The Continuum of Parent Leadership

From a recent letter written by Patty Wipfler, the International Liberation Reference Person for Parents, to her constituency

Parenting is first and foremost a long-term commitment to nurture at least one young person through his or her formative and vulnerable early years. It’s both an intimate relationship and a job we parents pour our energy into for decades.

A less well-recognized but no less powerful aspect of parenting is that it offers a prime opportunity to develop our leadership. Seeing ourselves as leaders of our families gives us a powerful perspective from which to decide each day how to use our time and resources. As leaders, we need to do what we can to be well fed, well exercised, and well rested in order to meet the challenges before us. As leaders, we have the opportunity to set expectations and limits in our families that lead to the long-term good, although in the short run our decisions may sometimes be restimulating to our children or our close allies. As leaders, we need to stand behind our best thinking about the greater good for our children and our families, regardless of the prevailing culture’s assumptions and judgments.


Leaders need good support, so they can make the best decisions possible at the moment, follow through, and learn from their experience. If we discharge our way to decisions, then back1 ourselves fully, we can put all our energy into carrying out our plans. This gives us a chance to make good, clean efforts to parent thoughtfully and to evaluate the results of our best thinking. It’s a far different model than scrambling from day to day (although every good leader does plenty of scrambling, too). We don’t need to settle for getting by, wait and hope for a better time, or resign ourselves to persistent difficulties.

Parents exercise leadership daily. Our leadership activities go unnoticed, by us or anyone else, because parenting is such an undervalued vocation. The resolution to snuggle in the morning for a few moments with a child who has a hard time getting to school is an act of leadership. The decision to throw peas back and forth across the dinner table to help engage a not-so-thrilled-to-be-at-dinner teen is an act of leadership. And arranging for childcare so that we can have one-on-one time with a friend or parenting partner is leadership.

Here’s my picture of the continuum of parent leadership—a path of growth, learning, and increasing skill and awareness that all of us are on.


We parents begin our careers learning the job at an intense rate: every two hours we’re called upon to meet the needs of our child. It’s a whole new world that we encounter, and internally our whole way of seeing ourselves and those around us changes radically. It’s hard to describe to non-parents how thoroughly we are changed by the arrival of each child. The intimate relationship that begins at birth is as significant to us as it is to our child.

We begin our leadership in parenting by learning the ropes,2 both of caring for our child and of caring for ourselves in this new role. We have a new person to “learn,” and we become new people, too, in the sense that the nature of almost all our relationships changes measurably with parenthood.


As we learn our job and “learn” our child or children, we face the need to build support. Moms seek out other moms, often, but dads don’t always find other dads to talk to and parent alongside. We try to keep up with Co-Counseling sessions and the activities of the RC Community. We try to care well for ourselves. And we almost always find ourselves far behind where we feel we “should” be. If our individual energy and attention are the locomotive, parents’ oppression adds on twenty or thirty boxcars to pull, weighted with things to learn, details to keep track of, worries to discharge, relationships to maintain, paying work to conduct, and the thousand daily interactions that we, and our children, hope will go well. It’s no wonder it takes a while for the locomotive to gain some speed!


Taking on3 oppression and building support are inextricably linked in our lives. Sometimes the oppression gains the upper hand and we feel bad that we’re not thinking more elegantly. We worry. We see our children struggling, or our own relationships hit a difficult patch. And as we reach out for help, we may not ask in ways that work well for us. But reach we must, and discharge we must. And we do. Parent support groups, sessions, friends, church and community groups, the storyteller at the library, a favorite relative—we find oases of caring and attention and figure out how to link up with other people and with rewarding activities. And at this point, we’ve set up the conditions for leadership: a mission, an understanding that the oppression and the obstacles it presents aren’t our fault, and some sources of regular support and discharge.


With support in place, we can get the time to think proactively. What issue can I tackle so that life goes better here? A good night’s sleep? The playground interactions at my child’s school? The hassles over video games or TV? The morning aggravations that go with getting everyone ready? The safety of children on our block?

Then we focus, prioritize that issue, and try things. We let other issues ride4 while we discharge our distresses and gather our wits about that one tangle. As we learn, everyone in the family learns. As we try things, family members see the clear focus. Having to muddle through all the other unresolved issues doesn’t bother them quite so much because there’s a goal, there’s the leadership to tackle it, and resource is being brought to bear.5 There’s action and discharge, pointed in an interesting and strategically important direction. Other issues can wait. Tackling this one strengthens our hand for the future.


