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Parenting as the Road to Leadership Skills

We parents tend to see ourselves as caregivers. This seems "natural" because after all, what moms and dads do every day is tend to the next things that need to be done-we do the laundry, make lunches, wipe noses, and resolve quarrels between our children. We may manage to plan ahead as part of our parent job, but most of the time our minds are filled with immediate necessities and decisions and the vital details of life with young people. Most of us experience parenting as a long series of challenges which compete for our attention, each challenge dressed in urgency and arriving on the heels of the one we just managed to meet.

In the thick of this detailed work, it can improve our perspective to think of ourselves as leaders of our families. Consider your situation. You, the parent, are a member of a small band of people who care about each other. You are fortunate enough to have the tools of counseling which unlock the mystery of your own irrationalities and point the way toward healing for yourself, your allies, and your children. With these tools, you can change your understanding of your daily work as a parent. You still do the daily work-the diapering, the playing, the problem-solving, and the quick shifts in priorities all continue, no matter how you think of yourself-but if you consider yourself a leader, allotting an hour or two of discharge time every week to address your issues as leader of your family, you won't be confined to "coping" with the overload of work that lands in your lap in this oppressive society. You can lead. You can think.

Consider the skills it takes to lead an organization successfully. Any organization would go far with a leader who could:

  • listen
  • gather information
  • win friends, win the confidence of others
  • set immediate priorities
  • identify the key issue facing the group
  • gather and focus resource on that issue
  • strategize for the long-term progress of the group
  • build alliances
  • win agreement on good policy
  • communicate that policy well
  • handle attacks
  • keep a sense of humor
  • see to his/her own excellent support and re-emergence
  • build new leadership

We parents have the opportunity to practice all these skills at home on a daily basis with the people we love. Led well, a family becomes a cradle for the development of good judgment and sound thinking for every member.

I'd like to briefly touch on several of the skills we can develop as leaders of our families. You'll see that we do very basic, vital leadership work as we move through our seemingly ordinary days and weeks as mothers and fathers.


Listening is the most basic and necessary of leadership skills. In our families, listening is that connective tissue which holds us together, giving each person the attention he or she needs to be seen, to care openly, to be appreciated, and to use the discharge process when hurt intrudes. We listen in play. We listen to upset. We listen to what is said and not said; we notice what is done and not done. We set aside "Special Time" with each of our children to insure that they have the regular opportunity to hold the reins of the relationship they have with us.

When problems arise, we listen. When important events occur, we listen. As leaders of our families, we make sure that the opportunities to connect with each other are frequent and significant. The listening we do in our families enables all members to climb back into the same boat together when they get tossed out by isolation and hurt. And we include our own needs for listening in this web, making sure that someone-counselor, partner, good friend-listens to us think and discharge about our families.

The success of any organization depends upon the lines of listening that are established and upon how well they are maintained. As parents, we see daily that there are lots of non-listening solutions offered to "solve" the problems within families. Eager for simpler, quicker answers, we try these and are fortunate enough to see again and again that other solutions are far inferior in their results to the power of listening-allowing discharge and obtaining discharge for ourselves on the knotty problems we face. The daily practice we get as parents readies us for the work of building community, person by person, using listening as our primary tool in any organization we choose.


Gathering information requires listening, but it's a little different. If our child has trouble learning to read, we talk to her teacher, we consult with others in our family, but most importantly, we go straight to the child herself. We watch carefully as she tries to tackle a reading task or refuses to tackle that task. We notice the details of how distress unravels her confidence, the details of how she struggles with the distress or gives up in helplessness. We notice and consider every detail, even if we don't understand how each detail fits into the larger picture.

We are fortunate to know how to handle any distress of our own which may attach itself to the information we are gathering. We discharge any helplessness, any blame, or any identification between the person we intend to assist and people in our past (including ourselves in our own childhoods). Often, once we have cleaned our own distress from the situation we are trying to understand, the information-gathering process leads to very simple problem-solving steps. This lesson, which parents have the opportunity to learn over and over again, is an invaluable one for consistent good leadership in any group.


