My wife and I have been blessed with four lovely children. Early in my role as father, I vowed to do my utmost to help our children realize life's most precious lessons and to instill core values. I thought I was going to be their teacher. I soon learned it was I who was in training.

Since my children were born, I have practiced Zen meditation. Zen invites us to be "awake" and "present" in each moment. What better way to practice "beginner's mind" than to spend time with children? Children are not yet conditioned, lost in an array of dead concepts and ideas. I will always treasure their joyful teachings, and life's simple wonders they helped me wake up to. My life is filled with incidents where my children helped me see things differently.

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  • One time, when our children were very young, we sat down to watch a family movie. I laid out a few cookies on a napkin in front of each child accompanied by a glass of milk. I indulged in a cup of tea. My cookies came directly from the bag. Partway into the movie, our daughter Amanda asked if she could have more cookies. The other children supported her advance. A couple more cookies were placed on each napkin.

    A while later, it was Jason, our oldest child, who requested more cookies. I felt they had all had enough and said no. The next time my hand dipped into the bag for another cookie, Jason looked up at me and asked, "How many cookies do you get Dad?"

    The children all looked at me awaiting my reply.

    "Hmmm," I said, "Actually I never count how many I have." I then put all the cookies in a large bowl and let everyone help themselves.

    I was not teaching by example. If it was unhealthy for them to eat too many cookies, then I too should be moderate. And if it is OK to indulge from time to time, then so be it for everyone. There are many times that incidents with my children reminded me to practice what I preach.One afternoon, when Jason was 8 years old, he was behaving inappropriately. I forget now what brought on the episode, but I told him his behavior was unacceptable and sent him to his room. I felt bad for getting into a shouting match with him. As Jason climbed the stairs and headed for his room, he shouted back: "You were yelling, too!"

    Jason had a bunk bed in his room and was laying on the top bunk. The bottom bunk, his brother's, was vacant. I entered his room and climbed onto the bottom bunk. Soon, Jason's face appeared aside the top bunk, looking down at me. He asked, "What are you doing in here?"

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  • "Well," I said, "you're right, son. I raised my voice too. Like you, I'm in here to collect myself and to reflect on my behavior."

    Jason's eyes widened.

    "Are you grounded too, Dad?" he asked.

    Smiling, I replied, "Well Jay, being sent to your room is not about being punished. Rather, it gives us some time away from a situation that has gotten out of control. When you think we have been in here long enough, we can go."

    Many times a child's perspective forced me to look at my actions and reflect on my own behavior. When I think of the many ways children helped me see things differently, one Saturday in particular comes to mind.

    Early one Saturday, the two youngest boys and I decided to hike some trails in the country. My daughter and oldest son were off shopping with their mother. Raymond, our youngest son, spent most of the hike perched up on my shoulders clutching my hair. Bradley ran ahead. He always wanted to be the first to point out a hawk high in a tree, a fox running, or a turtle sunning itself by the pond.

    We never got too far into a hike before the boys would begin asking about the contents of my backpack. We stopped in an open field under a large oak tree and refreshed ourselves with granola bars and ginger ale. The leaves of the old oak swayed gracefully under a bright sky. We stretched out listening to a symphony of birds and insects from the nearby pond.

    Bradley picked up an acorn and asked, "Dad, what's this?"

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  • I told him it was an acorn, a seed, and this is where oak trees come from. Then I pointed to the oak tree a few feet away and said, "That tree came from one of these. Pretty neat, huh?"

    Both the boys looked at me in disbelief. Raymond, curled his brow and said, "Noooo! That's not true, Dad!"

    I did love to joke with my children. I always enjoyed their inquisitive looks as they tried to figure out whether I was kidding or being serious. But this was not one of those times. Bradley then held up the acorn and said, "Really Dad, what is this?"

    I began to laugh. This made it even harder for me to convince the boys I was serious.

    "Really guys, I'm serious, it's a nut, a seed. That's where oak trees come from. This tree came from a seed just like that one."

    Still they did not believe me. Raymond scrutinized the small round object. I reveled in the wonder and puzzlement on their faces. Their disbelief revealed to me how complacent we can become with the natural miracles that surround us every day.

    "It really is magical, isn't it?" I said. "It's a miracle, boys. I don't understand it either."

    It was almost noon when we arrived home. The boys were eager to help me with a building project we had been planning for a couple of days. I was constructing a deck for an above-ground pool we had installed a week earlier. Raymond entertained himself, flailing at several nails I had started for him. Bradley struggled to hold one end of the long boards in place while I secured the other. Then we would both nail. The project went smoothly, and the weather could not have been more accommodating.

    Later that afternoon, Bradley and I began to collect the tools. Bradley walked toward me attempting to roll up an extension cord. Suddenly he stopped. He looked toward the pool, our modest house, and the deck.

    "Are we rich, Dad?" he asked.

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  • "Rich?" Certainly I had never thought of us as being rich. Not in the way Bradley meant it, anyway. We still had a hefty mortgage, car payments, and other bills. I even had to arrange a minor loan for this small pool project. His question caused me to reflect on the way I was seeing things. Was I a rich man?

    "Come over here, Bradley," I said. "Stand up here on my tool box. Give me a hug, son."

    My chest absorbed his rapid heartbeat as we shared a timeless embrace. I can still remember the smell of his tanned skin. I said, "As long as we can do this, Brad, we are truly rich."

    "You see, Bradley, if being rich depends on pools, decks, cars, and things, then it can be easily lost. Being rich is a matter of the heart, son. Remember our walk this morning and that snack under the old oak tree? That is as rich as I ever want to be."

    Bradley went to fetch us some iced lemonade as I put the rest of the tools away. I took a deep breath and reflected on how wonderful my life was. Indeed, I was a rich man. I will always be grateful for the numerous times my children have helped me see things differently.
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