It is more than words – it is about true leadership
We all want to be special – or at least feel special. But really, feeling special is a great space to be in. This is one of the reasons people create foundation, build tall buildings, and create world-changing initiatives or medical cures – all with their name attached. In recent years, as a US President nears the end of his presidency, it has become popular for the press to talk about his “legacy.”
I believe we are born with this need to be special. I believe that parents have an obligation to meet that need as best they can.
I once read that more US Presidents and Fortune 500 CEOs were second-born children – rather than holding other places in the birth-order paradigm. The theory is that first-born children often get all the “special” attention – which many of us would think would lead to natural advantages that would assure greater success. However, what happens more often than not is that second-born children try harder. They learn to try harder to be noticed, to be appreciated, and to keep up with their older sibling. This leads to a natural inclination to succeed – where the first born often rests in a sense of entitlement, that does not lead to success. More than anything I want my children to be successful – not necessarily in a financial/career sort of success – but more relating to life, love, and contentment. In order to best raise them to achieve that sort of success, I want to enable them with a healthy self-esteem. Not proud, not arrogant, and not insecure. or defeatist. It’s really a delicate balance. So, how does one accomplish this?
The other night, while reading to our kids – a night time ritual – I leaned over and whispered in the ear of my Darling Daughter. “I love you.” I said. “You’re my favorite daughter. You are very special to me.” These are not foreign words to my kids. I often say these things to them, publicly, privately, tenderly (when we cuddle), and laughingly (when we’re wrestling and tickling). I love to give them verbal and physical affirmation.
It was a real wake up call to me.
As I whispered these words to my daughter though, I was struck with an epiphany. It was a real wake up call to me. I immediately shared it with The Wife; and the next day I shared it with a young married couple with kids. If you give me a moment, I’d like to share it with you…
The Medium is the Message:
It is one thing to be told we are special – sometimes that message hits home, and sometimes it doesn’t. It usually matters who is telling us. If we admire and respect the other person, if we have a significant relationship with them, or if we seek their approval, that message is going to have a lasting impact. I remember an authority figure in my life, who recently told me that I was one of the best firefighters he’d ever commanded. This hit hard and sunk deep. I will never forget that statement.
Sometimes however, people who we don’t trust or respect, will give us a compliment. It just doesn’t seem to have the impact. Oh sure, praise always “feels” good, but that doesn’t mean it affects us to our core. In fact, we’re more likely to internalize criticism from strangers, than we are to receive their praise – but that’s another post for another day. The truth is, if we don’t respect or trust another person, their praises, terms of endearment, of affections – well, they just don’t have the same affect.
My Role as a Dad:
There was a time in my life when I worshiped the ground my parents walked on – especially my Dad. But as the years have gone by and I began to see their failures, I realized my parents had feet of clay. It wasn’t just their imperfections though – often it was their poor judgement, stupid addictions, hypocrisy, and lack of integrity. (Please don’t get me wrong, I adore my parents – still – and always!) While I still appreciate my family’s affection and affirmation, it doesn’t really carry as much weight as it could.
I mentioned to The Wife: for our kids to experience the affirmation, esteem, and specialness that I intend in those words, I have to live an authentic, transparent life of integrity. That means I have to seek forgiveness and make amends when I mess up. I have to admit failure. I have to be constantly and consistently learning, growing, adapting. I have to be the man, that others – especially my kids, will respect. In other words, I have to achieve the success I want for them – or at least be striving for it.
Granted, there will come a time in every child’s life where they will seek to create space between themselves and their parents. There will be teenage angst, a seeking of identity, and a rejecting of their parent’s values – but the key here, is to live a life of consistency, integrity, and contentment, so that these phases will pass without too much damage in the relationship. The ownership is on the parents – not the teen.
It was at this point that my mind took a brief trip into the world of infinite possibilities and back to the caged world of my childhood. Snap!
(Please note, the next few reflections are not meant as criticisms as much as they are learning opportunities)
I know, intellectually, that my Dad loves me – but when he lies to me, even those little insidious white lies, I don’t feel very special. When I would watch him lie to my Mom, a business associate, or a friend – my faith and trust in him were assassinated. So, as his son, I know I’m loved – but I don’t always feel it in a way I’d like to. I’m not sure my Dad knows how to love the way he wants to love – and for that, I forgive his failures and accept what he can give.
When my Mom used to tell me how special I was, and how proud she was of my accomplishments, I knew she meant it. But her meddling, controlling, and co-dependent behaviors and words, seriously diminished the impact of those statements. I began to see that her statements of affection were really cries for reciprocation. She needed me/us to express these things to her. But should the parent really be that needy of their children? Shouldn’t it be a bit more spontaneous?
My mother was sexually and emotionally abused by her parents. Is it any wonder she entered adulthood without a healthy self-esteem. She wrestled with these demons of inadequacy until her death in January of 2006. None of us could ever give enough for her to feel whole again. The damage was done, but those she trusted the most. Neither therapists, loving family, my Dad, or her kids – we were never able to replace the brokenness in her heart.
My Dad was raised by an absent father. Being of solid Germanic stock, my grandfather worked from sunup to sundown – often 100s of miles from his family. It wasn’t just his physical distance that did damage, this geography was just a symptom of his inability to connect emotionally with his wife and kids. Though raised in poverty, my Dad’s family never starved – except for affection. It’s no wonder my Dad didn’t know how to love. It was never modeled for him.
The deepest blow was 30 years ago. I was going through the worst crisis of my life and I needed my family. Unfortunately I was making some choices that made me afraid to be transparent with those I loved most. When the feces hit the oscillating air mover, I reached out to my Dad. Unfortunately, he was ill-equipped to deal with a struggling son. He didn’t call me, he stood me up for lunch appointments, he couldn’t look me in the eye. He wasn’t there.
Without that anchor, I made poorer and poorer choices. Without any sense of worth, I acted on the shame, disgust, and loathing I had for myself. I sought affirmation from strangers. And yet, in retrospect, I’ve found that partiers and pretty girls are a poor substitute for genuine affection, affirmation, and specialness. I’m glad I survived and lived long enough to discover that – and to forgive my parents for their failures.
But how does one move forward when their parents are still making poor choices? What if your father never calls you – or doesn’t come and visit? What if he shows more attention and affection towards his friends, job, and other obligations, then he does to you? What do you do with a mother who wants to love her children, but is barely able to manage her own life – let alone speak leadership into the lives of her kids?
It is these sorts of issues that are creating anger in the lives of children, and adult children, across the landscape. Kids have a right to expect their parents to be there for them – through thick, thin, joy, and grief. Mere words are cheap. Actions speak louder than words. Presence is the medium – and the message is in the medium.
So, as I look at the innocence of the children that are a gift from God, I am struck by my own brokenness. My failures, my inconsistencies, and my lack of integrity. I have to continue to learn from failures, grow in my brokenness, seek healing and learning, and lead the way for my kids. I have to be the leader – not just in words, but in actions.
It is my job, to be more than just a father in name only. I have to be a Dad – in actions, thoughts, motives, and intentions. This is what it means to have a Dad Attitude. It is more than words – it is about true leadership. It is about influence.
My job is to instill a healthy esteem in my kids. Not inflated, not defeated, but balanced. This is how I can enable them to achieve their dreams and their hopes. This is how I provide a solid foundation for them to launch. This is the best gift I could ever give to my kids.