. At the very least, our stories can bring us closer together. Stories let them know that we’re not just lecturing them about life, that we’ve actually lived it, that we’ve had experiences that are similar to theirs, and that we really understand them.

Just to be clear, this is not about teachable moments or being a good role model. There’s definitely a place for both, but this isn’t it. This is simply about introducing our inner selves to our children. The first step towards that goal is to remind ourselves of our stories. What was life like when you were growing up? What were your earliest memories? What were your favorite subjects in school? How did it feel when your first romantic relationship ended?

Kids absolutely love these stories—especially the ones where you’re less than perfect. Mine, for example, still enjoy hearing about when I got caught shoplifting in 3rd grade, the many times I got my butt paddled in the principal’s office as punishment for a variety of misdeeds, or when I tried to force-feed a pet sand dollar ground beef because someone had told me it needed protein.

Write down as many of your stories as you can think of. You might even want to start a blog. And remember, it’s not always about the past. The experiences you have right now—things as mundane as what you did at work today—are all part of your living legacy.