Parenting is a Leadership Exercise

I was invited to speak at the Florida Foster and Adoptive Parent Association Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida in June. It is always a special privilege to share with families who are in the trenches. I love meeting them, hearing their stories, and being able to share information and experiences that can help them on their journey of hope and healing. I find it easy to be vulnerable with like minded people. I feel like I want to open up to them, honestly, it’s very therapeutic. Perhaps that is what I ultimately like about having the opportunity to speak at events like this one.

But this isn’t about my time in Orlando at the conference. No, this is about my flight home.

The pilot made two announcements before we left the gate; “Our flight is completely full today” and “It’s probably going to be bumpy as we climb out.” I assume that both of those announcements are made on every flight leaving Orlando in the month of June. It is where Mickey Mouse lives after all and afternoon thunderstorms are a daily occurrence in central Florida.

Soon after that we left the gate and started our journey home. We spent the first fifteen minutes in the air either turning left or right. At no point did it seem like we were flying in a straight line until we were above the clouds because the pilot was navigating the rough air so that we didn’t have to experience the turbulence. He was cutting a path between the clouds to give us the smoothest ride possible. The climb out of Orlando reminded me that someone who is gifted and skilled can masterfully navigate the skies and avoid the turbulent air.

The first 15 minutes of that flight got me thinking that being a parent is a lot like being a pilot. They are both leadership exercises.

Being a parent is a lot like being a pilot. They are both leadership exercises. Click To Tweet

They are both leadership exercises because:

  1. You have to be equipped to do your job
  2. You are responsible for everyone on your “airplane”
  3. You have to navigate the turbulent air

You have to be equipped to do your job

Our pilot didn’t just climb into the cockpit and fly the plane one day. He is a highly trained and experienced person. He did the work necessary to do his job well. He made the investment in himself (and by extension in all of us sitting behind him) to do his job with the skill required.

But training by itself is not enough. He needed the right kind of training. Pilots need to be trained in the principles of flight. Not just flying a plane.

Parents who are raising children with trauma histories need to be trained in trauma. They need to understand the risk factors that make a hard place. They need to understand how that trauma impacts the brain, body, biology, beliefs, and behavior of their child. They need to understand how their kids respond to fear. Understanding these things is vital to your ability to navigate the skies.

We all accept that athletes need a coach and they need to practice so that they can be at their best. Yet, many parents are reluctant to accept that they need a coach or need to practice to be at their best. I doubt that many (if any) of them would fly on an airplane piloted by someone who is neither trained nor experienced.

You are responsible for everyone on your “airplane”

Pilot or parent, like it or not, you are responsible for everyone on your airplane. That’s what you signed up for. We cannot expect our children to have the tools necessary to self-regulate, take responsibility for their actions, or repair their mistakes. We have to show them how. We have to lead them on their healing journey. We have to model these things for them. Dr. Purvis used to say that unless you taught your child how to do something, you should assume that they don’t know how to do it.

As parents, we know that we are responsible for our families, but that responsibility extends way beyond food, shelter, and clothing. We are responsible for their emotional development and relational healing. Adoptive and foster parents have to heal wounds we didn’t inflict and redeem ground we didn’t lose. This is a foundational reality that we have to embrace about parenting kids with trauma histories. This is how we take responsibility for those behind us on our airplane.

You have to navigate the turbulent air

This means two things. We need to find a way to avoid the turbulent air if we can, and since that isn’t always possible, we need to know how to navigate safely back to smooth air when we find ourselves in turbulent air.

I would suggest that there are two ways to do that. One is to be equipped for the journey by getting that training we need in order to understand our kid’s histories. The second way is to become the world’s leading experts in our children. Since being equipped was addressed earlier I won’t repeat it here, I’ll focus on becoming an expert on who your child is.

We must become the world’s leading experts in our children. Click To Tweet

I can’t overstate this point, we need to know who our kids are in order to be the agents of healing they need us to be. We need to know their triggers, their hurts, and their hangups. We need to know how much sleep they need, how frequently they need nutrition and hydration. We need to know their allergies and their reactions to foods and stressors. We need to know what helps them regulate and what we need to do to re-integrate their upstairs and downstairs brains. We can’t navigate the turbulent air if we don’t know these things.

