By: Haim Amit
Educational Psychologist, Certified Family therapist, Organizational Consultant
Author of the books: Confident Parenting, Modan, 2012.
Parents as Leaders, Modan, 2006. & Parents as Humans, Sifriat Poalim, 1997
“He Who Thinks A Year Ahead Plants Wheat; He Who Thinks Years Ahead Plants Trees; He Who Thinks Generations Ahead Raises Good People”
The image of the parent as leader
Personal experience: Becoming a leader in the wake of a family tragedy
Eight years ago, under unfortunate and painful circumstances, I was left “alone at the helm”, so to speak, of the leadership of my family. With no warning, I had to cope with an impossible task: helping myself and my three children to recover from the terrible, sudden loss of a beloved spouse and mother.
The earthquake that shook our family to its core left me exhausted, depressed, and fearful of the future, particularly of everything connected to my children. Alongside my own pain that threatened to paralyze me, I felt enormous parental responsibility the likes of which I’d never known, and which threatened to overpower me.
My eldest daughter, who had just begun her college studies, considered dropping out or taking a break from school in order to devote herself to helping me and her brothers through the crisis that had befallen us. Though I knew that she could be a tremendous support to me, I was unwilling for her to drop out, even temporarily. It was important for me to help her to continue building her life independently, and not get stuck caring for her brothers and me.
My teenage son, an 11th grader, felt increasingly depressed, and found it difficult to study for his final exams. I was resolute in my efforts to help him recover from his deep grief as well as to succeed scholastically.
My youngest, a third grader, was hit hardest because of his tender age and his sensitive nature. His relationship with his mother was a profound, soul-level one, and his response to her death was utter, flat-out anger: fits of rage, inconsolable crying, increasing anxiety, and steadily mounting difficulties at school. I had no doubt that he needed me especially, and my first obligation was to be with him, absorb his frustration, comfort him, encourage him, and be at his side will he took his first steps as a motherless child.
Alongside the heavy weight of responsibility that I felt and the inescapability of what needed to be done, I felt a gaping insecurity; doubts about the future plagued me. How could I steer this sinking ship called my family into a safe harbor? Could I properly lead those who were dearest to me when I myself was so weakened and unfit to lead?
Night and day, a palpable scene accompanied me, taken from the world of the military. In this scene, I saw a squadron of soldiers at various stages of training. Some were veterans, others were new recruits. Their commander was skilled and dominant, yet well liked. At his side was his deputy―involved and active, yet inexperienced. The life of the squadron was marked by the routine of training with the normal problems that mark the relations between commander and soldiers, among the soldiers, and among the commanders.
Suddenly, during a routine patrol, the squadron is ambushed, and the commander is killed on the spot. The soldiers and the deputy commander are in shock. At this moment, the deputy realizes that the fate of the squadron depends on him. His soldiers are depending on his leadership now, yet he is overwhelmed with pain upon the death of his commander; he is paralyzed by helplessness and fear. With an enormous effort, stemming from a deep identification with his dead comrade, and with the weight of responsibility for his frightened soldiers, he manages to get to his feet. He looks at his soldiers with compassion, and with a heavy heart and a headful of worry, he raises his hand and signals to his soldiers, “Follow me”. He begins to lead them on the long and difficult road to survival and recovery.
The image of a captain at the helm, using his personality and varied skills of persuasion, leading those in his charge, whether military, school, or business institution, toward achieving their goals, is the guiding motto of this book. It’s an image that encompasses many facets of parental leadership: the perceptive parent who understands that change in the family must begin with him, and who teaches his children by example acceptable behaviors in the family; the parent who shapes the family norms toward the welfare and security of all family members; the parent who listens and tries to involve his children in the family process, yet who is not dependent upon them in the family’s management; the parent who sets appropriate limits and who is not afraid to be the “bad cop” who makes demands, sets boundaries, and even frustrates, yet who understands that parenting requires such; the parent who supports his children and guides their development, yet does not confuse this with the need to gratify them and / or to buy their respect.
