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Editor’s Note: When it comes to parenting there’s no shortage of advice or opinions. Some experts advocate an easygoing style; others insist that children need firm guidance. It’s no wonder that new parents can get confused and frustrated.
The truth is that parents are the leaders of their family. This isn’t a new concept. Every child needs parents who can be intentionally positive. Yet at the same time, they need us to express our expectations, set high standards, and hold them accountable.
In other words, our kids need us to lead them. They need parent leadership.
It seems to me that there are similarities between being a military leader and being a parent leader. I’ve even read several articles on how being a parent has made military officers become better leaders. But what about the reverse? What lessons can a parent learn from a military leader? We asked Maj. David J. Lee, an Air Force Instructor, and father of five, to share his thoughts on the subject.
Take it away, Sir! ~ Charlotte
Major Dad: an Interview with an Air Force Major & Father of Five
Military leadership provides a lot of lessons that can be applied to parenting. Here are some of them.
Parents and children are genetically geared to love each other, and it’s a beautiful thing. But anyone who thinks a parent is supposed to be their child’s friend is unwise. You are not your child’s friend. A parent has a legal responsibility to care for their children and a moral responsibility to develop their character. A friend isn’t legally responsible and has no moral obligations. I get along well with my children, but I don’t call them my friends. Friendship comes and goes, but the parent-child relationship is forever. When your child is a responsible adult and completely self-sufficient, then you can call them your friend. Until then, you are their parent, example, and mentor. I was 38 years old before I thought of my dad as my friend.
In the military, there are lots of directions and orders. You tell people to do things and you expect them to do it. Likewise, I tell my children what to do and I expect them to do it. This is a simple concept, but it’s amazing how many parents don’t actually tell their children what to do. They simply “assume” that the child knows what the parent expects of them, or they give vague guidance. But children aren’t mind-readers. They need specific direction and instruction, just like we do in the military.
For example, saying “the trash is getting full” in the general direction of your child is a terrible idea. Instead, say “Jason, please take out the trash.” In the military, we try to be clear, concise and correct. Likewise, parents need to be clear and direct with their kids.
The difference comes in the tone and amount of praise and compliments I give my children. I give my junior officers and enlisted clear and direct orders and expect them to follow through. Sometimes I thank them afterward, but sometimes I don’t. There’s no expectation for me to thank them.
Kids, however, aren’t simply “duty-performers”. When I give my children directions, I am clear and direct, but my tone is more kind and gentle. When they do what I told them to do, I say thank you and praise them if they did a good job. I also give them lots of hugs and affirmations. (There are no hugs in the military.)
Parent Leadership is about setting a good example
A parent is a leader by default, and leadership is about setting a good example. Don’t do things you don’t want your kids to do, and do the things that you want them to do.
For example, one of my rules in the military is to never ask or order someone to do something that I’m not willing to do myself. That isn’t always fun for my subordinates because I’ve gotten down on my hands and knees and cleaned toilets while in uniform. The key is to lead by example. I work hard, so I have every right to expect my subordinates to work hard. Likewise, if you set a high standard for yourself and model it in front of your kids, then you have a right to hold them to that same standard. Just make sure it’s age appropriate. They’re still kids, so they’re still learning and don’t have your knowledge or life experience yet.
The key is consistency. You don’t have to ask many people about their parents to find inconsistencies. For example, “My dad always said not to drink but he’d have a beer every Saturday.” That’s just being a hypocrite. The lifestyle of “Do what I say, not what I do” is a fallacy. If I don’t want my children to drink, then I don’t drink. If I want them to go to church, then I go to church. If I don’t want them to use curse words, then I don’t use curse words. Never expect your kids to be better than you are. You can hope that they’ll turn out better than you did, but to hold them to a standard that you yourself never met (or are unwilling to meet) is the worst kind of hypocrisy and will only make your kids angry and resentful towards you.
Parent Leadership is about teaching your kids
Being a parent is more than just setting a good example. It’s also teaching. You have to teach your kids how to do things.
In the military (and the corporate world) you’re working with adults who are at least moderately competent, and you build on that basic level of knowledge and understanding. But as a parent, you have to teach your child the basics; from scratch. It’s hands on. I recently taught my 9-year-old how to air up the car tires. Then the next day I asked him to air up his grandmother’s tires. Something I could do in 2 minutes took him 15. But he’d also never done it before, so that was ok. I first taught him how to do it, then he did it and did it right, so I praised him for it.
You have to be willing to teach your child how to do things. Many a parent has ruined quality time with their child because they were in a hurry and could do the task faster or didn’t have the patience to teach their child the right way to do it. Take the time to teach your child how to do things, and you’ll be amazed at how helpful your children will become. Our kids set the table, do the dishes (both in the sink and loading the dishwasher), watch their baby brother (including changing his diaper), make their beds, take out the trash, do their laundry (including folding and putting it away) and many other things. They are helpful around the house because we took the time to teach them how to do things.
Parent Leadership is about consistent discipline
Good leaders set clear expectations and are consistent with their discipline.
In the military, discipline is very administrative. There’s an attitude of “this is business, it’s not personal” when I’m at work. That’s because I’m trying to accomplish a mission and I need the work to get done. If you can’t do the work then I’ll fire you and find someone else who can. The mission comes first.
