Perhaps the five words of Biblical advice known to more people than any others are found in the phrase, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” from Chapter nineteen of Leviticus. Of course this is advice more easily given than taken. For how many of us really have the ability to love our neighbors in the first place, let alone as we love ourselves? More often if we even know our neighbors it is a casual acquaintance not likely to produce profound emotion whether positive or negative.

Actually, I have always understood this phrase to be mostly about us the “lovers,” and only a little about them the “lovees.” When I read “Love your neighbor as yourself,” I understand it to mean that the real commandment is to love ourselves first, and then to love others like we do ourselves. It is a kind of spiritual reminder to take care of ourselves first, respect ourselves first, feel valuable and worthwhile as people first, for only then can we treat others in a loving, caring, respectful way as well.

After all, imagine what it would be like to live next to someone who didn’t fundamentally like himself, and then who treated you in the same way. It’s not a pretty picture, and it happens all the time. Someone feels bad about who they are, or is frustrated over their own failures and lack of reaching their own goals, and they lash out at anyone else who has the ill fortune to come across their path. Underneath it all is usually a severe case of lack of self-respect and self-esteem.

“Love your neighbor as you love yourself” is a kind of Biblical version of the instructions that airline hostesses give us every time we fly – “In the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure an oxygen mask will appear. If you are traveling with small children place the mask on yourself first and then on your child.” I think that Leviticus is telling us the same thing in its own way.

In fact, I think of this commandment often when I work with parents and children. I think of it because it applies equally as well to the challenges of parenting as it does in any other area of human relations. Perhaps a good way of reformulating the same idea is to imagine that a divine commandment for parents is, “Love your children as you love yourself.” Just as before, what is still crucial is that you love yourself first, feel good about who you are and your own strengths, talents and contributions to the world so that you can adequately love your children in the way that they fundamentally deserve to be treated.

Frequent readers of this column will know that perhaps my favorite parenting slogan is “Be the kind of adult you want your children to grow up to be.” I believe it is the prime directive for parents, a fundamental guideline that if everyone followed would transform how people live, how people parent and the quality of life in our community.

Parents have always been and will always be the number one, primary moral role model for their children, whether they want to be or not. That just comes with the job. To choose to be a parent is more that choosing to have your heart run around outside your body for the rest of your life – it is accepting the awesome responsibility to become the most important living example of what it means to be a functioning human being in the eyes of your children.

To kids, parents are the sun and moon and stars and everything in between. You are their true heroes, and what you say and do really matters. That is why the moral imperative to love your children as you love yourself is so very important. Use your own life to teach your children that it is possible to feel worthwhile and valuable, that it is possible to treat yourself with kindness and not beat yourself up emotionally over every small failure and frustration in life.

Your children must learn to see you as tolerant of your own mistakes as you want them to be tolerant and learn from theirs. Your children must see that you rest enough, play enough, nourish your mind with books and nurture your spirit with music and theatre. That is how you demonstrate in a concrete way the self-love that becomes automatically translated into model behavior for them.

“Love your children as you love yourself’” is another way of saying that everyone needs to have permission to see their own needs as valuable and important and place them as a priority in their lives.

After all, imagine that you are giving advice to your kids about how to be good parents and good people. Wouldn’t you tell them to take good care of themselves? Wouldn’t you worry that they eat nourishing food, take vitamin and mineral supplements, get proper exercise, find fulfilling work to pursue and develop positive, loving relationships with others, including a life partner? So why should you treat yourself any less kindly, or care for yourself any less?

This principle of loving your children as you love yourself is perhaps one of the most deceptive of all spiritual ideas because on the surface it seems both simple and obvious, That is why I believe that it is important to recognize that loving someone isn’t expressed only or even primarily in feelings, but more profoundly in behavior. It is how we act that others care about, not what we have in our hearts.

Parenting is as much an art as it is a science, as much a leap of faith into the unknown as it is a step-by-step following of a parent’s guide. But some parenting skills are more crucial than others are. There is no doubt at all, that one of the most important ways you can raise children of character, is by modeling loving yourself so that you can turn around and demonstrate your love for your children.