Winning friends is a skill most new parents usually don't realize they will have to develop. When you don't have children, you don't have to put much thought to building friendships and winning confidence-there's time to tinker, time to experiment, time to bump randomly into people until friendships seem to form "by themselves." Once children arrive, all available time is devoured, most available free attention is focused on learning this job of parenting, and suddenly, friendships are precious. The social isolation of parents tends to rob us of our friends who don't have children; the tremendous workload tends to rob us of our friends who have children.

In the unexpected throes of isolation, we learn to be much more intentional about winning friends. Of course, our friendships proceed better when we discharge our desperation for help, our disappointment in those we had hoped would help more, and the feelings of helplessness that wrap around the day-to-day reality of parents' oppression.

Once we've broken through this isolation, we bring to our leadership of any group all our hard-won experience as mothers and fathers. We have made friends in spite of too little time, too little money, inadequate transportation, too many worries, and too many bad feelings to want to talk to anyone. We've made many necessary mistakes. We've found, in hunt and peck fashion, where we could and couldn't think. We've discharged and grown stronger-and we have won friends.

We gain our own confidence back, and with it comes the confidence of others. The parent who has faced and beaten the isolation of parents' oppression is a seasoned veteran, ready to win friends and win the confidence of others in any organization he or she chooses-not without challenges, not without more discharge, but with far less confusion and doubt.


How many times a day do parents set priorities, and how many times a day do they change priorities? If there's one lesson we must learn as parents, it's how to set, and reset priorities: which goals to hold fast to in the face of unraveling circumstances, and which goals to let drop; which urgent needs to attend to and which to ignore; which urgencies are real, which are simply felt, and how to tell the difference; when to pay attention to our own feelings of need, when to override them, and what price is likely to be paid.

Our good judgment develops when we are fortunate enough to actually think about our actions, do experiments, and notice the results over and over again. We think and we try, and either it turns out (laughter, tears of joy) or it doesn't (laughter, trembling, tears, tantrums in frustration). Either way, we learn. We've struggled over how in the world to pay for Johnnie's baseball uniform, whether to put two irritable children in the tub at the same time, and whether a hot meal for everyone or a good tantrum for someone is tonight's step forward. A well-seasoned, well-discharged parent can read a complicated organizational situation and set workable priorities-it's the work we've been doing for years.



Given all that must be done to care for our children day to day, we parents have great difficulty getting our heads far enough above water to notice where land is, to set our faces toward it, and to swim. Identifying the key issue is the step, once made, which helps clarify every later decision, giving everyone in the family a sense of common purpose.

When a parent identifies a key issue, an important phenomenon occurs. His or her firm decision to focus on the problem begins the process of resolution. If the issue revolves around a child, the child often senses the parent's decision, and even before much work on it is done, the child may be reassurred enough to relax a little. Usually, the parent's decision includes a plan to put attention on the problem in his or her sessions. The parent begins seeing and thinking more clearly, changing his or her side of the behavior pattern, and moving toward the troubled child, rather than moving away in anger or helplessness.

When a parent identifies a key issue, large or small, decision-making is easier. For instance, if Trevor's dinnertime rage is the key issue at present, then serving a hot well-balanced meal at dinner is not. A parent can congratulate himself or herself for deciding to serve peanut butter and celery and toast, rather than spend a tortured hour hung between the need to do something about Trevor and the need to feed the family a traditional dinner. Sometimes, in resolving a key issue, other issues that seemed unrelated resolve themselves. When one family member has recovered from a hurt, everyone gets to step more lightly.


With enough of these small-to-medium-sized challenges met, a parent gathers enough experience and confidence to look at the whole picture of family functioning and to make decisions which direct the long-range movement of his or her band of people. The key issues become ones which involve longer-term plans: How to help Jenny with her shyness so that when she gets to kindergarten in twelve months, she won't be scared stiff by the experience. How to counsel Joe through his tendency to fight with other boys when he doesn't get his way. How to move Dad from working fifty-five hours a week to working less than forty, without losing necessary family income.

As we take on bigger challenges, we find we can move both individuals and groups of people toward goals that affect the common good. We see how to hope for change, how to plot for change, how to persist toward change, and how to handle the changes we bargained for and the changes we didn't-all excellent preparation for steering any group toward worthwhile goals.


