Parents are a child’s first teacher. From infancy onward, children learn how to navigate life’s journey from watching their parents. The parent’s job is to lead and to cast a vision for a sense of the family’s greater purpose.
“I remember a number of years ago, having a conversation with a young man. He said to me, ‘When I have kids, I’m going to be their best friend.’ I thought to myself, ‘I hope that works out for you,’” says leadership expert, Dr. Mark Mendenhall. “It has been said that where there is no vision people perish. It isn’t so much about being your child’s best friend as it is about leading them to develop and become better human beings.”
But leading is difficult when people, regardless of age, don’t have a larger sense of moving toward a purpose.
“Having a vision for your family is important,” Mendenhall says. “It is the parent’s role to decide who we are as a family. At home, kids can go to school and parents can go to work. If there is no big, hairy, audacious goal that everybody knows they are aiming for, people tend to just go through the motions. Everybody needs to be able to answer the question: What are we as a family all in on?”
Years ago, Mendenhall purchased a new SUV. He told his children to be careful getting in and out of the cars in the garage so they did not damage the SUV. One morning he was in the family van, preparing to take his daughter to school. She came bouncing out the door and he thought to himself, “She isn’t going to remember to be careful.” She opened the passenger door, dinged the SUV and got in the van.
“I was furious and lit into her,” Mendenhall says. “In a heartbeat I watched her face go from bubbly and happy to sad and sniffling. I don’t think we said a word the entire way to school. On the way home I thought, ‘What just happened?’ I was thinking the piece of metal was more important to me than the best way to discipline or coach my daughter.
“It reminded me of Martin Buber’s concept of ‘I-Thou’ and ‘I-It.’ At any moment in time, as a leader or a parent, I can engage my child from the ‘I-Thou’ perspective - recognizing them as a human being with feelings, thoughts, weaknesses, strengths and ideas. Or, I can look at my child as an ‘It’ like a toaster – a thing, an object, something I want something from.”
Mendenhall later apologized for the way he treated his daughter, which is another characteristic of a strong leader. When you make a mistake in judgment, a sincere apology is powerful. Children know you aren’t perfect, and an apology can make the parent-child relationship stronger.
Studies indicate that setting aside 30 minutes to an hour each week for a family meeting can be beneficial. This is sacred time with no technology where the family does a fun activity together or confirms the weekly schedule.
“Family meetings were of great benefit to our family,” Mendenhall says. “It was hard, especially as the kids got older, because everybody wanted more of their time. Just being together, even if it doesn’t go well every week, is huge for keeping the family connected.”
Mendenhall also believes using participative leadership is especially helpful for parents.
“When our kids were younger, we realized they were watching too much television,” Mendenhall says. “We brought them all together and said, ‘There is way too much television watching going on. We want to try and solve this problem as a family and aren’t saying no television. But, we just need to figure out how to manage this better.’
“Our daughter was drawing while we were talking. At some point, she piped up and said, ‘We could make a sign that says ‘No More TV’ and put it over the television when it’s time for the television to go off.’”
“After some discussion, everybody agreed that could work. So, she made a big poster to hang from the television. On the back of it, one of our sons (who is now an attorney) drew up a contract us all to sign.”
The ultimate goal of parenting is to launch adults into the world with a skill set that will help them both personally and professionally. It all starts with parents leading out in the home.
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