Earning Your Stripes

For the past few years I have been writing about what I strive to be - the best Dad I can be under whatever circumstances are rearing their ugly heads within any particular moment. Like most parents, some days I think I have it absolutely nailed; my partner, kids, and I are operating in perfect sync for hours, days, or even weeks at a time. Everyone is mostly happy, everyone is mostly connected, and everyone's love tanks are mostly full. Other days are much, much harder. My imperfections seem magnified, and things that would normally roll off my back choose now to attach themselves to my doubts, fears, and insecurities. On these days, I am not patient, I am not connected, and sometimes I just am not very nice - and obviously, then, not the best Dad I can be.

Despite the fact that I've written for the past few years about how being imperfect is both understandable and okay, I still beat myself up a bit on the bad days. You'd think I would have learned by now, but life is simply not so neat as to always be reflective of steps forward, or even staying in neutral. Sometimes life is a few steps back, as well.

Today was, in some ways, a step back for me - or it felt that way, at least. The compassion was hard to access today, the patience was stretched thinly, and the usual playful spring in my step was more like a dutiful clomp. As I sit here getting ready to say goodbye to another weekend, I'm trying to think of why the day went strange. Although it could be any number of things, I think I put my finger on it. And it's an old, familiar theme.

It's pretty simple, really. Today, I felt like I was entitled to a few things - a kind word, a "thank you", some appreciation for having gone shopping and cleaned the cat box and played Guitar Hero and taken the family bowling. In truth, all of those things I have done today - and probably hundreds more that I did not even know I did - have likely been appreciated by my children in an authentic and deep way. That is usually how it works. The fact is that most days I am fine with being appreciated and respected in whatever ways work for my children, but today I would have preferred - preferred - to have been appreciated the way that felt best to me, regardless of how they felt about it. Why? Well, frankly, because I feel like I am entitled to it - not all the time, not even most of the time, and never when I am at my best and most secure - just right here, right now.

As I think about that, I am reminded about how these situations felt before I became a parent, like when I was in the Army. As a military leader, I always felt like my leadership was providing a service for my troops, and so I performed my duties and led my teams with a selflessness that was both engaging and effective. I could lead gently or hard, depending on the situation. But I always felt that I had to go out and earn the respect of my troops every day, that I was not ever entitled to it simply based on my rank or position. I had to earn my stripes, every day, through my words and actions.

Good leaders - GREAT leaders - never have to tell anyone that they are in charge. They teach, they inspire, they motivate . . . but it is never, EVER, about them. In his book on business leadership, "Good to Great", Jim Collins argues that the best leaders in the corporate world have the same attributes: they lead from the front, they question, they are curious, they teach, they coach, and all of that creates a persona which inspires and motivates the people around them. But they are, above all, humble about it. Not only is there no need for them to tell people that they are in charge - they don't actually view themselves as being in charge. Surely, they have decisions to make and responsibilities to bear that are different from the other people on their teams. But they view themselves as a beneficiary of a culture that is created equally by all parties. This builds significant trust and credibility. Collins refers to these people as "Level 5 Leaders."

As I listen and observe other parents, it is easy to see some parallels between leadership and parenting. At various times over the past few months, I have seen or heard the following:

"3 . . .2 . . .1 . . .you're in a time out, mister!"
"Joey, I told you to sit the hell down, so DO IT!"
"Why can't you just sit there and be quiet?"
"What is the matter with you?"
"I don't care if you're hungry. You didn't eat the muffin I got you, and that's all you're getting."
"Shut up!"
"Did I or did I not tell you stop?!?!"

Wow . . . I mean, wow. I wish this were uncommon, but of course it isn't. Somewhere along the way, many parents have just gone crazy. Why? I don't know. Maybe they are flying out to Omaha for a funeral. Maybe they just lost their job, or something difficult happened earlier in the day. Could be because being a parent is hard. Heck, even though I never say these kinds of things I would be lying if I said I never felt them; today is a great example. It could be a thousand things, I guess. And if these were all isolated incidents, if the parent (who is only human, after all) caught themselves, or apologized, or gave a hug or something, then maybe it would be easier for to understand and overlook. But that rarely happens. And after giving it some thought, I think it comes down to expectations and entitlement.

