10 Characteristics of The Servant Parent

As part of my current doctoral studies I have been reading a lot about leadership.  There are a multitude of approaches and theories about leadership.  Some say that leaders are born that way with special traits that make them “great men”.  Others say that it is possible to learn to be a leader as long as you learn the correct skills and behaviors. Some have decried the myth of the charismatic leader saying that you do not have to be inspiring, exciting and passionate only consistent. 

In my reading I have been drawn to an old essay that was written way back in the 1970’s by a guy named Robert Greenleaf.  He proposes that to be a leader one must first and foremost be a servant.  He uses something he calls the best test to determine if one is an effective leader it goes like this,

“Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

I think this is a great way to view leadership, but what if we applied these concepts to parenting? What if we decided that the best way to raise our boys was to become a Servant Parent? But wait! Some might say,  “parents are supposed to be in charge!”, “kids need to follow the rules or they will never learn how!”, “if parents act like servants kids will never learn responsibility!”  Well, I think they are wrong. I think it is crucial for parents to first be servants.  So, based on an article by Larry Spearstitled “Practicing Servant-Leadership” I will be making my case for the 10 characteristics of the Parent as Servant

  •      Listening
  •      Empathy
  •      Healing
  •      Awareness
  •      Persuasion
  •      Conceptualization
  •      Foresight
  •      Stewardship
  •      Commitment to the growth of people
  •       Building community

Over the next several weeks I will be expounding on each of these characteristics and why being a Servant Parent is a great way to parent boys into men.

Do you think we should be servants first, parents second?

 

Faith Takes Practices to Develop

faithI have fond memories of praying, “now I lay me down to sleep” each night before going to bed.  I can still see the colorful children’s bible stories my family would read at the dinner table each night.  I recall the rhythm and tone of Sunday worship services; standing to read scripture, reciting the Apostles Creed, sitting for the “long prayer” and knowing the end was near when the pastor raised his arms and pronounced the Aaronic blessing “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” Numbers 6:22-27.

            In the fourth grade my teacher challenged her class to read the bible every night in order to win a prize.  My sweet tooth was as strong as ever and I conquered that challenge easily.  In sixth grade I went with my youth group to provide meals for homeless children in downtown LA.  In eighth grade, while at a youth group retreat, I put my faith in Jesus for the first time.   Through out high school I played the drums for my church worship team and was actively involved in youth leadership.  But, It was not until my senior year of college, eight years later, that this faith that had been planted in my soul as a child, had taken root as a teen, and was watered with the prayers of my parents began to grow. 

Those eight years of high school and college were long, slow, and sometimes frustrating years.  I longed for a connection to Jesus that did not materialize.  I struggled with guilt, doubt, pride, anger, and depression.  I attempted and failed to continue the practices of prayer, bible reading, worship, and service that had begun in my youth.   I hoped they would establish the connection I believed was missing.

Faith sprouted on a mission trip to Nicaragua, on which I came to the end of myself and discovered that it was my striving and self-reliance that stood in the way of honest connection with Jesus.  On returning to school I found for the first time that I could read scripture and actually understand the WORD.  The end of my college experience was the beginning of a faith journey that has progressed through starts and stops over the course of my adult life. 

Over the last several years I have been convicted of my responsibility to pass this faith on to my children.  I am overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.  How can I, a father that is passionate but struggling pass on something that is so fragile and broken?  At times I want to throw in the towel and succumb to the pressures of money, time, apathy, and culture. 

