On the Front Lines…Parents and Educators In Service
Our Call to a Greater Purpose
My twelve-year-old’s history assignment this week was to read and reflect on the book, “Attack on Pearl Harbor” by Shelley Tanaka and Paintings by David Craig which offered perspectives on the experience of families in Hawaii at the start of World War II.1 As he was reading, he pointed out all of the commonalities between that moment in history and this one. “Mom, people were lined up outside of grocery stores just like they are here,” he told me. And schools were closed. People were ordered to stay in their houses especially after dark. But of course, there were differences too. Some classrooms were damaged as in the photograph taken in Honolulu. Families had to fully blacken their windows so that no lights shone at night for fear of air raids. Uncertainty and danger defined their lives.
There’s much we can learn by revisiting times in which survival – health and safety – determined how we lived day to day. In sustained crisis, we can lose our ability to reason, to think rationally. Our mind feels paralyzed as the “emotional hyjacking” of our brain to our primal state focuses us on fight, flight or freeze. The word “crisis” in Japanese means both danger and opportunity. In fact, my son relayed that the U.S. military accidentally shot down five U.S. planes in their panic and worry. There is a danger if we allow our panic and worry to consume our daily lives. That fear or sense of overwhelm can block our ability to consider how we are making responsible decisions and connecting with our immediate loved ones each day.
So what can help? Research confirms that in times of struggle, a focus on the bigger picture can create a wiser mental state.2 In truth, parents are the front line of this germ war, the danger/opportunity we are currently facing with #COVID19. Parents who are staying home, preparing home-cooked meals, and supporting their children in their education perhaps while working or going to school themselves are indeed engaged in national service, global service. Educators too who are supporting families from their homes are deeply engaged in service. If we focus on the bigger picture – our public health – and the fact that every human around the globe is impacted, then service begins at home. And we, as parents and as educators, are the servant leaders. No task is too small or mundane to contribute to this service. Our perspective shift can contribute to seizing the opportunity of this moment to learn and grow stronger together.
Parents, by the very nature of our roles, serve in a leadership position while we raise our children. A servant leader realizes that his or her ability to significantly influence others and achieve any vision comes from serving others. Understanding the qualities of a successful leader – that of a servant leader – can assist any parent in further refining his or her values and skills to better perform her role. Research on power demonstrates that the skills required to rise to leadership are empathy and social skills.3 However, interestingly, those are the very skills that become the most challenging to leaders once they have acquired power. So when we are parenting, we may have a greater challenge than in other roles with our ability to be empathetic and to demonstrate social intelligence.
Robert Greenleaf, author of “The Servant as Leader” and management researcher who consulted with major corporations like AT&T and lectured at MIT and Harvard, defined what it means to be a servant leader.4 He writes that leaders always have a larger goal in mind and can well articulate it. That goal may not be fully achievable in a lifetime but offers sufficient inspiration and vision to motivate all members to pursue it. For example, our family’s vision is to love one another unconditionally while supporting each other as we pursue learning and working toward our highest dreams and potentials. And we measure our major life decisions based on that vision. Parents as servant leaders prioritize and build trust as a critical foundation for their family’s interconnected relationships and individual successes. They are responsible decision makers, and they exercise sound judgment showing competence in what they do.
The concept of servant leadership can offer a frame of mind as parents and educators consider their role and how they might focus on the bigger picture so this moment in history becomes defined by opportunity in the face of danger. Here are some of the main lessons from Robert Greenleaf ‘s concept of a servant leader that I’ve translated for our roles.
Listen for Understanding
When a family member has a problem, Greenleaf would advise listening first for understanding. And though it may require some time and possibly awkward silence with children, taking the time to listen to truly make sense of what the child is both feeling and thinking can result in a much richer dialogue between parent and child. Instead of rushing to fix as we so often tend to do, we offer a significant show of respect by actively listening. Instead of projecting our worries on our child, we can better tune into their cues and listen deeply to discover what they are feeling. It’s often said, the better you define a problem, the better the solution. And in this case, stopping to listen can help prompt a child’s thinking and uncover the sub-text – their feelings – so that your child is able to accept and manage their own stress and create their own best solutions. If you are interested in exercising your listening skills in family life, check out a number of ideas in the article, “Say What?”