Last year, I wrote a blog on expectations because I needed to think through my own expectations - of myself as a parent and partner, of my wife, and of my children. In short, I think expectations can be dangerous because they set a visual image for us of how something "should" be, which only gets more detailed over time, and which becomes so alluring to us that we get single-mindedly focused on pursuing it. And in that pursuit, we often miss amazing opportunities to pursue other things that might be even more satisfying. And of course, the reality of our vision is rarely as we originally envisioned it, and so we can become disillusioned and disappointed.

I think parents, for whatever reason, expect that parenting is going to be pretty easy. Oh, they know that having a baby can be hard, and that teenagers can run a little wild, but overall I think they start with a fundamental expectation that it will be fairly simple and in control. And when they find that parenting isn't really like that, they do what many people do - they try to hold on tighter to that which is becoming elusive, like a mountain climber grabs a rope hard when she begins to slip. But grabbing the rope too hard can be fatiguing, so if that is all they do they are bound to slip further down eventually. Kids are the same way, I think. The more you try to control, the harder it becomes. A parent may start with reason ("You should not do that because . . . ), graduate to guilt (Mommy really wishes you wouldn't . . . "), and move swiftly to coercion ("If you stop, I'll give you a . . . "). And if that doesn't work, they may move straight to fear and intimidation ("Dammit, I TOLD you . . . !!")

In short, they are trying to be a leader for their children without having the credibility. Why? Because they think that they are entitled to respect and obedience. I mean after all, they are in charge; they make the money; they provide the roof, and the food, and the toys, and the clothes; they do the driving, and the cleaning, and make all the hard decisions. Doesn't that mean that they are entitled to be respected for their abilities and sacrifices?

Absolutely not. Just because they had sex without a condom, or whatever, doesn't mean they are entitled to anything except their name on a birth certificate and a tax deduction. Seriously - that's it. Nothing else. A parent is not entitled to love, or respect, or obedience, or friendliness, or concern, or anything else.

A parent, like a leader in a company or in the Army, has to earn those things - without ever being attached to whether or not they receive them, or when, or how. They have to be willing to do as artisans had to do hundreds of years ago when building cathedrals. They have to trust that they may never see the ultimate benefit of their work, but to still have confidence that their work had meaning and that the quality of their work was critical to the overall beauty of the end product.

So a parent has to be a "Level 5" leader . . . to earn the privilege of connecting with their children by coaching, and loving, and respecting, and believing, and inspiring, and motivating . . . but with a humility and grace that inspires confidence and trust, and earns credibility with their partner and their children. They have to recognize the fault in their expectation that a child should listen to and respect the parent because they are a parent, instead of because of what kind of parent they are. They must recognize and embody what every good leaders knows instinctively - that trust and credibility with your children must be earned, in every action and word.


  1. Stopping by from the NP blog party. I have read your blog for a while now and absolutely love it. Your writing is so raw and it always draws me in. Don't put that keyboard down anytime soon. Your voice is so unique and valuable to the NP community.

  2. Hybrid, you overwhelm me. Thanks so much!

  3. This is a wonderful post and head and shoulders above many parenting "advice" articles. See, parents/carers/teachers/grownups can CHOOSE to lead the way you describe here. Or they can choose the mainstream way, it's really up to them. Both paths yield the results that one might expect.

    Thanks for re-inspiring me.

  4. The link to the blog post about expectations came up for me as "blog has been removed". I'd like to read that and share it if it's still available. Do you have a better URL for it?

    I rarely comment, but do enjoy your posts!


  5. Thanks, Glenda - should be corrected now!

    Kelly, good to have you back :-)

  6. Jeff - Have you written on siblings? I am getting better at being more the kind of Mum my children need but sibling bickering still sends me insane. I don't mind too much if they pester me but when, like today, one of them deliberately spoils something the other one has spent ages on it pushes all my buttons! Love to hear your thoughts on brothers and sisters.

  7. I really love how you get your point across. Just a guy telling it as he sees it. Much better approach than, "I know how to do this, so you should do it my way." I've only just discovered your blog and I already find myself addicted! Thank you!

    BTW - I have an award for you! http://mccrenshaw.blogspot.com/2011/04/i-won-versatile-blogger-award.html

  8. Thanks, Jeff; that works -- heading over to read it now =).