Societal images of the ideal parent
Why did I alight on the image of leader as that underlying a book on parenting? Because it best represents the ideal parent? Absolutely not, as there’s no such thing as an ideal parent. Opinions on the right way to raise children go in and out of fashion, and vary from culture to culture. A survey of parenting articles clearly traces the changes that follow the trends in society.
Therefore, we can state with reasonable certainty that our parenting philosophies are influenced and even dictated―whether consciously or unconsciously―by the dominant perceptions of our times. Take for example the fact that 17th century middle- and upper-class mothers gave their newborns over immediately to a wet nurse, who cared for them until age four or five. This practice was based on the belief that the breast milk of aristocratic women was weak and lacked the nutrients contained in the breast milk of peasant women. French historian Elisabeth Badinter even claims that maternal love is not a biological instinct, but rather a societal construct: When no norm existed wherein mothers rear their children, and babies were perceived as disrupting the woman’s social life, most women chose not to function as mothers.
Every historical period has its image of the ideal parent, which changes according to social needs and processes. Therefore, the image that I’ve chosen―that of parent as leader―does not pretend to be a universal image valid for every age and place; my ambitions are much more modest: I hope to show that the image of parent as leader can help parents in our society to successfully and effectively cope with the trials of parenting today.
What are the images of an ideal parent that have prevailed throughout history, and how does the parent as leader jive with them? Allow me to briefly review four such images: Parent as Tyrant, Parent as Angel, Parent as Scientist, and The Permissive Parent. While each of these typified a certain period, they all exist at various levels and in various parents in every age, particularly ours. Today’s parents behave―consciously or unconsciously―according to these archetypes. Therefore, familiarity with the historical contexts surrounding them is in order, as well as familiarity with ourselves as parents via our actual behaviors within the family.
Parent (father) as tyrant
Over the course of human history, parenthood was perceived as dictatorship―usually of the father―who related to his children as a despotic ruler to his subjects. Unfortunately, even today there are parents―particularly in patriarchal societies, but not only―who continue this “tradition”.
Until the 19th century, children were considered the property of their parents, who could do with them as they wished: They could ignore them, make them work, sell them, or neglect them. Due to the high infant mortality rate and the short life expectancy (25 years), children were perceived as expendable, interchangeable, and largely unimportant. For instance, common infant care methods included leaving them uncared for for days, and striking them to “teach” them. Infanticide was practiced by all classes as a family planning method. Older children were perceived as little adults and received no care. Pictures of children in the Middle Ages show them depicted as miniature grownups, dressed just as the adults dressed.
Parent (mother) as angel
Only since the 19th century has the modern perception of parenthood been with us, one of the main reasons therefor being the Industrial Revolution. Until the Industrial Revolution, there was no meaningful distinction between the home and the workplace. The home was the workplace, wherein both father and mother worked, as well as the children from a young age. The Industrial Revolution took work out of the home and created the classic nuclear family wherein the man’s purview lay outside the home and the woman’s therein. The children, meanwhile, went from being economic assets to being economic burdens requiring care, education, and supervision.
Women were more and more assigned the task of fulfilling the needs of the family, particularly the responsibility for childrearing. Therein was born the societal expectation of the “good mother” who loves and cares for her children devotedly. Among noblewomen, motherhood became all encompassing. Even working-class women who continued to work outside the home in order to support the family were expected to be “good mothers”.
While the new maternal role characterized by devotion to one’s children and husband underwent various incarnations over the course of a few decades in the 19th century, the image of the perfect mother, the angel, remained. Up to today, many mothers base their parenting on this trouble-ridden image of the perfect parent.
Parent (mother) as scientist
Toward the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, with the spread of Darwinism and Freudian psychology, a childrearing philosophy began to evolve whose centerpiece was accelerating the baby’s development. This philosophy viewed parental overinvolvement as an impediment. The parents’ job was to prepare their child to leave the nest as soon as possible and function independently. As such, parents were afraid to do anything that might be construed, heaven forfend, as an attempt to pamper the child or display fear for the child’s well being.