I was reminded today of the role I play in my children’s faith development.  I am called to plant seeds that the Holy Spirit cultivates into faith.  I am reading, Shaped By God: Twelve Essentials for Nurturing Faith in Children, Youth, and Adults” Edited by Robert J. Keeley.  Don C. Richter writes “Faith begins in practice, in words and songs and gestures and things we do with and for our bodies, with and for one another.  We learn to pray by praying.  We learn to serve by serving.  We learn to care by concrete acts of caring.” (Keely,pg 24) I was brought back to my childhood prayers and bible stories.  I was reminded of the practices that have shaped my faith over the years.  In the beginning they were clumsy, with out heart, and in the case of the bible reading contest motivated by greed.  These practices however having been awakened by the Spirit my senior year of college have been the soil in which my faith has grown.  They have become the “means of grace to nourish and sustain the life of faith” in me. (Keely, pg 30)

 I cannot awaken my children in faith, that is the Holy Spirits role but I can provide for them the raw materials of faith.  I can provide experiences of prayer, worship, bible reading, and service.  My hope is that these experiences will shape and inform their understanding of Jesus.  I trust that they will come to know him as provider, savior, master, and king the one in whom true connection can be found.

WHAT PRACTICES HAVE SHAPED YOUR FAITH OVER THE YEARS?

HOW ARE YOU PASSING YOUR FAITH TO YOUR CHILDREN?

The Two Great Objects

aeca2-7438004430_cc90853bbeA few days ago I read this post entitled “6 lessons of an influence seeker.  It was written mostly to people that write, speak, or teach.  The idea is that if you truly want to influence people you need to do the 6 things described.  The post really has nothing to do with parenting or raising a family but the more I think about it the more I hope to apply its first concept in my life.

            Lesson one is “know your two great objects” the author sights a journal entry from British politician William Wilberforce that states, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners [moral values].”  These two objects were the driving force behind Wilberforce’s life work.  Everything he did followed from these two passions.

The moment I read this quote I asked myself the question, “What are my two great objects?”  A number of things came to mind right away; family, faith, and work were at the top.   I tried to get more specific, what are my two great objects at work, for my family, and in my community?  As I began to think more deeply I discovered that I had no clue what my two great objects were.  There were lots of things that I thought were important.  But I was finding it difficult to narrow down the two things that really set me ablaze, got me excited, and drove my passions.  I found that so many things were important that nothing was really important.

So, I have set out to more clearly define the two great objects in these areas of my life.

  •             Family
  •             Work
  •             Faith
  •             Community

I am hopeful that clarifying these objects and more intentionally focusing my energy in these areas will increase my sense of purpose and improve my ability to positively influence those around me.

Will you join me in this endeavor?  Leave a comment and share your two great objects!

Doll Play VS. Gun Play and A Parents Worst Fears

Read: ANGRY ARTthe meaning of play

Play is the language of a child, it is the expression of inner most thoughts, feelings, and desires.  Or is it?

I was playing dolls with my daughter the other day and found myself reflecting on the meaning of her play.  We were alone in the playroom and she brought me her doll over and over again asking (without words) that I swaddle it in the small blanket like I had swaddled her when she was an infant.  She would pick it up and nearly fall over from the weight and size of her child.  She mimicked the back and forth rocking of “rock a by baby” and eventually rocked so hard that the doll fell to the ground while rolling out of the blanket.  She gathered the doll into her arms and slammed it into the tiny wooden crib, making a loud smacking sound as the head knocked against the side rail.

I found myself analyzing her play.  Does she completely lack empathy?  Is this play a sign that she will grow up to be a bad mother? What if she has no ability to care for others?  My thoughts began to race, and the “parents worst fear” meter was redlining.  As I continued to watch and observe I stopped analyzing her play and began analyzing the meaning I ascribed to her play.

I found that I was thinking like an adult.  I was observing her play and assumed that she was doing what she was doing for the same reasons an adult would be doing it.  An adult that drops a baby or slams it into a crib does so because of a lack of empathy, inability to care, and probably anger.  So, of course that must be why she was doing.

OR PROBABLY NOT!!

I began to think more about the meaning that adults ascribe to a child’s play.  Is the meaning that I interpret the same as what the child hold in their mind? I remembered back to several articles I had read about children being suspended from school because of play deemed inappropriate by school administrators.  Both instances involved young children and make shift guns.  One involved pointing a pencil at another student like a gun and the other involved chewing a pop tart into the shape of a gun.

