The hardest people to lead are family, or so it seems. Regardless of your professional accomplishments or personal successes, you are often seen as “just my…” dad, mom, husband, wife, or a plethora of other familial titles. This can be especially true during certain seasons of life. For example, not too long ago my wife and I saw our oldest son join the Marines, and our twin daughters graduate college and become engaged. At the same time, our two youngest children began high school. These things would all seem to be normal processes in the lives of your typical American family. However, in our house it was as if someone had unleashed a clan of William Wallaces all clamoring for freedom from the oppression of sensible thinking and experienced foresight.
My wife and I spent years trying to encourage our children to think for themselves, see others the way that God sees them, and add value to people daily. Though our methods weren’t perfect, we strived to raise kids that used their passion and talents for good. We worked to model these same characteristics in our own work. None of it seemed to matter as we entered this unchartered territory of, “You don’t understand” and, “Maybe in your day…” Our principles for making decisions and our love for our children hadn’t changed, but every conversation with the kids seemed to leave us frustrated with ourselves and doubting every parenting decision we had ever made.
Despite the hurt we were feeling and the frustration we had with our children’s decisions, we continued to put their best interests ahead of our feelings by refusing to let their words and dismissiveness towards us dictate our behavior. We sought the counsel of wise leaders and prayed regularly that our children would grow in wisdom and redirect their passions toward the benefit of others. We weren’t perfect parents. At times it seemed hopeless, but as John Maxwell says, “Everything worth having is uphill. Many people have uphill hopes and downhill habits.” I knew that if I allowed my hurt, and at times my anger, to drive how I parented, I would only feed the bad habits of my children. But I couldn’t convince them that while they were hoping for the best, their actions were leading to potentially negative long-term consequences. We had hit a lid in our ability to influence our children.
One day during a conversation with my wife, she said, “If we keep doing what we have always done, we will keep getting what we have always gotten.” We had shared this many times with others, but we had not applied this thinking to our current context with our children. This new self-awareness allowed for us to change our thinking patterns and our behavior. The realization soon set in that our desire to see our children reach their potential had caused us to try and control their behavior without addressing the thinking patterns that led to the poor behavior. In other words, we couldn’t influence our children because we were behaving like our children. Our uphill hope and passion for their success were matched by downhill habits of holding them to an impossible standard that was destroying the relationships within our family.
The growth we experienced manifested itself through the increasing amount of grace we extended to our children. We made it abundantly clear that regardless of actions or consequences, we loved them unconditionally. We spent nearly two decades instilling principles and values in them, so they knew where we stood on moral and ethical issues. What they needed was to know that as they chase their passions and learn from their own failures, our love and support for them was just as strong as our deeply held convictions.
On Christmas Day, less than a year after we changed our thinking and behavior patterns, the evidence that our new approach was working came in the form of a letter from our son, the Marine. He wrote to us from his barracks with this simple message, “Mom and Dad, keep on doing what you have always done. You’ve always known best, and I can now see you were right. I’ve had a hard day today, but I know it will get better. I can’t wait to see you.” Six months prior to this, our leadership, and mine in particular, was leading us down a road that would have never allowed for this kind of statement.
Each Christmas I reminisce on the message my son penned to us. It is then, I am reminded that it’s not always my family that is hardest to lead. Sometimes it’s myself.
This story was originally published on John C. Maxwell’s The Leading Edge Blog. http://johnmaxwellteam.com/2016/12/26/the-leading-edge-leading-a-family-my-most-difficult-follower/