Good Parents are Good Leaders (and Never Underestimate Kids)

For best results with our children, parents need to be good leaders.

One day, Suzanne said to her five-year-old niece Emma, “My, that is a beautiful stuffed lion you have there.”

“I know, I saw it in the store and Mommy bought it for me.”

“That’s nice.”

“Yes. Well, she wasn’t going to.”

“Oh?” asked Aunt Suzanne, who had children of her own.

“No. She wasn’t going to. So I went,” and screwing up her face Emma acted out, “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” then said, “She took it off the shelf and bought it for me.”

“Huh,” replied Suzanne, hiding her smile. She was charmed by this window into the workings and self-awareness of this delightful five-year-old brain.

Later that day in the kitchen Suzanne was talking to her sister and started to tell the story of the cleverness of Emma. However, Emma was there, saw what was coming and broke in with an urgent: “No.”

Realizing that she was about to betray a confidence, Suzanne stopped. Emma had found a technique for getting what she wanted and the notion that she had this power over her all-powerful mother was important to her.

Later when the sisters were alone, they had plenty to talk about. Naturally, Aunt Suzanne found this considerably more delightful than Mommy. Aunt Suzanne was seeing the child’s natural genius at work; Mommy felt duped. She had fallen down on her job a little, and was embarrassed.

But parents need not feel so bad when they drop their guard and revert to their most elemental of responses to the stimulus “Waaaaaaaah.” It is almost comforting for a child to know that their old tried-and-true technique can still work with Mommy.

Regression is not a bad thing. For a child to pick up an “early reader book” that they mastered years ago, does not mean they are falling behind in the race to college. For a child to revert to old manipulative skills doesn’t mean they are becoming less mature. In education, we are not so much looking for the extinction of old behaviors as the addition of new ones.

In her marvelous No Bad Kids – Toddler Discipline Without Shame (9 Guidelines) Janet Lansbury identifies nine disciplines for responding well to child behavior. Parents and teachers alike need the full repertoire for best results with children. I love that Janet categorizes the performance of this skill-set as leadership. To be an educator you have to be a leader.

A child’s job is to figure out how to lead her own life. She does this by using the scientific method: making decisions and learning from the results. From birth. Watch them: Do I use this hand or that one? Arch my back or get up on my knees? If I want the toy, do I ask, beg or cry?  They make dozens of decisions a minute, and each decision is an experiment to discover what they really want and to learn the disciplines of getting it.

WE LEARN TO LEAD OUR LIVES BY LEADING THEM

Whether they are learning the disciplines of riding a bike or getting along with another person, they are building their character. They build this repertoire of disciplines by making wrong decisions and learning from mistakes. By the time they are Emma’s age and off to kindergarten, they can have a very large repertoire of disciplines. They should. They have been doing these experiments for over 43,000 hours.

We learn to lead our lives by leading them–by defining ourselves to situation after situation, processing the results and making another decision. That is what leadership is, and if we want our children to be good at leading their lives, we have to be good leaders–we have to define ourselves to our children in ways that bring out the leadership in them.

Much that passes for “parenting” advice these days is aimed at getting the kids to make the “right” decision rather than increasing their ability to make decisions. The job of educators–parents and teachers alike–is to increase the child’s repertoire of disciplines so that they can make good decisions in new, different and ever-more complex situations.

More on respectful leadership: if you are in shouting distance of Santa Cruz, CA, on October 7th you might want to show up and join the discussion with Janet Lansbury and Lisa Sunbury on “Respectful Parenting.”

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