The expectation was that mothers would love their children, yet not show them how much they were loved, because the prevailing wisdom was that too much affection and attention would spoil them5. Thus stated respected psychologist of the day John Broadus Watson in his widely sold book Psychological Care of Infant and Child, wherein he stated:
“Never kiss your child…don’t hold the child in your lap, don’t rock him in his cradle. If you must, kiss him once on the forehead as he says ‘Good night’, and in the morning, squeeze his hand.”
Watson’s parenting philosophy was strict and controlling. Parents, like drill sergeants, sought to break their children’s’ spirits in order to build the perfect person atop the ruins: achieving, ethical, and obedient. Bad habits were accordingly rooted out. For instance, children wore aluminum gloves to prevent thumb-sucking; a leg-straddling device was sold that was supposed to prevent masturbation.
From another direction entirely came the psychology of Dr. Sigmund Freud. In the early 20th century, Freud’s philosophy traced adults’ difficulties directly to childhood trauma. According to Freud’s philosophy, parents―usually the mother―were expected to raise trauma-free children. Despite its being an impossible task, mothers sought to rear their children “properly”―meaning in an error-free fashion – i.e., to guide them from infancy down the optimum path in order to spare them later suffering.
It can thus be stated that from the early 20th century, parenthood, particularly motherhood, attained the status of an exact science. Parents―usually mothers―were imagined to be scientists who had to act according to clear, precise guidelines. To this day, many parents believe that there is a right way to rear children, and that they themselves are to blame for any problems their children might display7.
The Permissive Parent
Post-World War II, in the 1950s and 1960s, with blossoming democratic liberalism, “natural” and permissive educational philosophies spread. The most common of these were based on the philosophy of 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which held that childhood is a time of purity and innocence that must be protected from the “evil” of adults. Rousseau claimed that all children are born good and remain so if we adults refrain from intervening too much in their lives. Educators in the last half of the 20th century applied Rousseau’s claims with almost evangelical zeal. Progressive educator A. S. Neill wrote The Free Child, wherein he preached self-regulation, or child-centered education, as well as founding the first alternative school, Summerhill.
Psychologists and doctors, among them Dr. Benjamin Spock and Carl Rogers, called for balancing the strictness that had been adhered to until then with acceptance and unconditional love. Such was expressed by Dr. Spock in his groundbreaking book, for decades surpassed in sales only by the Bible:
“You know more than you think you do…Don’t be overawed by what the experts say…Better to relax and make a few mistakes than to try too hard to be perfect.”
Dr. Spock calmed parents down, encouraged them to go with their instincts, and told them not to be afraid to express their feelings. Mothers in the latter half of the 20th century, unlike those in the first half, were supposed to love their children utterly, and show their love uninhibitedly. Fathers were also mobilized to this holy mission. Even though they worked outside the home, fathers were supposed to find time for their children; weekends became hallowed family time.
The underlying premise was that children need unconditional love from both parents. In the wake of this platitude, the parent > child hierarchy changed, and the idea of authority was chucked out the window. If in the past the child’s desires, needs, and opinions played no part in childrearing decisions, starting in the 1950s, children were made full partners in decision-making, with their opinions considered nearly on a par with those of adults.
The ideal parent in the second half of the 20th century was permissive: Parents were instructed not to interfere with the child’s being who she is, and to love their children unconditionally. Many parents today still parent according this philosophy, even though they know that its extreme manifestation is not in the true interests of the child. The problem is, they don’t have a reasonable alternative, i.e., an image of the ideal parent today.
The ideal parent today
Is it the parent as leader?