But between parents and children, discipline is very personal. I don’t just care about what my child did or didn’t do. I also care about their character development and my relationship with them. I need a connection with my kids and they need a connection with me. Regardless of how angry I may be, I can’t afford to lose that connection.
So when my kids mess up I strive to find out why and deal with that root issue, whether it be ignorance, distraction, confusion, defiance, curiosity, foolishness, clumsiness or just bad luck. There’s no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to disciplining a disobedient child. Each situation is different, and the parent that doesn’t seek to find out the “why” of the issue will end up responding the same way to all of their child’s indiscretions. And then that same parent often ends up frustrated and discouraged when their discipline doesn’t work.
The unfortunate reality is that many times the reason the child did something bad is that the parent didn’t set clear expectations, didn’t model the right behavior, or didn’t take the time to teach the child the right way to do something. It’s often a failure of parenting, not a failure of the child.
Parent Leadership is about teaching values
There are three core values in the Air Force. They are “Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence in All We Do.” Here’s how I break that down as a parent leader.
Integrity first – Be honest. Never lie to your children. I have five kids and I’ve never lied to them. Ever. A lie is a lie, even if it’s just a “little white lie.” But I have said, “I can’t answer that right now,” or “I’ll explain that when you’re older.” And because I’ve never lied to them, they trust me completely. They know that I’ll always be honest with them. That helps keep our relationship strong.
Service before self – Think of others first. Don’t be selfish. Put others’ needs before your own. Give them tasks that benefit the whole family, such as setting the whole table, not just their place. Take out the trash in the whole house, not just your room. Help do all the laundry, not just your clothes.
Excellence in all we do – Do a good job. Don’t do things halfway. I model the behavior that I want from them. I show them how I expect things to be done. Whenever I ask them to do something, I tell them that I’m going to inspect their work when they’re done. I‘m not a perfectionist, but I have high standards and I hold them to those standards. As a result, they do things well. They know that if they don’t, I’ll make them do it again until they get it right.
Parent Leadership takes practice
Leadership is like anything else, it takes practice. People have different learning styles, and the most effective leaders are the ones who can discover their subordinates individual learning style and motivations and then tap into them. This is especially true for parents. Your kids are probably not motivated the same way you are. Therefore you have to adjust your leadership style to fit. In order to help your child excel you have to discover their learning style and appeal to it. If you don’t know what motivates your child then you risk being an ineffective parent.
Parent Leadership is about being intentional
The vast majority of how we turn out is a direct result of the parenting we had. So what kind of person do you want your child to become? What character traits do you want them to have? Have you ever even asked yourself that question?
For example, do you want them to be lazy or hard workers? Do you want them to be kind or self-absorbed? Do you want them to be giving or greedy? It’s your job to instill good character traits into your child, not steer them towards a particular career or professional sport. It doesn’t matter if your child is a valedictorian or a star athlete or a straight A student if they’re also a selfish jerk that no one wants to be around.
Good character traits are what matter, so practice good character traits in front of them. Correct their bad behavior and praise their good behavior. They should receive more praise from you when they share their toys or do something else that’s selfless than they do when they hit the ball far, make a play, get an A, etc.
I wanted my kids to be musical, so I taught myself how to play the guitar. I play in front of them and we sing songs as a family several times a week. I want my kids to be courageous instead of cowardly, so I make them kill the spiders and bugs that get in the house. I want my kids to be tough, so they go barefoot most of the time and we don’t panic whenever they get a scrape, cut or bruise. Cuts happen. They’ll live. Don’t panic. Kids are resilient. A little scrape is not the end of the world.
I want my kids to have confidence, not self-esteem Confidence is earned and it comes from competence. I want my kids to have confidence because they know how to do things, not arrogance because they’re self-absorbed. So I have a long list of things that I intentionally teach my kids. For example, my daughter will know how to check the fluids, check the air pressure, use jumper cables and change a tire before she learns how to drive a car.
Parent Leadership is about taking responsibility
In the military, the commander is in charge and the buck stops with him. Everything that happens in his unit is his fault, whether he had anything to do with it or not. He’s the one that’s held accountable. In your house, you are the commander. As a parent, your child’s success or failure in life is almost exclusively in your hands. That’s a scary thought. But you can’t pass the buck. They’re your kids, so they’re your responsibility. The buck stops with you, not with the school, the neighborhood, the extended family, the in-laws, the government or the police. You.
So take responsibility for your kids. You won’t be perfect and you’ll make mistakes. You’ll have bad parenting moments. But at the end of the day, it’s how much you invested in your kids that will make the difference, whether for good or bad. So buckle down and get to work. It’s hard, but I promise that it’s worth it.
A native of Auburn, Alabama, Maj. David J. Lee joined the Air Force after four years of ROTC at Auburn University and attended Air Force pilot training. He flew and instructed in the KC-135 and the T-6 for 12 years before going into Special Ops. He has flown combat missions in OEF, OIF, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Today, he works as an instructor at Maxwell Air Force Base. He has been married for 14 years and is the father of five kids, ages 10 to 1.5 years.