Leadership means acknowledging that a part of this world is your responsibility. Parents fit that bill perfectly. You are in charge of your family. You just may never have thought of yourself as a leader of your family, but thinking of yourself explicitly as a leader can do some important things for you and your family.
First of all, if you are not leading, someone else is. And perhaps you already feel that someone else is in charge. That would stand to reason. Your child may feel more in charge than you at times. And then there are the many things you have to do to put food on the table, bring your child to school, and make sure you don’t look the idiot in the process. Even when you feel that your child is in charge, or perhaps especially when you feel that way, it is important to first exercise your own leadership. Letting your child be in charge then becomes a conscious and healthy decision to foreground their brilliance.
What does it mean to be a leader though? Let me offer some ideas.
I have been deeply influenced by the work of Steve Farber who trains people in what he calls extreme leadership. Extreme leadership is the kind where you pursue each day the so called OS!M.
What is OS!M? Well, imagine you are standing in the open door of an airplane with a chute on your back. You are about to jump out. What do you say? OOOOHHHHHH S…. The OS!M is the Moment you say Oh Sh’t. Extreme leaders, who want to make dent in the universe, pursue such moments each day. It is an attitude you bring to your leadership.
Parenting calls for an attitude of extreme leadership. I think that that is true in particular when you want to forge a culture of connection in your family and with the people you interact with. There are too many instances when choosing connection with your family over other options is a radical choice.
How connected do your children feel over Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family, when their main duty is to sit still?
How connected do they feel when you put in overtime at work, or attend the after-work social?
How connected do they feel at school all day long?
I venture to say that of all the events children are part of outside of your immediate family, most of them hinder rather than support connection between you and your kids. And that is just one reason why leadership that supports connection requires that you take risks and say oh sh’t every now and then.
There are other reasons though.
How do you come home from work, obligations, events?
Do you feel that parenting is unfair, because after a demanding day you can’t come home to restore, but you find that you are still on?
When you feel that way, what is your conclusion? Does it make you resent parenting or does it make you resent the activity you just came from?
We are encouraged to resent parenting. We feel that our obligation is just that, an inevitable obligation, as if parenting can be dispensed with, put on the backburner. It is not easy to confront this reality, let alone to decide to change it. It does make you go, Oh S…!
Mad at them
In our day to day, we experience the need for this attitude mostly when we get mad at our children. I believe that we get mad at our children, essentially for two reasons.
First, they remind us of ourselves in the past. This is what is called restimulation. We bring our past and all the feelings connected to our past with us each and every day. And there are many times we get frustrated with our kids, not because of who they are or what they do, but because of ourselves. What do you mean you want to have fun? I never had fun when I was a child!
Second, we have to make our children do things they don’t want to do. We make them do things they resist, and even though they are right to resist them, we feel we have no choice but to make them do it. In other words, their frustration frustrates us. We are frustrated, and the only place we have to put our anger is them.
We are in situations where we feel we have no choice. We have no choice but to go to work, we have no choice but to bring them to school, we have no choice but to bring them to daycare. Not only do we think we have no choice, the situation is so ingrained in us, we are part of the world that believes we have no choice.
We no longer realize that we believe that we have no choice. We just go about the day. And the only thing we can do in such a situation is to take our frustration out on our children.
We could also begin from a place of compassion with our children. If we believe that they are right, and believe they often are, then we can see what they see: we have accepted certain realities in our lives that have greatly limited our freedom to act.
They have to go to school. We have to go to work. I am not qualifying these facts. Whatever you believe about these, the fact remains that they have to be done. Why would we expect that our children are just going to accept this?
The fact is that they will accept a great many injustices in the world on one condition: that they get to accept it with us. That is not to say they are not going to hate aspects of the situation, but if you can stay with them that and see them in it, well, then they cope from a place of being seen, of feeling felt.
When you rush them out the door in the morning to a school that belittles them, why on earth would they agree with that? It is still connection with you that makes even unbearable situations bearable. It is the lack of connection that they resist, not just school, or your work or whatever else gets in the way of their connection with you.
Against the grain
Matthew Lieberman tells us that terrific leaders have two characteristics.
- They are goal oriented and
- they are highly social.
The percentage of leaders that actually have both of these in spades are few and far between though. In the business world they are less than 1%. The goal oriented people dominate, and that makes sense in a world that not only has forgotten that we are social being first and foremost. In fact, many businesses make their money banking on the fact that we have forgotten too.
This is a world where the response to war was to send us shopping (remember that), not to suggest we stick in close with loved ones—like perhaps those we sent to war. Literally, if we are closely connected, we don’t need all that … stuff (I was about to use another word).
Erik Fromm, the psychoanalyst, wrote about loving as an art form. As an art form that we can practice and become better at it, through dedicated study. That practice though requires our supreme focus, and we are not able to give it that focus, because we live in a world where all that focus is on production and consumption.
To practice the art of loving then is a highly subversive practice, one that requires courage. I am not saying this to make you feel hopeless. It is true that the deck is stacked against us, parents who seek to connect to our children, our partners, and other parents. It is no coincidence that our work is so difficult. It is hard by design.
I am not a conspiracy theorist, but it is easy to recognize that an enormous amount of thought and money is spent on making us buy stuff, rather than in supporting us to connect. Even those economists I really like, champions of the middle class and the poor such as Robert Reich and Paul Krugman, focus on our capacity to consume. If the middle class could consume more, we could buy our way to a stronger economy. But not to a more connected household (though less financial stress will make things a lot easier).
What does this mean for your leadership in your family? Quite simply this.
If you want a connected family, if you realize that connection is a basic need and that it is your job to foster such connection, you are bucking the trend.
You will meet resistance, disbelief, frowned brows. You are refusing to play along anymore. That is frightening—we are already feeling isolated as parents, and now we have to potentially isolate ourselves further. I don’t have a simple solution, or a plan of action. You have to take leadership in your family. But it helps me to realize that the reason parenting feels hard is not the result of a defect of mine, not a failure on my part. We are up against “the system.”
Please. I hope that this will make you celebrate each and every victory, however seemingly small. There are no small victories. There really aren’t. Each time you can sing a song when you walk them to the door, when you can make them smile or laugh on your way to the doctor, you have a small victory. Also, you may decide to have a call-in-sick day for you and your children. You skip work and they skip school. You stay home, watch movies and eat popcorn. Once every couple of months or so. These are incidents that may wet your appetite for more connection over and against the “normal” and “reasonable” needs of this society.