Leadership Begins at Home! What Are You Giving Your Kids? Wings or Rocks?

“Why do you have to be so difficult? Why do you argue with everything we say? Are we such horrible parents that you need to punish us?”

For parents of teenagers or young adults, the above words, or, at least, something very similar will be all too familiar. Many parents secretly find themselves weeping into a pillow at the apparent loss of their once beloved child who seems to have rejected everything they, the parents, hold dear.

Most parents genuinely want the best for their children. However, what few parents understand is that their idea of “the best” may be at odds of what their children think is “the best.” This is particularly true within the context of a family business where parents often have a deep desire to not only pass on a set of values and a legacy but the actual family business itself. Seeing a child in rebellion, especially full-on revolt, can not only be acutely painful, but it can make the cherished dream of having an offspring become the leader in your footsteps seem like pure fantasy.

So what’s a parent to do?

The first stage of leadership: letting go of being the perfect child

Child psychologists tell us that for the first months of a baby’s life, a child has no sense of being separate from everything that surrounds it. As the child gets a little older, the parents begin to guide and correct its behavior. We start teaching our child the difference between right and wrong, in essence passing on our beliefs and values.

It is during this time that a child’s mind is wide open. Research indicates that we learn more between the ages of zero through four than we do the rest of our lives. At this point in our development, we turn nothing away, allowing every idea — no matter how great or how limiting–directly in as if it were an absolute truth handed to us by a heavenly being.

However, once we hit somewhere between eighteen months and two years, depending on the child, we begin to develop a sense of ourselves. We understand, at least at some level, that mom, dad, and everything else are not who we are. At this point, we want to feel safe enough to explore our world both physically and psychologically. This is also the time when most healthy children will find a new favorite word: No! What is it with this emphatic and somewhat automatic “No”? Well, you’ll be glad to know it’s not personal. That “no” is the beginning of a very healthy and important stage of development called Individuation.

I’m not you

Individuation is simply “I’m not you.” It’s the testing and expanding of the psychological boundaries. At this first step in the process, some parents will shut a kid down so fast they won’t know what hit them, and if that’s repeated often enough, the child will learn that the only safe thing to do is repress their own personality and comply.

Other parents (and they are rare) will allow, even support these physical and psychological explorations, thus giving that child a healthy sense of self and a deeper sense of safety in the world. (Note: This does not mean supporting a child in entitled and boundary-less behavior! Parents still have the responsibility to be parents.)

I don’t believe what you believe

By the time, we reach our teens, the opportunity is set for the second stage of individuation to kick in: “I don’t believe what you believe.”

If the repression was oppressive enough in the first stage, a kid might skirt right through adolescence without ever breaking the rules or doing anything to rebel. As much as the parents of such a child may feel “we raised our child right,” you should know that this is not a good thing. If an adolescent child is healthy, he or she will go out and break rules — not just their parents’ rules, but in all likelihood, also some societal rules too.

At this point, some parents will not only shut that kid down, but they may also further indoctrinate the teen with how they are not lovable to either the parent and or society when they behave in a certain manner. If this kind of feedback is repeated often enough, that adolescent may decide that the only safe thing to do is again to comply.

Other parents (and again they are rare) will allow, even support, these physical and psychological explorations by setting up healthy boundaries through co-designed agreements and consequences with their teenaged child. This gives the adolescent a healthy sense of self (autonomy) and a deeper sense that it is safe to explore rather than just conform.

Will you love me if I’m me?

Parents tend to look at their adolescent and young adult children with a rather large dose of judgment. Parents forget that much of what made them successful in their own lives was their drive, and that drive was usually fuelled by a cause. When we stop and examine our causes and the causes of others, we begin to realize that every great leader was driven by something they saw as wrong, or something they knew in their heart of hearts had to be better.

If your child didn’t learn that it was safe to individuate from you (and your beliefs), they will likely never find their own cause. The sad part about that in family businesses, in particular, is your offspring may conform and even satisfy their role in the business, but they will do so with an empty heart and an unfulfilled soul.

So how can you help your kids individuate without giving them permission to self-destruct?

True empathy: the good news

Just for a moment allow yourself to remember when you were (or desperately wanted to) rebelling. You’ll likely remember that you did some dumb things, things that maybe even bring back some embarrassment. However, whether the things you did were damaging or empowering, there is a very good chance that as you look back, you can see that those movements of playing outside the rules were the time that allowed you to see the truth of who you are. The truth of who we are cannot be revealed while we are doing as we are told.

The fact is compliance does not necessarily convey belief.

One of our greatest fears as a member of a family (group) is that we will be expelled from the group. As a result children and adults comply because they want to be accepted, and it costs us our very soul when we trade authenticity for approval.

It’s well documented that kids with empathetic parents have distinct advantages. They experience less depression and less aggression, as well as enjoying a greater sense of self. Also, they have greater levels of empathy for others. The bonus is that parents who practice empathy also report having less depression, less aggression, and better self-worth when they make the effort to understand their children’s feelings.

Empathy understands, but it isn’t coercion

That being said, let’s be clear there is a significant distinction (even though many think they are the same) between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is empowering while sympathy is disempowering. Sympathy is very much about feeling sorry for and validating that the other person is somehow a victim in some way.

Empathy, on the other hand, simply allows you to step into someone else’s reality and begin to understand why they would feel the way they feel without making it wrong.

Here’s the news flash: Just because you have empathy doesn’t mean you agree with your child (or adult child). Or that they will come over to your way of thinking/believing. Often, children will simply polarize what we believe, not because they hate us or even our beliefs, but simply because polarization is an act of individuation.

If you’re going to be genuinely empathetic, you will have to let go of expectations. Empathy is not coercion. It can’t make your child be the person you want them to be.

There comes a point where you have to choose to have a relationship with the person they are or no relationship with the person you want them to be!

Tomorrow’s great leaders are not the ones who simply comply; they are the one who are free to fly.

Tweet: “Tomorrow’s great leaders are not the ones who simply comply; they are the one who are free to fly” — @TheDovBaron

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