I tend to get pretty frustrated with these situations in which play is criminalized.  It seems to me that children are being punished based on the projected fears of adults.  Do we really believe that a pencil is dangerous for other children?  I wonder if these decisions come from fears of what our children might become.   At some point we just have to laugh at these ridiculous stories but I wonder when we adults will realize that children do not think like us?  I wonder how the world would be different if adults could play like a child?  What if adults were less fearful and more adventurous like children? Oh what fun we might have!

Read Angry Art

Can Tolerance Cause More Bullying?

tolerance

I took my son to the public pool last week.  We had a wonderful time and learned a lesson to last a lifetime.  He was standing in line at the diving board as I was watching from a few feet away.  I noticed that he was talking with a slightly older boy and it appeared the conversation was becoming quite animated.  I resisted my desire to intervene and waited to see what would happen.  After a few more moments my son turned to me and said, “dad he says that I cannot wear a swim shirt on the diving board.”  In uncharacteristic fashion I quickly shot back my response, “it doesn’t matter what he says, it matters what the lifeguard says!”  Just at that moment a lifeguard walked by and I boldly asked, “Is it ok if he wears a swim shirt on the diving board?”  The lifeguard said, “yes!” and walked on without giving it a second thought.  The boys accepted the lifeguard’s answer and continued practicing their cannon balls.

As I reflected on this very brief interaction I began to wonder what it was about this lifeguard (a teenager) that caused the boys to move on so quickly from their disagreement.  Was it his confidence or age?  Maybe it was his gender or personality?  I don’t think so!  I think they accepted his answer because he was viewed as an expert on this topic.  He knows this pool, he is there everyday, he is in charge of safety, and it is his responsibility to enforce the posted rules.

The boys knew that this person’s opinion was important.  It did not matter what anyone else had to say on the subject.  This guy in the red swim trunks and way too dark tan was the final authority.

I am afraid that the art of discerning whose opinion matters has been stripped away from our school age children.  I wonder if in our rush to teach tolerance and acceptance we have inadvertently made our children targets for loud-mouthed bullies?

The Cambridge online dictionary defines tolerance as “willingness to accept behavior and beliefs that are different from your own, even if you disagree with or disapprove of them.”  It also lists acceptance as a synonym for tolerance.

Please do not get me wrong, I strongly believe in the inherent value of all people.  Each person is wonderfully valuable and deserves to be treated with the utmost respect.  I do suggest however that not all opinions or beliefs are of equal value.  The opinion of the young boy trying to tell my son what he could and could not wear was of very little value.  He was wrong, misguided, and unreliable.  This is not to say that the boy himself was of little value just his opinion.

What does this have to do with bullying?  Well in my experience as a school counselor and therapist I find that those children that are most susceptible to verbal and emotional bullying are those who accept all opinions equally.  Somehow they have learned to accept all opinions and beliefs as truth no matter the source.  Unfortunately, many times this includes all opinions and beliefs that others have about them.  So, It appears that they accept the opinion of the kid who calls them stupid, weak, or ugly as equally valid to the adult who refers to them as kind, intelligent, or strong.  This in my opinion is a horrible mistake and we as parents make an even bigger mistake when we teach our kids that all opinions and beliefs are to be equally accepted.

Simply, it is not true.  My opinion regarding politics for instance is of significantly less value than that of the President of the United States.  It does not mean that I cannot express my opinion loudly and vehemently, but loud and passionate does not make true and accurate.   In the same way a fellow classmates opinion about my child’s level of strength, intelligence, or athletic ability is of much less value than my child’s opinions about himself.