It’s a matter of trust

The pilot made another announcement about 90 minutes into the flight; “Folks, I’m going to turn the seat belt sign on again as it’s getting bumpy, but don’t worry we’ll do our best to find some smooth air for you.” I had no anxiety when he made that announcement. I had complete faith that he would do what he said because he had proven that he could find the smooth air when we started the journey. He had already demonstrated his ability to navigate the skies. That’s how trust is established, you prove that you are up to the task. You lead those you are responsible for to a better place. You show your kids how when they don’t know how. We can’t always avoid the turbulence, but we can do our best to find the smooth air. We have to, our kids are depending on us.

That’s how trust is established, you prove that you are up to the task. Click To Tweet

Just in case you were wondering, the seat belt sign was turned off 20 minutes later when we found ourselves back in the clean air.

My thanks to Captain Chuck Oltman (pictured below) for the safe, smooth flight home.

Don’t Create a Vacuum

There is a great parenting strategy I think we should all subscribe to; don’t remove a coping mechanism or survival strategy from a child unless you have something better to replace it with. Don’t create a vacuum if you are not prepared to fill it. Vacuums by definition cannot remain unfilled. If you’re not equipped to replace your child’s survival strategy with something that helps them, don’t take the strategy away. Let them keep it until you can help them because if you don’t they will develop another coping strategy.

Don’t remove a survival strategy from a child unless you can replace it. Click To Tweet

Who Has The Greater Responsibility?

kids running

One of the biggest struggles I’ve had as a parent is a pretty common one. And that is requiring better behavior from my children than I require from other adults or even myself. One of the ways I usually justify the higher standard for my kids is that I am teaching them and training them to be better than I am. I don’t want them to make the same mistakes that I have made. I want them to avoid the things that I have done wrong.

At least that’s what I tell myself…

But here’s the thing, a five-year-old is, after all, a five-year-old no matter what.

I believe that children are often capable of a lot more than we think they are, but to assume that kids are always capable of bigger things is a mistake. This is really significant when there is a difference between their chronological age and their emotional age. We have to teach them foundational things (emotional age) before we can require correct behaviors (chronological age) from them.

Attitudes are Foundational

One of the things we do is tell our kids to have a good attitude. We even have them split their bad attitudes out when they aren’t behaving well.

Before our oldest two were of school-going age we had them at an in-home daycare a few houses down the street from ours. Their care provider was a very sweet woman who had a favorite saying, “obey right away with a good attitude.” I’m a big fan of catchy sayings because they make concepts easy to remember. They make wrong things appear correct and easy to remember as well.

What does obey right away with a good attitude mean? What does it mean to you and what does it mean to your kids? I bet you just came up with three different answers.

The question we have to ask is do little children even know what an attitude is? It’s a word that we use a lot but does it hold meaning for our kids? They don’t read the dictionary so you have to explain it to them. And if you don’t teach them what it means you’re just asking little people to be accountable to a standard that they don’t even understand. That’s on us. We need to be the example, not just the enforcer.

As adults, we should always be held to the higher standard. We should never expect a five-year-old to act like anything but a five-year-old. We need to model right behavior. We need to require the best from ourselves because that’s the only way they will learn. In the adult-child relationship, all of the responsibility to act like an adult is on us.

Why Can’t You Just Move On?

graduateWe are just about to enter another commencement season here in Texas. High schools and colleges will graduate students by the thousands most weekends between mid-May and mid-June. I attended a high school graduation last year and was very impressed as I heard about the students academic achievements.

While I listened I started thinking about our kids. I thought how there are some difficult days when we may have to deal with an issue for the tenth time that day and we wonder when we won’t have to deal with it again. And like most of us, I remembered times when I would wonder when they would just “get past” some of their behaviors. I know that I was wrong because healing and growing are different from ignoring and moving on, no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that they are the same thing.