As we tackle a key issue, we become more confident that however lost we may feel, discharge will help us learn. We learn that feeling like we have no idea what to do is a feeling. Just that. And strengthened by our leadership within our families, we feel hopeful enough to begin to take leadership outside the family. We build friendships. We create children’s clothing and toy trades, and child-care co-ops. We initiate neighborhood meetings to discuss and solve safety issues. We start talking regularly about our lives as parents where it may not have been the custom to mention parenthood before. Again, we pick an issue, act, and discharge, and learn from what happens.

Many of us decide to lead in RC, to help build the practice of loving people and offering the room for discharge and thinking that benefits us all. I am deeply appreciative of all of you who have worked hard to make RC leadership a part of your lives. Many families benefit from the learning you do and the initiatives you take.

Because oppression is heavy, some of our leadership experiments in the wide world don’t work. We meet resistance and restimulation we didn’t expect. We discharge. I can’t emphasize how important our “failures” are. The messes we trigger are usually caused by the interaction between the rigidities of society and the hidden land mines of chronic distress that we, and others around us, carry. These messes are hard but often necessary. They illuminate the landscape of oppression and individual distress in ways that nothing else can. Sometimes they throw us back to step one—devoting attention to learning our job as parents—because the other more complex efforts we were making didn’t work with certain distresses in place. This is okay. This is life as a parent.


Leading in the society is a stage that is available to all of us, whether we ever envisioned this kind of role for ourselves or not.

Some parent leaders in RC lead in society from hidden places: there are several parent leaders who have quietly placed themselves in key positions of support and inspiration behind policy makers and policy groups and in agencies that make a difference. Their names won’t be in lights, but their good thinking and their ability to bring others together to set wise policy are key in progressive political and policy circles. Others have managed to openly change lives on a large scale. I could name a hundred parent leaders who are making a significant difference, either quietly or openly. Their influence reaches far outside their local communities.


Almost every parent I know has bounced back and forth many times between the basic learn-the-job stage and the other stages of parent leadership. In particular, the transition of our children into adolescence deserves attention here.

Life for adolescents, and now for pre-teens, is challenging in this advanced capitalist society. There’s money to be made from teens’ desires to fit in, desires to feel good about themselves, needs to understand their budding sexuality, and desires to have outlets for play and companionship. A materialistic, cynical, disconnected, everyone-for-himself culture has made inroads into the lives of teens everywhere in the United States. So when our children approach adolescence, it makes sense for us to devote time and attention to learning the parenting job again, from the bottom up. This often means taking the time to be home and available, and discharging plenty as we work to keep the doors to healthy activities, relationships, and learning open for our teens. Parent leaders, and RC leaders who are parents, may step back at this time and concentrate on leading their families, especially if they are the main emotional anchor their children depend on.

Adolescents need their parents to be available, to be present, to be discharging their worries and upsets. Adolescents need someone home at night. They need someone home on the weekends. They need parents who are not intensely busy all the time so there’s enough of an atmosphere of relaxation to give them respite from the internalized oppression they face at school and among their friends. They don’t feel dependent on their parents. They feel quite the opposite. But the invisible offer of closeness at any time is vital during adolescence. In baseball terms, parents are playing right field for several years. They’re an important part of the team—without their paying close attention in that position, the game would surely be lost—but there’s not much action in right field for long stretches of time. We need to be around and in good shape6 during those long stretches. During this stage of parenting, our ability to go to workshops, teach classes, and attend meetings may be much altered.

As leaders of our families with adolescent children, we need to help our Communities understand that we’re not abandoning leadership if we decide on a policy of only so many night meetings a month or so many weekend workshops a year. We’re exercising leadership. We’re doing what it takes to stay connected and keep oppression at arm’s length during a particularly tricky stage of our children’s lives. . . .


. . . Thanks for the leadership you take in your family and beyond. Thank you for continuing to tackle parents’ oppression through the relationships you’ve built, both inside and outside RC. Thanks for reaching out, over and over again, to do the human, loving thing. We parents are good. We parents are good. 

1 Back means support.
2 Learning the ropes means learning how to do the job.
3 Taking on means confronting and doing something about.
4 In this context, ride means be set aside.
5 Brought to bear means applied to the situation.

Last modified: 2015-01-24 05:46:37+00