I am regularly asked to referee disagreements about the value of playground opinions.  I have come up with a standard response that I find pretty effective.  When Jimmy runs up to me and says, “Mr. Vander Ley Billy called me a douche bag!” (or some other derogatory name)  Jimmy expects that I will get upset with Billy.  He anticipates consequences and passionate pleas for Billy to be kind and friendly.  I take Jimmy off guard however, when I ask a simple and pointed question.  “Are you a douche bag Jimmy?” “Uh, no” Is the usual response.  “Good, I didn’t think you were, it doesn’t matter what Billy says.”  Off they run to complete their game of girls chase boys (if it hasn’t been banned at their school)

Rather than teaching our children to value all opinions and beliefs equally let’s teach them to discern opinions and beliefs based on sources.  Who are the experts in the field?  Who has put in the time to know this topic?  Who is safe and who is reliable?  If we teach our children to be discerning about truth I think they will come to realize that they are the experts in the field of me.  Their parents and trusted teachers hold reliable information about who they are and what they are good at.  The verbally aggressive playground bully does not know them and is not a trusted source of information.  More importantly this playground bully’s opinion does not create truth regarding their person.  The truth about a child is based in their inherent personal value.  They can sense this value from loving adults who are passionately engaged in the wonder of becoming an expert in the field of them.  Go now you passionate parents and uncover the infinite mystery that is your child!

HOLDING: The Day My Son Thought He Had Died

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Psalm 18:16 He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.  He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.

 

 

I have recently begun to view HOLDING my children as so much more than just physically carrying them.  Holding has become something that is physical, emotional, and psychological.

Two summers ago for about 2 hours my son thought that he was dead!  It was a beautiful day.  My wife and I took our family to a community swimming area, we were able to relax and watch our kids swim with their older cousins.  Near the end of our time at the lake two of our sons approached us in the water.  The older one appeared completely calm and said, “Dad I was freaking out!” The other was literally freaking out; he was yelling, screaming, and crying.  Apparently one of his siblings had taken a water toy from him and he was very upset.  My wife and I both gravitated to the screaming child.  We acknowledged the older one but picked up, consoled, and helped to manage the screaming one.  Both children moved on and we left the lake a short time later.  As we arrived home my wife and I remarked to each other how enjoyable the day had been and what a fun time we had had.

The older cousins joined us at our house and we settled the children downstairs to watch a movie.  As my wife and I discussed the enjoyable afternoon, our older son came upstairs noticeably upset.  He was in tears and could hardly speak through his emotions.  He climbed into my lap and I attempted to understand what was going on.  He explained in short tearful phrases that he was afraid he had died.  Slowly the story of his “freaking out” emerged.  He explained that he was playing on the floatilla of fun in the deep end of the lake.  He saw an older kid with no life-jacket on swim underneath an inflatable “bridge” that was about 3 feet wide.  We had told him previously to never swim under this bridge.  As he saw the older kid do it with such ease however, he decided to give it a try.  In his attempt to swim under the bridge he plunged his head under the water and swam with all his might expecting to resurface on the other side.  His life jacket forced him to the surface earlier than anticipated and became caught on a seam of the rubber floatilla.  In realizing he was not going to make it he freaked out and attempted to return from where he had come.  He said that he had to swim as hard as he could to release himself from the bridge before he popped up above the surface gasping for air.

I was shocked by his story and confused by his concern about being dead.  It seemed that although he had escaped drowning he was afraid that what he was now experiencing was death.  I was freaking out and feeling overwhelmed at the outcome that could have devastated this beautiful day.  I had failed at this moment to physically protect him and it was now time to emotionally and psychologically HOLD him.

I stumbled about attempting to elicit his entire story while simultaneously working to maintain my composure.  Praise the Lord he was safe! But what is a parent to do?

After two years of on and off again reflection regarding this very scary experience I have deciphered what has become my way of HOLDING to protect from harm.

Physically Holding:

            My son climbed up into my lap to tell his story, he desired physical closeness as well as strength to contain the convulsions and shakes of his emotionally charged body.  Physical proximity during times of fear and pain can be very comforting to children.  The natural rhythms of a parents breathing, heartbeat and voice serves to calm and regulate.  I have learned to become more open to physical contact.  Whether it’s holding hands, scratching a back, or applying sunscreen holding touch is a crucial ingredient in protecting a child from present and future harm.