There are some in the adoption and foster care community who believe that if you just love your kids enough, and if you can get enough distance from their trauma (relational, physical, or any other), that they will graduate from their behaviors. That’s where many people go wrong, our kids need to heal instead of just move on from one stage of their lives to the next. Besides, where is the evidence that supports that way of thinking?

When I hear people say that our kids need to “get over it and just move on” I always come back to the same question; if moving on is so easy then why are there adults who are still afraid of the dark?

It’s almost like we want to separate our kids from their pasts because we think that is what’s best for them and easiest for us, although I can’t think of a single time where sweeping things under the rug was the best long term solution for anything. Something about things that are done in the darkness being brought into the light keeps tugging at me.

The problem with “time heals all wounds” is that we, in our fast paced culture, think that there is a direct time correlation between wounds and healing. For example, if a child went hungry during their first two years of their life then surely having food whenever they want for the next two years should be enough for them to trust that they won’t go hungry again. It’s almost like we assume that one cancels out the other. We want to believe that there is a 1:1 ratio between trauma and healing. But I can assure you that is not the case. Healing takes time and effort.

I recently fell and cut my leg. Two weeks later it is healed and there is a scar where the cut once was. It only took two seconds to cut my leg, but it has taken 1,210,000 seconds, give or take, for it to heal. That’s a wound to healing ratio of 1:605,000 and there will always be a scar to remind me of my wound.

We universally accept certain realities about physical injuries. We accept that healing takes a lot longer than the original injury took to inflict and that we will always have scars to remind us of our wounds.

If we easily accept the realities of physical wounds why can’t we accept those same realities when it comes to emotional wounds?

If a child experienced hunger for any amount of time it is probably safe to assume that they will spend their lifetime wondering if they will always have enough to eat. Actor Sidney Poitier famously carries a candy bar in his pocket because he experienced hunger as a child and even with his wealth and his fame he needs to know that he has immediate access to food whenever he wants it.

If a child was abandoned then you need to assume that it will take many years of you coming back every time you leave before they will consider that people are safe and can be trusted. Because healing takes effort and a lot more time than it took to inflict the original wound.

Always remember that our kids need to heal and not simply graduate from their behaviors. If we really want them to move forward we have to realize that true graduation is the result of healing. Our kids need to know that they can trust us. We need to love them in their difficult moments as well as their easy moments. We need to love them when their behaviors make sense and when they don’t.

Repair Your Mistakes: Apologize to Your Kids

One of the best things we can do for our children is apologize to them when we have acted poorly and harmed the relationship. The simple act of saying “I’m sorry for what I did” and “will you please forgive me?” can be difficult at times, but modeling humility and repairing mistakes are two of the best investments we can make.

Father and daughter hugging

The Bible says the children are a blessing from the Lord. That’s a big, sobering statement because as their parents we have the responsibility to raise them well. There are days when I feel like I get it wrong and I know I have to repair the relational wounds and distance I created.

Let’s look at parenting from 10,000 feet for a minute. Most parents have their feet fairly firmly planted in one of the following camps. They are either:

  1. Do as I say parents (lead by instruction)
  2. Do as I do parents (lead by example)

I realize that I am painting with a pretty broad brush here, and that it is possible, and healthy, to have your feet in both camps. Think of it this way; do as I say parenting is rooted in structure while do as I do parenting is rooted in nurture, and we know that our kids need both structure and nurture from us.

In the interest of full disclosure, this post is probably going to be difficult for the do as I say crowd. I get that it is often, if not always, the path of least resistance to be a do as I say parent. However, following the path of least resistance is not always what our kids need from us. What they need is for us to meet them where they are and to build trust through stronger connection.

One of the best things we can do for our children is apologize to them when we have acted poorly and harmed the relationship. The simple act of saying “I’m sorry for what I did” and “will you please forgive me?” can be difficult at times, but modeling humility and repairing mistakes are two of the best investments we can make.

How do we teach our children to apologize? Simple, we apologize to them.

