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What I Want My Sons to Know

Photograph by Bryanne Salazar

Last week, my eldest son, now 17, interviewed me for an assignment in his English class. He had just one question, "What single lesson do you hope I'll have learned from you before I leave home?"

For the first time, I thought about the fact that my son is almost a man and how soon enough, he'll be embarking on his own life as an adult. It hit me in the chest, and felt a bit like the wind had been knocked out of me.

When my kids were younger, time felt eternal, as if I would wake up every morning to their loud sounds and boisterous laughter. Within a year, our lives are all about to change—and one day my sons won't be sleeping under my roof. This is hard for me to fathom.

I kept thinking about his question, and about the lessons I hoped he, and his brother, now 15, will have learned before they enter the world as adults. While it's hard to whittle it down to a short list, I felt like these lessons were the most important—and that if they knew them before they became men, husbands and fathers, then I will have done something right by them.

This list is for my boys—and for every parent who is facing an empty nest, which, if you think about it, applies to all of us eventually.

1. Work smart, not hard. I grew up with the advice that hard work always paid off. It's nice, in theory, but the reality is that hard work is sometimes just hard—and that the best results aren't always earned through blood, sweat and tears, but rather, ingenuity and creativity. Don't be afraid to think outside the box, to toy with innovation and to use your intelligence rather than your muscles to find solutions in work and in life.

2. Listen to the voices in your head. If something doesn't seem right, it probably isn't, and you need to be brave enough to trust that instinct. Too often people are caught in the tide of what everyone else does, without reflecting on whether or not they are doing what is right for themselves. Part of being confident has to do with trusting yourself and relying on your own intuition to guide you. Listen to that voice that tells you not to get in the car with so-and-so, or the voice that tells you to pick up the phone and call the prospective job one more time to follow up. Adjust your antennas to your own station, and don't listen to the static of everyone else's opinions.

3. Love doesn't hurt. Sure, relationships and careers can be hard, take sacrifice and hit bumpy patches, but if there's pain, something isn't going right. Love, whether it's for a profession or a person, should make your life better, not worse. Remember that pain is a warning signal—in your body and your mind. Heed that warning before things get worse.

4. Be the kindest to yourself. There is nothing more fulfilling than helping others, and sometimes we do so much for everyone else that we forget to take care of ourselves. My abuela taught me that even in the hardest of times, we have to give back to ourselves in order to stay focused, positive and healthy. Eat right, exercise regularly, sleep well and forgive yourself for things you cannot change. Treat yourself how you would treat your best friend, and see how great you feel.

5. Eat on the expensive plates. This is really a metaphor for living life to the fullest. Don't lock away the fine china, only to eat on it once or twice a year. Make every day a celebration, and realize that wear and tear is a part of living. If you have nice things, use them. If you have a dream, realize it. This is your life, and you get to make the rules for your own happiness.

6. Don't ever feel stuck. You might be 20, 30, 40, or even older, and one day wake up and realize you are unhappy—but not know where to go. Maybe it's your job, or maybe it's a relationship that no longer works; whatever the case, don't mistake obligation for a lack of opportunity. Sometimes we stay because we are scared there is nothing better out there for us, but that's untrue. You are never stuck; you just have to take the first step toward something more fulfilling.

7. Do better today than you did yesterday. This applies to yourself, to the places you go, and the people you meet. You have the chance every morning to amaze yourself. Set the bar high and exceed those expectations. You will continually grow and improve if you are always searching for ways to be better, whether it's through learning or action. Further, aim to leave the places you go in better condition than when you found them. Make your time there matter, and set the example of preservation and improvement for everyone else. Your legacy will be that of someone who made the world a more wonderful place.

8. Question every fact. Realize that everyone dead, alive and yet to be born has or will have erred at some point in their life. Even Einstein got a few things wrong. With that in mind, it's important to remember that just because someone says something is true, or right, doesn't mean it is, and it's your job to approach everything with a healthy level of skepticism. We've all known the people who rush to share a "truth" on Facebook or Twitter, only to find out later it wasn't real. Investigate claims, and most importantly, come to your own conclusions.

9. Be honest to a fault. If you say you'll be somewhere, be there. If you did something wrong, admit it. If you don't know an answer, say so. Tell the truth, even if it means you don't look cool doing so. Your honesty will be your reputation, and when people think of you, they'll remember your integrity. If people know they can trust you, they will be more likely to take a chance on you, and sometimes those chances are the moments when your life changes for the better.

10. Call home (often). You may not know it, but I'll miss you every day you're gone. I'll live for the moments when you think of me, and reach out to see what I'm doing, or share with me how your life is going. I'll never get tired of hearing about what you're up to, or cheering you on from the sidelines. Don't be a stranger.

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