Emotionally Holding:

            My son was overwhelmed with emotion.  He could not contain his feelings of fear, and uncertainty.  He needed a parent to be a container for these overflowing emotions.  As emotion pours out of a child and into the parent he needs to feel that the parent can handle it.  The parent can manage his own emotions in the face of the child’s very powerful emotions.  My son was also confused about what had happened.  Emotional holding helps a child to make sense of confusing emotions and circumstances.  Emotional holding seeks to fully understand the experience of the child without judgment.  For the child telling the story enables him to make sense of the experience.

Psychologically Holding:

            In the weeks following this incident I began to wonder if it might impact him long term.  He loved to swim, but would he refuse to get back in the water?  Would he have nightmares, irrational fears, or ongoing questions about death?  I continued to talk about the situation hoping to communicate that it was ‘ok’ to talk about and that recurring thoughts were normal.  At one point he stated that he thought about it often, so I wondered about his thoughts and even consulted a therapist.  Psychological holding is being your child’s therapist.  It is knowing when to talk and when to listen.  It is knowing when to seek outside help for your child and possibly for yourself.  Psychological holding is a parent’s ability to know a child in their mind, and heart.  It is the ability to mentalize the child’s inner experience and respond appropriately.

My son is OK, we talk about this day every once in a while but mostly it is just part of his story.  As his parent I am reminded that I cannot protect him from every danger, but that HOLDING him can help him to get through the scary things he encounters in life.  I can be his secure base to which to return when times get rough and life is difficult.

What scary/painful things have your kids experienced and how did you help them through it?  What was the hardest part about helping them through this difficult time?

Do You Feed Your Kids Crack?

0927f-10833195_s“Do you feed your kids crack?”  The Sunday school teacher asked.  “Oh… no, they are pretty energetic though aren’t they” I laughed.  I entered the room to gather my three boys while one of them was sliding head first down the plastic slide, the second was leaning off the edge of the fort as though it was a ship at sea, and the third was chasing a girl around the room.  I quickly gathered my clan rushed them off to the car and buckled them in their seats.  My main thought on that day was, “my boys require a lot of structure.”  We headed home and I chalked it up to another day in the life of a high-energy family.

A few weeks later I started to think about the question that this teacher posed to me.  Like many things the more I thought about it the more frustrated I became.  Don’t get me wrong I am the first to admit that my boys are active.  They love to run, jump, wrestle, and get dirty.  I am also the first to state however that I have great children and this is where the frustration came in.  I started to wonder what this teacher thinks of my boys.  My guess based on her question is that she views them as out-of-control, untamed, crazy, or scary.

I know that ultimately it does not matter what this person thinks about my children.  I believe strongly however, that the way we experience children is the way they experience themselves.  So, if this teacher experiences my children as crazy, out-of-control, or scary then that may be the way that they feel in her presence.  I begin to wonder if she is overwhelmed by their energy.  I sense that maybe she does not know how to contain them or is unsure of how to discipline them.  If I were honest with myself I would admit that at times I feel these things.  I feel overwhelmed, out-of-control, and scared of someone getting hurt.

Unfortunately when I feel these ways I tend to rely on my more primal parenting skills.  Sometimes this includes yelling, sometimes annoyed tones of voice, other times checking out.  Of course these skills do not work very well and actually communicate even more firmly to my children that I cannot handle them.  I wonder what it feels like to my children when I am out of control?  How do they feel when I am yelling, using my annoyed voice, or checked out?

At times I can see the answers on my sons face.  The feeling seems to be either hurt or humiliation, whatever it is I know it when I see it.  In my best moments I slow down, apologize, and acknowledge my mistake.  In my worse moments I move on without giving it a second thought feeling justified in my frustration.