Most of us will usually just say “I’m sorry” when we wrong someone because it’s easy and almost dismissive, but a real apology requires you to humble yourself, admit what you did wrong and ask for forgiveness.

We found that saying sorry was the easiest part of the equation. Learning to say what we were sorry for was hard to remember at first, but with enough practice we started to get it.

The second part required a lot more effort. Asking for forgiveness is hard on its own, but asking for forgiveness from a six-year-old because you yelled at them for running in the house is harder still. “Why should I apologize to her? She was running in the house” I would tell myself. But then it occurred to me…I’m the adult and I have the greater responsibility and the higher standard to live up to.

It’s important to remember that apologizing is a two-step process. In order for things to be made right forgiveness must be specifically asked for and granted.

Here is an example of a dialogue between me and my six-year-old daughter after I yelled at her:

Me: I’m sorry that I yelled at you.
Her: Thank you daddy.
Me: Will you please forgive me?
Her: Of course I will.
Me: Thank you sweetie.

That was a lot simpler to write than it was to do for the first time or the second time…or the third time. I think you get the point. But if you will do it sincerely and consistently it will become easier.

We have to model apologizing for our children. The only way they will learn how to apologize is if we show them.

This post also appears on One Big Happy Home and the Tapestry blog.

Repair Your Mistakes: Apologize to Your Kids

One of the best things we can do for our children is apologize to them when we have acted poorly and harmed the relationship. The simple act of saying “I’m sorry for what I did” and “will you please forgive me?” can be difficult at times, but modeling humility and repairing mistakes are two of the best investments we can make.

Father and daughter hugging

The Bible says the children are a blessing from the Lord. That’s a big, sobering statement because as their parents we have the responsibility to raise them well. There are days when I feel like I get it wrong and I know I have to repair the relational wounds and distance I created.

Let’s look at parenting from 10,000 feet for a minute. Most parents have their feet fairly firmly planted in one of the following camps. They are either:

  1. Do as I say parents (lead by instruction)
  2. Do as I do parents (lead by example)

I realize that I am painting with a pretty broad brush here, and that it is possible, and healthy, to have your feet in both camps. Think of it this way; do as I say parenting is rooted in structure while do as I do parenting is rooted in nurture, and we know that our kids need both structure and nurture from us.

In the interest of full disclosure, this post is probably going to be difficult for the do as I say crowd. I get that it is often, if not always, the path of least resistance to be a do as I say parent. However, following the path of least resistance is not always what our kids need from us. What they need is for us to meet them where they are and to build trust through stronger connection.

One of the best things we can do for our children is apologize to them when we have acted poorly and harmed the relationship. The simple act of saying “I’m sorry for what I did” and “will you please forgive me?” can be difficult at times, but modeling humility and repairing mistakes are two of the best investments we can make.

How do we teach our children to apologize? Simple, we apologize to them.

Most of us will usually just say “I’m sorry” when we wrong someone because it’s easy and almost dismissive, but a real apology requires you to humble yourself, admit what you did wrong and ask for forgiveness.

We found that saying sorry was the easiest part of the equation. Learning to say what we were sorry for was hard to remember at first, but with enough practice we started to get it.

The second part required a lot more effort. Asking for forgiveness is hard on its own, but asking for forgiveness from a six-year-old because you yelled at them for running in the house is harder still. “Why should I apologize to her? She was running in the house” I would tell myself. But then it occurred to me…I’m the adult and I have the greater responsibility and the higher standard to live up to.

It’s important to remember that apologizing is a two-step process. In order for things to be made right forgiveness must be specifically asked for and granted.

Here is an example of a dialogue between me and my six-year-old daughter after I yelled at her:

Me: I’m sorry that I yelled at you.
Her: Thank you daddy.
Me: Will you please forgive me?
Her: Of course I will.
Me: Thank you sweetie.

That was a lot simpler to write than it was to do for the first time or the second time…or the third time. I think you get the point. But if you will do it sincerely and consistently it will become easier.

We have to model apologizing for our children. The only way they will learn how to apologize is if we show them.

This post also appears on One Big Happy Home and the Tapestry blog.