Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

Dr. Madeline Levine’s book Teach Your Children Well (2012) is a refreshing entry in the parenting guidebook genre. She avoids the all-consuming, one-size-fits-all, guilt-ridden parenting standards that seem to flood the current cultural tableau of parenthood. For example, her advice on page 38 consists of these remarkably reasonable words:

When we construct our children’s futures prematurely, the stories we transmit to them become nothing more than fabrications made out of our own interests, hopes, and projections. Assume little. Wait to see the particulars of your child. Concentrate on character and values. Provide opportunities. And then, for goodness’ sake, let children grow naturally into their unique selves.

I think I literally sighed with relief when I read these words. Finally, some breathing room, where every parental choice is not wrought with inevitable and eternally dooming consequences for my child. Levine argues that parents should engage in continual reflection on why we’re doing what we’re doing and what message our actions actually send to our children. She calls for a consistent return to our core values, however we may define them for our own families, and assigns parents the responsibility of actually aligning our lives with what we say matters most to us.

For instance, on page 73, Levine poses the question “Would you rather your child was smart or good?” While she acknowledges that the query sets up a false dichotomy, she also realizes that our answers reveal a lot about our values, and how they translate to our children. The parent who prioritizes “smart” will focus on achievement and the parent who prioritizes “good” will emphasize character. It’s all too easy in this environment to remember that “smart” is not actually a virtue, though it can be used in conjunction with virtues. The problem is that even when parents say they want children who are both “smart” and “good,” the overwhelming cultural message is about a narrowly-defined vision of success that is divorced from outstanding character. When Levine reports to her patients (she is a psychologist who works primarily with adolescents) that their parents don’t admit wanting material success for their children, the kids laugh. Implicitly or explicitly, our kids are getting the message that money is what really matters — not character.

Levine explains: “[I]f you say you value physical and emotional well-being and your middle school child isn’t getting at least nine hours of sleep a night, then you have to either rethink how much you really do value well-being or consider rectifying some of your parenting lapses on this issue” (250). Levine follows this statement with an assessment of our “core values” where she asks parents to identify (without judgment) what matters most to us, to hone that list down, and to focus on a singular goal to see how well our actions match our beliefs. This book steps out of the rat race that childhood can quickly become and asks parents to tone down our expectations (which say more about us than our actual offspring) and define success counter-culturally. That means bypassing the expectation that children should be over-scheduled, exhausted, and on the fast-track to Ivy League success by preschool. Levine acknowledges that academic success is fulfilling for some kids (a nod I appreciate), but that competence and character build confidence more than arbitrary metrics like salaries and SAT scores.

Levine’s text serves as a critical reminder for me, as a way of checking myself and my parenting decisions against what my faith already tells me is most important: the Fruits of the Spirit. That’s how my family defines our core values: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, and self-control. Reading Levine’s book encourages me to model those fruits and to emphasize them for my children. I hold so many hopes and dreams for my daughters, but, ultimately, those are my dreams, not theirs. So instead of equipping them for some pre-ordained vision of success that I’ve established myself, I can focus on the Fruits and give them a start in life that is sure to be pleasing to God. When I evaluate those values in conjunction with my own parenting practices, I know that Levine isn’t asking us to lower the bar for our children. Rather, she’s asking us for more, for better, for meaningful success that breeds joy instead of material success that, alone, can only bring emptiness. What’s best for our kids is to develop their character while we let them be kids, and that sounds like a fruitful endeavor to me.