Do you ever get asked the question, “Why did you have kids?” Rather than tell the truth (“too much pinot and too many skipped pills” doesn’t always fly in casual conversation) you might find yourself pausing a moment, waxing philosophical before saying something socially acceptable and horrifyingly arrogant like, “We wanted to make the world a better place.”

Doesn’t it make you cringe when, less than a minute after the words leave your mouth, your toddler chucks a dog turd at another kid at the park?

I don’t have kids, but I’m a stepmom. I reflect on the challenges of helping my step-daughter to learn manners without sacrificing boundaries, play nice and generally be a decent human being. I think of how much we know now, as compared to how much we didn’t know even 20 years ago, about parenting.

But even knowing what we know now, how realistic to expect that I, a woman who wrestles with patience, snaps when she’s tired, eats too many factory farmed meat products and sometimes flips the bird at cars hogging the passing lane, can instill grace and benevolence in another living being?

I won’t tell you that I surveyed the parents of the most altruistic, polite, well-adjusted people I know to come up with the following tips. Some of the nicest people had the worst parents, and there are too many factors that play a role in shaping character.

What I will tell you is that I suspect I have a pretty good idea why I’m an asshole when I know better. Something about being a role model to a child makes us at least try to stop and ponder our own interactions with the world, especially when we know our spawn (or, in my case, step-spawn) are watching and learning.

Foster confidence, but be honest and compassionate about failures. 

I know now that people who aren’t confident in their own achievements tend to knock down the accomplishments of others. I’ve also learned that failing gracefully helps us learn to succeed.

Without exploring our failures, we can’t become resilient, and we can’t be compassionate when others fall on their butts.

So when my step-daughter flips out after screwing up a batch of cookies and declares that she’ll never bake again, I ask her to stop, breathe and think about how she messed up. “You probably won’t do that again, right?” I tell her, reminding her that she’d mastered three other recipes and, overall, had a pretty good track record.

If she continues to berate herself, I try and pull her out of her own head. I ask her how she’d comfort her best friend in this situation. It’s often easier for us to have compassion for others when we refuse to cut ourselves some slack, and this exercise helps kids role play to gain different perspectives on difficult situations.

Turn chaos into opportunities for conversation. 

We’ve all been the parent of the ballistic kid in the checkout line. How about parenting from the sidelines?

If we react with eye rolls and impatience (we’ve all done it…like, this morning), our kids will pick up on that. If we send an empathetic smile to the frazzled mom, or offer to help distract the kid as she finishes her transaction, we help foster a “we’re in this together” attitude.

Later, you can ask your kid to guess how the mother was feeling at that moment, or why he thinks the kid was screaming. When your kids can associate emotions and physical discomfort with the behaviors of others, it helps them better express themselves and empathize with those around them. Just because other people are acting like assholes doesn’t mean they are assholes…and there’s little excuse for us to up the game by being assholes, ourselves.

I think somebody made a cross-stitch of this phrase somewhere, but forgive me for neglecting the attribution.

Teach them to listen, by shutting up and listening

How frustrated do you get when you feel you’re not being heard? Remember when we were kids, and it seemed like nothing we said really had an impact on our world?

I know it’s easier said than done when kids come up with all sorts of random shit to get our attention, It’s true that if we don’t tune them out half the time, we’ll go insane.

But you know when your kids are really trying to express something. When they do, give them your full attention, and listen. Don’t wait for them to come home as teenagers, holding a dead puppy, or for a collect call from jail.

Teach them active listening skills by repeating back, in your own words, what you feel they’re relating to you. This lets them know that you’re trying to understand, and it helps them adjust and more appropriately “use their words” to convey what’s going on in their heads.

When kids have a handle on expressing their emotions from an early start, they’re less likely to act out with violence later on.

Treat yourself with respect, and teach healthy boundaries

How do you let other adults treat you? How healthy are your boundaries? If you respect yourself, your kids will respect you—and themselves—as they mature.

Maintain consistent boundaries with how you allow kids to treat you. Think of these ground rules as having the same effect as swaddling for infants; boundaries give kids security.

Don’t let your child treat you like a peer.  As the saying goes, “they need a parent, not a buddy.” As a step-parent, I’ve always felt it would be a cop-out to be the “fun adult” in the kid’s life. I’m fortunate that both of my stepkid’s parents treat one another with respect, and share the dirty work of discipline, so my job is to back them up while being consistently firm and loving to “Miss C”.

Kids with healthy boundaries are more emotionally secure. Awareness of personal boundaries allows them to treat others with respect, and they are less likely to become doormats themselves.

We’re all doing our best.

I’m no expert. I’m a stepmom and am doing my best to help my step daughter’s parents raise a kid to be loving, conscious and forward-thinking. I know that being compassionate towards kids teaches them to be compassionate to others, and somewhere along the way, it all helps us treat ourselves with a bit more kindness.