In Western culture, the premium on accomplishing goals by one's own individual efforts is high. Yet parenting is too big a job to do by oneself. When we finally realize this, we build alliances. We find good people to help us care for our children. We trade babysitting with other parents who are also desperate for a break. We learn how to welcome and appreciate the relatives and friends who give us a hand when we are sick or in a tight spot. We bump up against people who may not be our idea of "great with our children," who nevertheless are going to be our children's teachers, doctors, neighbors, or grandparents. And, with discharge and experiments and thinking, we build alliances with them.

I remember one father whose daughter was having a hard time in first grade. The teacher was dead set against any child crying in her classroom. She often told the children that crying was for babies, and first grade was no place for babies. The father, after discharging some of his disappointment that his daughter should have such a first grade teacher, decided to ask to volunteer in the classroom. He worked the night shift and so could, with some effort, make that offer. The teacher wanted nothing to do with any parent in her classroom. She told the father that it was school policy that parents were not allowed to be in the classroom. He listened to her, went home, and discharged hard on his disappointment.

He didn't give up. He went to the next parent/teacher meeting. At one point in the meeting, he gathered all his courage and publicly asked the principal why the school had a policy of no parents in the classroom. He said that he was hoping to come once a week and help out. The principal got up and spent a good five minutes heartily defending his "no parents" policy with several eloquent reasons. By this time the father had a raging headache.

But he didn't give up. He went up to the principal after the meeting, appreciated his work, and told him that he was glad his daughter was attending his school. Then he went to her teacher and appreciated her. He thanked her for her dedication, for the hard work she did, and he told her he was glad his daughter was in her classroom. The teacher then talked to him for ten or fifteen minutes about the challenges of teaching. She ended the conversation by saying, "Gee, you know, I would love to have you help out in my classroom. I'll talk to the principal. We do have this rule, but I'm sure we could see to it that you could come once a week." The father took his raging headache home, discharged profusely, and began volunteering in his daughter's classroom the next week.

As we build alliances, we become more able leaders. We learn, perhaps for the first time in our lives, that we can build alliances with people we don't easily like. This is one of the essential skills in leading any organization: almost as soon as you have an organization, it is populated with people who have difficulties with each other, and with you. As parents, we learn what to do. Discharge, care, persist, assume the best about the other person, and remember that their distresses aren't to be taken personally. We build alliances.



Winning agreement on policy is one leadership skill that most of us saw our own parents do poorly. In parenting, people often think and talk about "disciplining" children, "setting limits," "keeping children in line." What young people actually need parents to do is to set good policy within the family, just as any organization of people needs the reassurance that good policy will govern interactions within the group.

What children need when they've shown that they can't think well is not attack, not "logical consequences," not blame. They need someone to come close and listen to them, someone who guides with and is guided by good policy.

It takes many discharge sessions before we as parents can consistently keep thinking around our children in their "off the wall" moments. We gain an immensely valuable skill as we learn to treat our children well when they are wild with upset. We build the skill of winning agreement on good policy, not by lecturing, not by setting down lengthy rules, but by listening to our children tantrum and rage and cry their way through their upsets. We free them from the clutches of a pattern, and once free, they can agree on good policy until distress seizes their minds again.

In adult organizations, winning agreement on good policy can be a much slower and more arduous process, since adults don't usually have ready access to the discharge process, nor are they accustomed to giving permission to others to stop them when they become irrational. Furthermore, in an oppressive society, the overall policy structure has classism, racism, competition, greed, and many other societal distresses built in.

If we build an organization from the ground up, we have the opportunity to set and communicate good policy from the beginning. Entering an organization which has acquired a history and a set of written and unwritten policies creates a good challenge for parent leaders who have gained their policy-setting experience within their families. We apply what we know from parenting: that the initial and consistently-required steps to building solid relationships are listening, gathering information, and winning friends. These steps are essential if we hope to communicate anything of importance to anyone. We also know from our relationships with our children that example speaks volumes: our efforts to create good policy must embody that same good policy at every turn.

