The Mind of a Benevolent Dictator

Flashback to October 2008. I had just purchased a home for my family of five. I consider it a modest home in a suburban community of New Jersey. It’s a four bedroom center hall colonial. This would be the home that my wife and I would watch our children enter adulthood. While the road was rocky, we reached terra firma. I release a sigh of relief. I see the home as a symbol for stability. My nine year old son, Jake, sees it as a symbol of status.

We have an innate motive to bond with one another. Belonging to a group gives a sense we are bigger than soley our own actions. Clarity of this point was evident when Jake innocently said, “Dad, this is a really nice house. How much is our house worth?” My stark response wasn’t meant to be offensive rather direct and set up the proper boundaries. “Our house? I’m sorry son, if I misled you in anyway. This house is your Mom and my house. You see, we are Benevolent Dictators. You get to live, eat, and enjoy certain personal freedoms within the parameters we set within this house. You will be asked to do certain chores in exchange for these living conditions. Our names are on the deed of this house, but this is your home until you are an adult. Then with hard work and diligence, you too, can have a house like this. I’m glad you like it.”

You see, we are Benevolent Dictators. You get to live, eat, and enjoy certain personal freedoms within the parameters we set within this house.

What made me have such a cold response on such an innocent question from a child? Was it a better response than, “None of your business”? I grew up in a time that a child’s curiousity was answered with such bluntness. If analyzed, it is a correct statement and not too different from mine. Are you in a position to own this home at 9 years old? No. Then, it’s none of your business. Do you have an ownership stake in this property? No. Then, it’s none of your business. The only difference between “None of your business”, and my response, I clearly defined roles and boundaries. Part in parcel, I know this is what I wanted as a child. Instead of the inferred reference that I should not concern myself with matters that I don’t have a stake in, I wanted to know where I fit in. We have that innate motivation to belong. No organization, whether in family, business, or government, is flat by design. There is an established heirarchy and we want to know where we fit.

Let’s move to August 2011. We are headed down to Pompano Beach for a family vacation. Sporadically throughout the trip down to Florida, Jake was quizing us about costs of services. How much is it for car insurance, cell phone service, rent, internet, etc? I asked why. Now that is several years later, I know Jake understands the heirarchy and his place in family. What was his motivation this time? His insightful response to my simple question was, “I am 12 and will be off in college in 6 years. I am trying to figure out how I am going to be able to afford to live.” My initial thought was, why isn’t he worried about baseball cards, his friends, and who was going to be the next Super Bowl champion? He’s only 12 years old, after all. I collected my thoughts and this was my response. “Jake, right now, you get to eat sushi, play on your iPhone, and are driven to all of your extra curricular activities. I am actually happy to see you appreciate what your Mom and I are able to provide for you and your sisters. It wasn’t always that way. There were plenty of years that we ate Mac & Cheese Dinner, ramen noodles, and I drove a 1979 Gran Prix that I bought for $600 that had a pool of water in the footwells everytime it rained. Your Mom and I have gone on less childhood vacations combined then we can count on one hand. My point is, you will go through your ramen noodle phase, just like we did and you will be fine.” This time his motive was simply understanding what to expect in the coming years and make decisions based on that understanding. So my words backfired on me during that trip. Jake’s perception was he better get as much of the “good life” before things go terribly wrong. That vacation he ate the finest cuts of meat and fish the restaurants had to offer. I had a steadfast rule that we don’t argue about cost of vacation. Doesn’t mean we go overboard, but we enjoy ourselves and the hard work we’ve put in to have this time.

Your Mom and I have gone on less childhood vacations combined then we can count on one hand.

So, now Jake is learning to drive, but it’s the Benevolent Dictator that is learning. Yes, Jake is learning the mechanics of how to get from one place to another in a safe manner. My lessons go much deeper. As I went to hand Jake the keys for the very first time, I said, “Jake, I know you understand about how a car works. What I want you to realize is the tremendous amount of trust and responsibility you have as a driver. I am trusting you with nothing less than my life. You are responsible to make sure that I or any other passenger is safe.” This is his first lesson in becoming a Benevolent Dictator. Whether he felt he had the choice as a child, he had complete trust in me and his mother to make sure he was safe. For me to return the most genuine compliment one human being to offer another brings a certain inner peace. While love is patient and kind, unconditional love is stark and harsh. This was the ultimate lesson for this Benevolent Dictator.

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