Where 19th-century parenting was overly strict, and parents were not attentive enough to their children, the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries are characterized by a weakening of parental authority. Today’s parents find it difficult to make demands on their children: They find it difficult to “play the bad cop” and not give in to their child’s every whim. Democratization of the family has caused role confusion for today’s parents and their offspring, with parents erroneously implementing democratic ideas into their parenting. Psychologist Edna Katznelson wrote in her book horìm vYeladìm v’Má sheBeineihem [Parents, Children, and What Lies Between Them[10:
“Instead of parental leadership that considers the child’s needs, we get what appears to be equality, wherein children who cannot take responsibility and lack experience and judgment run their lives as well as those of their parents. Parents confuse paying attention to their children and consideration of their needs with the absence of parental authority, and the result is an increase in emotional and behavioral problems.”
There are of course other causes of this sorry state of affairs, including lack of time spent with children and resulting guilt on the part of parents, our consumer society that encourages children’s endless demands, the double message regarding authority that tells children that those who behave obediently are nerds or toadies.
In any case, parents find themselves in a quite different family reality than what they’d expected: Where they’d hoped for a solid, harmonious family, they exist in a fragmented one wherein each family member follows her own schedule; where they imagined a family whose routine was determined according to their own values, they find themselves living according to the TV programming listings and the Game Over message on the computer screen; where they’d wanted to raise their children to be independent, they find themselves embroiled in constant power struggles over basics like toothbrushing, homework, and chores; where they’d wanted their children to be happy and feel good about themselves, they daily experience alienation and distance; where they wanted to help their children adjust socially, they find themselves preaching and correcting―in vain.
When it became clear that permissiveness had gone bankrupt, we began hearing calls for the balancing of liberal, democratic education with more authority and firmness on the parts of parents and teachers. Psychologists and educators began calling vigorously for the restoration of parental authority, bolstering parents, and adults’ rights alongside kids’ rights. Advice such as “Don’t be afraid to punish; it’s even a good thing” and “It won’t hurt to spank them once in awhile” was heard.
Stressed, helpless parents might take advice such as this out of context and use it to create for themselves a new―yet erroneous―image of the ideal parent characterized by control, and by themselves as commanders. While it’s accepted today that to raise children, love, warmth, acceptance, and empathy aren’t enough, as we were led to believe in the past, it has emerged that what is needed is firm parental authority.
Perhaps just as the permissiveness of the 20th century led to a loss of parental authority, today we need to guard against extremes in authoritativeness “for the sake of the child” that might sacrifice the necessary nurturing environment. In other words, we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, i.e., we don’t want to lose generations’ worth of childrearing wisdom precisely when we’re trying to do the right thing by our children.
For instance, in a 3.5-year study that began when its subjects were in sixth grade, it was found that when parents applied strong, consistent discipline―a practice normally found to prevent overt problems in adolescence―parents also withheld love and created guilt in their children, actually causing antisocial behaviors such as smoking and shoplifting among their children. Against this shaky background, I propose the parent as leader, an image that balances Parent as Drill Sergeant with Parent as Flower Child.
Parent as leader
On the one hand, the family is an organization that needs leadership, like any organization. If parents don’t lead their families, their children will, as unfortunately happens in many families. It is incumbent upon parents to understand that a family is not a democracy: Children don’t elect their parents to office, and parents have the right and obligation to make rules and set boundaries. While it’s important that parents listen to their children, learn their needs, and understand their distress, they must do so without abandoning their wide-vision lens that takes in the entire family’s welfare.
Parents today face a task more formidable than ever before: shaping the family reality, not being shaped thereby; leading their children, not being led by them. Parental leadership considers the needs of the children, yet leaves the running of the family in the parents’ hands. At the same time, parents need not run their families as dictatorships; if they do, the price that family members pay is high indeed―too high. Instead, parents can and should lead their families wisely, using good judgment, and in balanced fashion. Parents must believe in their rights and obligations to lead their families in the directions they believe to be the correct ones, yet no less important, they must do so without using coercive means, or at least using such means minimally. Parents must understand that in order to know where to lead, they must listen, not only to themselves, but perhaps even mainly, to their children. Parents must remember that in order to know how to lead, their children must trust them and have faith in them. How to guide without coercing? How to influence without force? This is the challenge of parental leadership today.