I remember being hired as the director of an infant-toddler day care center. The caregivers at the center were worn, distrustful, and in poor communication with one another when I arrived. They had been overworked, the place had been illegally overfilled with children, and they had not been appreciated for the work they did. I came in with hopes of communicating RC understandings of parents and young people. What I did for my first six months on the job was to appreciate the staff, to make sure they got their work breaks and their correct pay, and to listen to them. I ran the center according to common sense and already established policy, which was good enough to go on. I didn't try to counsel the children. I didn't encourage children's long sessions, although, of course, there were daily opportunities to do so. The first order of business was to repair the caregivers' sense that this was a good place to work, that they were among good people, and that they were appreciated. At our staff meetings, each person had five minutes to talk about herself and anything that was on her mind. Discharge sometimes occurred, and I explained that it was natural and helpful.

After we had become a friendly, supportive, more-or-less-relaxed working group, I began a very slow unveiling of what I knew about listening to children. Little by little, I showed them counseling skills. I didn't require that they do things like I did, and I gave them the option always of asking me to wrap up a session with a child if they were under too much stress to listen to it at that time.

We gradually became a center in which children could get through some heavy distresses in a fairly consistent fashion, and in which the staff operated as a team. Many staff members learned how to allow children to have fullblown sessions. There were very hard times, there were some major unsolved difficulties, and the oppression of childcare workers weighed heavily on our functioning every day. But I learned that if you take first things first and have a reasonable policy framework as a springboard, good policy can seep through and eventually permeate a wide-world organization.


Yes, we handle attacks! When young people feel upset, they naturally hang their upsets on the safest people they can think of-their parents. With the tools of counseling we parents can listen through stormy moments, can keep our ability to think through the fervent name-calling that often accompanies children's discharge. We learn to move toward the person, to keep ourselves safe from harm as we do, and to listen through the irrational (but oh! so deeply felt) attack.

Working with our children, we get to see what an attacking adult must have needed to do when he or she was young and hopeful about shedding distress. We learn not to argue with the attacking pattern. We learn that it is our responsibility to keep ourselves safe, that the attacker is lost and can't keep track of the welfare of the person chosen as target. And we learn, time by time, how much and what kind of an attack we can handle as counselor, and that the choice to be counselor or not is ours.


Well, we try. And our children help us. Children love to laugh, love to play with our little rigidities, love to find ways to get us working lightly on our fears and our embarrassments. All we have to do is to hang out with them, and they will figure out ways to get the laughter rolling. Of course, when we discharge on the places where we don't yet find things funny, our children's loosening-up project goes much faster.

In grown-up organizations, humor is a vital tool. Helping people laugh, one-to-one, about themselves and the irrationalities that jostle everyone, allows people to keep reaching for each other in spite of current difficulties. Finding ways for adults to play together, laugh together, have good-natured fun with each other, can transform an organization from a humdrum to a vibrant group, where people actively think of ways to build camaraderie. Once a tradition of play has begun, people begin to feel hopeful and interested in each other, and new thinking can more easily emerge.


As parents, we learn that if we want our children free from a piece of distress that confuses us, we need to work on our feelings about their distress, to get clearer for our own sake as well as theirs. Although we feel swamped and exhausted by parents' oppression, we know that any leader has to keep discharging and building close relationships to foster his or her good thinking and judgment. As we gain the courage and the organizational ability to get regular sessions and to make it to support groups and classes, we become leaders of our families, rather than people who just cope with the unruliness of family life.


As we lead our families, our children and friends have before them a vibrant example of leadership. Not someone who never makes mistakes. Not someone who succeeds at everything he or she tries. But a parent who appreciates the good in people, who moves toward difficulties, who treats people well in spite of those difficulties, who thinks both about today and about how to move the whole family forward. Our children can't help but absorb the example, be inspired by the effort, and gain a real jump-start on the business of leadership. They can't help but learn how to bring groups of people together and help them move toward common goals.

It's important that we see our position as parents as a gift, a prime opportunity to recover our natural ability to lead chosen groups of people toward better functioning and toward common goals. Being a parent means we don't get to dawdle through our leadership lessons-they come fast and hard and too many in a day. It does mean that we get to learn those lessons for the very best of reasons. We love our families, and we decide to move the distresses that keep us from being close to each person we love. That decision gets us moving toward effective leadership of our families, and of any group we choose.

Patty Wipfler
Palo Alto, California, USA

Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00