25 of the Most Important Things a Dad Can Teach His Kids

Tom Burns offers lessons on the truly important things in life—from the proper use of ketchup to what happens after we die. 

When I first became a parent, I found myself either constantly giving or receiving advice. Potty training, co-sleeping, TV time—there are hundreds of conflicting opinions out there about every parenting-related topic. However, when my really good friends become parents for the first time, there are certain pieces of advice that immediately jump to the top, nuggets of wisdom that I mention before all others. Some are philosophical, some are mundane in the extreme. But when I sit down and really think about being a parent, these are twenty-five of the most important lessons that I think any dad (or any parent for that matter) would definitely want to pass on to their kids.


1. Winning is fun, but it teaches you nothing. Failure is the best teacher in the world. Winning is a trophy, failing is an education.

2. The key to surviving failure is to not take it personally. This is why video games make great educational tools. Mario doesn’t rage at the world when he fails to jump over a pit. He just starts back at the beginning and tries again until he figures out how to rescue that princess.

3. Ketchup is for French fries and hamburgers. Never hot dogs. That’s why the universe invented mustard.

Lichtenstein agrees – Flickr/vxla

4. Lying to protect someone’s feelings isn’t lying. It’s called empathy.

5. All the best stuff happens in the dark. Fireworks, movies, trick-or-treating, roasting marshmallows, Space Mountain. Try to remember that when you hear a noise in your closet at night.

6. Grown-ups don’t know everything. Most of us are just trying our hardest and faking it as best we can.

7. If a grown-up, corporation, religion, teacher, boss, and/or significant other tells you that they, in fact, do know everything, that they speak the absolute truth, that’s called fundamentalism, which is a fancy way of saying that they’re lying.

8. Even though, yes, I just admitted that I don’t know everything, pointing that out when we’re arguing is never going to work in your favor.

9. When you’re doing laundry, read the labels on your clothes. When in doubt, wash everything in cold.

I know, scary.  – Flickr/Beth Rankin

10. One day, in the future, during a job interview, someone will ask you “What’s your greatest weakness?” This isn’t an invitation to be honest. This is a test to see how well you can answer a stupid question.

11. Almost everything in life is better in moderation, particularly TV, water parks, the internet, and Twizzlers.

12. Want to prove to me you’re a big kid? Make it through a 2-hour movie in the theatre without squirming or complaining. Want to take it to the next level? Make it to the eighth-inning of a baseball game.

13. Yes, everyone is going to die one day. And, yes, that really sucks.

14. No, I don’t know what happens after we die. But that’s a fascinating question. Keep asking fascinating questions.

15. I’ll tell you this—I promise you will never be alone and, even after you die, we will always be together. And there is no one on heaven or earth who can prove that that isn’t true.


16. Farting is always funny. Even at the dinner table. Actually, especially at the dinner table.

17. Good rule to live by: If they look like they’re fine, it’s OK to laugh. If they’re really hurt, shut up and help.

18. Ignoring race and class doesn’t mean that you’re enlightened. It just means that you’re good at ignoring things.

19. Debt is evil and oppressive. If you’re going to go into debt for something, make sure it’s worth it.

20. On a related topic, a college education is worthless if you don’t know how to properly use an apostrophe with the letter “s”.

21. Science both answers questions and keeps discovering new questions to ask. This is why science is awesome.

Never know, you may discover the Mars Man.   flickr/Mads Boedker

22. As far as anyone knows, Santa Claus and vampires might actually exist. The world is a much more interesting place if you accept the fact that, yes, there really could be a Monster at the End of This Book.

23. You can be mad at someone and still love them at the same time. This can be very confusing.

24. Talking about abstract things is important. Having big, wild conversations about concepts like art, music, time travel, and dreams makes it much easier when you’ll eventually need to talk about things like anger, sadness, pain, and love.

25. Every dad needs to teach his kids the lyrics to “The Diarrhea Song.” During a long family car trip… But only when they’re ready.



Lead photo: Flickr/GerryT

About Tom Burns

Tom Burns is a husband, a dad, and a veteran of the educational publishing industry, living just outside of Detroit Rock City. He’s also been a writer and contributing editor for a number of web sites, including 8BitDad, and founded BuildingaLibrary.com - a website devoted to helping parents find the right books for their kids. You can find him on Twitter at @buildalibrary.


  1. Michael Carley says:

    Great list, but I’d have to disagree with #10. In an interview, when I ask about a weakness, or a mistake, I am not looking to see how someone can dodge a question. I’m looking for someone with the humility to admit limitations.

  2. My god, Tom. This is so great, and I fucking hate list posts. And not only because it is fashionable to say that. There is so much subtle, nuanced wisdom in these 25 things worth teaching children. The biggest compliment, I guess, is that I wish to hell I wrote this!

  3. If a burger needs ketchup, it’s not a good burger. Nothing needs mustard, because mustard is disgusting.

  4. Great list! It’s a lighthearted take sprinkled with some topics that are hard to approach with our kids. The simplicity of the harder topics is such a great approach.

  5. Character is not about what you do when people are watching, it is about what you do when nobody is watching.

  6. Also, how to climb a tree, fish, hunt, shoot, and paddle a canoe. Try getting your kid outside.

  7. Love it! But, strongly disagree with no. 1. Everytime I beat my 4 year old on UNO it teaches me that yes, I am smarter than my preschooler. In all seriousness, winning teaches you how to win, succeed and compete. Accepting repeat failure is disempowering and can lead to acceptance of mediocrity. Failure teaches. But so does success and winning!

    • I don’t entirely disagree with what you’re saying. I do think winning is great for positive reinforcement and I don’t think kids should be taught to accept failure. But, that being said, I think even kids who are driven and crave success learn the most by trying and failing. I worry more about kids who are constantly being affirmed as “winners” by their parents – the kids who are never really getting a chance to compete at high levels and, as a result, are never forced to push themselves, fail occasionally, dust themselves off, and try again until they get it right.

      So, I’m not anti-winning, but I don’t think kids really experience true success until they pay their dues, get some knocks, and learn to win – and, in my experience, kids learn to win by failing and then takign what they’ve learned and trying not to fail again.

      This is why I love the game-based model of learning. There’s an amazing experimental public school in NYC called Quest to Learn – http://q2l.org/about – where the curriculum is designed around game theory. At the school, “games work as rule-based learning systems, creating worlds in which players actively participate, use strategic thinking to make choices, solve complex problems, seek content knowledge, receive constant feedback, and consider the point of view of others.” It is a very cool educational model that creates a pedagogy model around some of the best aspects of game-based play, namely creating a safe place for students to learn through trial and error and rewarding accomplishments for hitting developmental milestones. (They actually refer to their tests as “boss battles”!)

  8. I think that you should teach your kids to eat what tastes good to them not what tastes good to YOU. Also, I love Doctor Who but bow ties are just awful. This article was about what a dad should teach his kids not just his sons. Just saiyan….

  9. paul kidwell says:

    Have been wearing a bow tie for nearly 30 years and it is my experience that it goes with all condiments.

  10. John Schtoll says:

    Ketchup is only for 2 things, French Fries and Fried Egg Sandwiches.

  11. Thank God for good fathers!

  12. I have to respectfully disagree with you on the hot dog issue my friend. Mustard is concentrated evil.

  13. paul kidwell says:

    How to tie a bow tie. When you meet a girl and you are wearing a bow tie; and she likes you, you know that she likes you for who you are, and not how you look.

  14. Beautiful. wonderful. made me smile. 🙂

  15. Great list of unconventional essentials, Tom.
    26. Read. Cultivate in them an appreciation for story.


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