The objective of this book is to help parents to internalize the image of parent as leader, an image that balances between the aforementioned extreme and dangerous approaches. For parents, the image of leader constitutes a map and a compass: a map that helps them to choose appropriate and effective routes to the goals that they’ve chosen, and a compass to remind them of their vision and their task, helping them stay focused and on track.
Parental leadership skills
Case in point: a son’s view of his parents’ lack of leadership. Take an actual quote from a family therapy session:
“I began not blowing off my parents when I saw that they had no backbone. They don’t know what they want from themselves or from us. Today one thing is important to them, tomorrow it’ll be something else―with no rhyme or reason. Then just as it looks like they do know, they express it jokingly. For instance, my dad will get angry and fire off punishments, then later my mom softens him up and he takes it all back. I can’t take them seriously.
Or if sass my mom on the phone, she shouldn’t get offended like some puppy; she should put me in my place. When they finally do decide to get tough, their timing is wrong. For instance, when they wake me up in the morning. They should know when to be tough and when not to.
Also, they need to listen to us once in awhile. For instance, they tell us not to smoke when they themselves have started smoking again, and we tell them to stop because it’s unpleasant. I asked them, ‘What kind of example are you?’ But they blow us off, as if we’re idiots. They never admit it when they make a mistake, and they always talk down to us, like they’re God or something, and we’re nothing…worthless.”
With these simple, candid words, the son summed up the Seven Weaknesses of Parental Leadership so common today:
1. They don’t define clear goals for themselves and their children.
2. They set bad examples for the goals that they wish to instill.
3. They don’t set resolute boundaries.
4. They don’t know how to listen and talk to their children candidly.
5. They weaken their children instead of strengthening them.
6. They don’t succeed in creating a parenting partnership.
7. They fail to adapt their leadership to changing familial needs.
As a response to these timely weaknesses in parental leadership, I’ve defined Seven Skills of Parental Leadership:
Setting an example
Depending upon their personalities, various parents will find it either easy or difficult to attain certain skills in the above list, yet it’s still important to know them and attempt to master them. If we imagine the family as a ship rocking in a stormy sea and the parent as captain, we can imagine the seven leadership skills as seven essential navigation skills that will help the co-captains (the parents) to guide the ship safely to shore. The exact level of parental leadership skill depends on the personalities involved―both parents’ and children’s, the children’s ages, and the specific family circumstances; yet all the skill are necessary regardless of the child’s specific age or personality makeup.
Parental leadership from a developmental angle
Allow me to use a personal example here: that of a regular bedtime dialog with my children: As in lots of homes, all three of my kids have bedtime rituals. When they were little, I’d read them stories and talk to them. When they got older, I’d make up stories and talk to them. When they got older still, they’d read me stories and we’d talk. When they were teenagers, we’d just talk.
Every night, I still make sure to go into my youngest’s room at bedtime (he’s now 16) to tell him goodnight. I sit on his bed, look at him fondly, and wait. Sometimes I ask him a question or say something to get things rolling; other times I listen to him while he talks. Sometimes we talk about him―his thoughts, his plans, his feelings―and sometimes we talk about mine. Sometimes it’s a short conversation; if I’m in a hurry, or he’s tired, or there’s simply not much to say, I just kiss him goodnight. How long will I continue this ritual? As long as he lets me. So far, he’s not ready to give it up, and I certainly don’t want to. This regular bedtime dialog was and is extremely important: It lends a sense of security in the present, as it will likely do in the future as well.
Like any leadership, the true test of parental leadership is coping with critical events, both routine and emergency, where success depends on a psychological foundation built over years, and that is manifested during such events and thereafter.
Will we manage to calm our preschoolers’ tantrums?
It depends on how clear the boundaries are that we’ve set, and how solid our family rules are. It also depends on our capacity to hear unpleasant emotions being expressed by our child; and it depends on how secure our kids feel with us as trustworthy, reliable adults.
Will we succeed in guiding our children through forming healthy social relationships?