Communicate for Connection
At this moment when a constant stress pervades our household, parents can create opportunities for learning by communicating for connection. In the busyness of our lives, at times, we forget to take time out to explain why we are so busy about our pursuits. And it helps to relate our rationale to a child’s life such as their learning goals in school or our care with getting food. For example, there are sacrifices we are all making right now by supporting our children in home education, by taking pay cuts or losing work, and by not going to restaurants or other public places. So it’s important to make meaning out of these sacrifices and connect it to a larger picture, our health and the health of those in our community. This helps us all stay focused and endure the temporary stressors while working toward a bigger vision.
Embrace the Art of Withdrawal
The art of withdrawal is the ability to step back, to step out of the throes of current circumstances, and to reflect. This withdrawal could involve taking a walk or simple getting outside. It could mean removing yourself from the room to another place to cool down. Or it could be as simple as employing “Strange Calm,” sitting down in the midst of chaos to regain your centered focus. This is such a critical point for our roles as parents and servant leaders. Not only does it give us permission to “leave the building,” it’s encouragement to do so. Yes, we need to make family members aware in advance that we will be withdrawing at times. Yes, we need to ensure that our children are safe before we withdraw. But we can use this technique to fuel our own sense of well-being as we treat our feelings and thoughts with the care they deserve in leading our family. We return from our withdrawal with a sense of renewed purpose and clearer thinking to retain their trust and make sound decisions.
Accept and Empathize
Family members need to feel accepted in the group at all times. Their membership needs to be treated and viewed as essential. Nothing could cause them to be cast out. E said to me last night at bedtime as we were saying goodnight, “Will you love me no matter what?” with a teasing tone. But I know that he needs to hear it “Yes, come what may, no matter what, I will love you.” All kids do. And not just once but often, especially in times of stress and strain. Greenleaf writes, “Parents who try to raise perfect children are certain to raise neurotics.” Getting comfortable with and expecting mistakes as a part of our children’s learning process is a core part of our own acceptance in our parenting. That acceptance demonstrates our empathy for our children who hold us and how we regard them in their highest esteem. And we can further work on cultivating our empathy and understanding for our children by regularly learning about their development so we can relate better to their particular kinds of challenges.
There are numerous ways to learn about your children’s development. As a start, check out the site Healthy Children.org by the American Academy of Pediatrics or read “Confident Parents, Confident Kids” with its age by stage guide of social and emotional development.
Foresight is the ability to make responsible decisions combining factual information with our intuition. But in addition, we have to consider the consequences down the road for the choices we are making today. And helping our children become responsible requires us to model that skill. Talking aloud about the ethics of a choice — like planning our meals and food purchases to enable us to stay at home for extended periods — and how others might be impacted in future days or years can help children become aware that they need to consider their own and other’s futures in their decision-making. It’s rare when all of the pieces of information required are fully at hand when we need to make a choice. Usually, there is a bit of a leap of faith involved particularly when it’s a larger decision. Children will learn to better trust themselves as you show faith in your own inner wisdom to guide you.
We cannot lead a family toward a vision without self-awareness. And that self-knowledge is not a one-time event but a process of introspection, looking within to understand what patterns we might be repeating that we want to change and what values are core to who we are and how we want to show up in the world. The art of withdrawal can assist with our awareness as we take time out to reflect on what our deepest self is telling us. That pause is necessary if we are to make choices not on impulse but on a deeper knowing. In addition, we need to cultivate an awareness of our family members’ feelings which can be strengthened over time with practice. “What’s Dad feeling tonight? Can you tell by his facial expression how his day went?” Taking small opportunities to notice other family members’ feelings can strengthen this skill in yourself and your children.
Taking a step back and evaluating your role as a parent or educator servant leader can be nothing short of revolutionary. Since change always begins at the individual level, we can seize this chance to improve our world right at home. If we desire leaders – whether they serve in our communities, our workplaces or our governments – who are caring, socially responsible and compassionate, we plant those seeds daily by modeling it as servant leaders with our own children. How will you take leadership at home during this time when you have the opportunity to serve on the front lines?
- Tanaka, S., & Craig, D. (2001). Attack on Pearl Harbor: The True Story of the Day America Entered World War II. NY: Scholastic.
2. Stillman, P.E., Kentaro, F., Sheldon, O., & Trope, Y. (2018). From “me” to “we”: The role of construal level in promoting maximized joint outcomes. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 147: 16 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2018.05.004
3. Keltner, D. (2016). The power paradox; How we gain and lose influence. NY: Penguin Press.
4. Greenleaf, R. (1991). The servant as leader. Indianapolis, IN: The Robert K. Greenleaf Center.