It depends on the examples we set in our social behavior; it depends on the quality of our intra-family communication, which enables us to understand our children, in turn enabling them to turn to us for help; it depends on our having supported and encouraged our children up until now.
Will we be able to send our child back to school in the event that s/he has been bullied or harassed there?
It depends on how the family has handled distress over the years; it depends on the level of trust our children have in our promises to immediately address the situation; it depends on the child’s desire to please us because of her identification with us.
Will we be able to help our child through a scholastic crisis?
It depends on the level of mutual understanding that we’ve reached over the years; it depends on the family atmosphere that we’ve created, and whether that environment encourages pleas for help and responds thereto; it depends upon our capacity to act as authority figures who nevertheless can be leaned on during times of distress; it depends on our flexibility in adapting our behavior to new circumstances.
How this book works
The first three chapters are dedicated to presenting the concept of leadership in parenting:
Chapter 1, The Kids Get Stronger; The Parents Get Weaker, presents reasons behind parents’ sense of helplessness in dealing with their youngsters.
Chapter 2, From Budding Parent to Doormat, describes two extreme, ineffective ways that parents deal with helplessness, as well as a third, middle road between pushover and heavy-handed.
Chapter 3, The Alternative: Parental Leadership, presents the parental leadership philosophy, essential for rearing today’s children.
Chapters 4 through 10 explain the Seven Skills of Parental Leadership:
Chapter 4, Parental Strategic Thinking, explains how the parent as leader takes a long view of her family’s development, and clarifies her family’s goals to herself and her children.
Chapter 5, Setting an Example as a Parent, explains how the parent as leader models her values in her everyday behavior.
Chapter 6, Setting Boundaries as a Parent, explains how the parent as leader sets boundaries resolutely, consistently, clearly, matter-of-factly, and without ambivalence.
Chapter 7, Dialoging in Parenting, explains how the parent as leader listens supportively to her children, expresses herself honestly, and solves conflicts with them through dialog.
Chapter 8, The Empowering Parent, explains how the parent as leader uses her behavior to strengthen her children and to nurture in them a sense of self-worth and capability.
Chapter 9, Parental Partnership, explains how the parent as leader cooperates with her partner to promote their children’s progress.
Chapter 10, Parental Flexibility, explains how the parent as leader adapts her behavior to changing family circumstances.
The genuine desire to empower parents in their capacity to lead their families and to teach them effective ways to shape the optimum family environment are the drivers behind this book. Each chapter contains actual examples from my family therapy practice, from my own family, and quotes from parents. The examples I’ve chosen are neither extreme nor complex. My intent is to increase the reader’s identification with the content, to reassure her that what’s happening at home is also happening every day in other homes and families, and to other parents and children.
The content herein is mainly based on observations of parents, children, and families over my years as an educational psychologist, as head of the Parenting and Family Center at Seminar haKibbutzim College, as a family therapist, and as administrator of a parenting forum at www.hAmit.co.il.
Another source of my writing is my quite varied work as an organizational consultant for managers at various companies and businesses. The understanding that I’ve acquired regarding the importance of leadership in organizations, and my close-up, real-time encounters with families in distress have enabled me to formulate the leadership in parenting philosophy.
Recent studies in developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, learning theory, family therapy, and organizational consulting have contributed to and enriched the development of the leadership in parenting concept. My personal experiences in childrearing are inexhaustible source of examples of my failure to lead, as well as eye-opening evidence of just how far-reaching an influence I have had on my family.
There’s no arguing that children today―an era marked by both tumultuous change and great uncertainty―need influential parents more than ever . Parenting is a complex job that presents its “employees” with problems that demand solutions, and any attempt at a simplistic solution is an erroneous one. Therefore, the endeavor to restore to parents their jobs and their status in their families as responsible, decision-making adults must be understood as a complex effort, not a miracle drug. It is incumbent upon us to learn how not to compromise on family-held values and to act confidently toward our children, in order to effectively implement basic appropriate attitudes and to generate positive change in the family reality.
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