My sons truly do require a lot of structure.  I find that things go better when I provide simple activities to help provide this structure.  It might be playdoh, drawing, coloring, a task, or a walk.  No matter what it is when I take action and help to structure the time they respond well.  The best part is that in most cases when I start the activity and engage with them for a short time I can leave the activity and they will remain engaged beyond the time of my involvement.  The hard part is staying calm, remembering that they need the structure and providing it before I become overwhelmed and out of control.

One thing that I have learned to do when things get tense at my house is to ask myself, “What do they need from me right now?”  Many times the answer is structure and when I provide it things seem to calm down, and so do I.

What activities do you use to provide structure for your children?

Daddy Will You Hold Me?

acb60-14063358_sI used to be a cruel and sadistic parent.  I was selfish, tired, resentful, and overwhelmed.

       My first son learned to walk when he was around nine months old.  At about 18 months I figured he had had enough practice and I expected him to walk everywhere he went.  When we went to the store he would slowly climb his way out of the car seat, I set him on the ground and expected him to walk to the store.  He would start to whine about halfway there, when his little legs struggled to keep up with my full strides.  As he plopped himself on the ground crying, “daddy hold me” my frustration would start to boil, I attempted to provide a logical choice, “You can walk, or you can ride in the cart.”  However, logic was thrown out the window when I expected an 18 month old to walk the length of a parking lot.

            8 years and 3 kids later I was reminded of my cruel and sadistic past.  My five year old is high energy and high emotion.  By the end of the day he has run his tank dry and seems to have little energy left for any self-care.  As we finish reading books he plops himself on the floor and asks, “daddy will you hold me?”

            When I scoop him up and carry him to bed I realize that “holding” a child is so much more than bringing that child from point A to point B.

Holding a child is:

  •             Protecting from harm
  •             Containing feelings
  •             Softening your heart
  •             Anticipating needs
  •             Accepting uniqueness
  •             Caring for hurts
  •             Enforcing limits
  •             Sacrificing self
  •             Creating safety
  •             Seeking to understand
  •             Being present
  •             Offering grace

Over the next several months my posts will be discussing questions about  “holding” your children.  Is it possible to drop a child emotionally while holding him physically?  Is it possible to hold a child while not physically touching him?  How do fathers hold differently than mothers?  What are the consequences of never being held and how can one learn to hold if they never experienced it themselves?

Please join me in the discussion and offer your own reflections or questions about your experience as a parent.

My Wife Went Out of Town and I Asked For Help

b4a26-14993164_sSeveral months ago my wife started preparing me for the inevitable.  A long time friend was getting married and she floated the idea of attending the wedding. She would be a plane flight away while I stayed home to care for our four young children.  My normal response in these situations is silence.  I am trying to remain calm, and avoid totally betraying the feelings of anxiety and frustration that immediately crop up.

I love my kids, I am a very involved father, and I am passionate about impacting the lives of my children.   When it comes to parenting alone for a weekend however, I am a mess.  I really desire for my wife to have time of her own, I desire for her to connect with old friends, and I have had many chances to take such trips.

My problem is that I get overwhelmed; there is just so much to do.  There are moments when things are going fine, and then there are moments when it feels seconds away from implosion.  As I move through the days doing my best to stay one step ahead of the chaos the feeling becomes more powerful and out of control.

So, with this trip on the horizon I asked for help, my mom came into town and my sister and her pre-teen daughter spent time lending an extra hand.

Somewhere in the middle of the weekend I started to wonder if I was betraying my fellow man.  I have read several articles lately and am aware of a pretty significant movement of dads looking to improve the image of fathers.  I have felt that I am a part of this movement.  I do desire to demonstrate that men are capable parents.  So, I wondered if asking for help made me a sell-out?  Had I become a hypocrite in the world of active fathers?

After some reflection I have decided that no, I am not a sell-out or a hypocrite, I am just me.  I am laid back, low energy, low structure, introverted, reflective, and male.  When I enter a group of people I hang around the edges, observe for a while, and then settle into a conversation with 1 or 2 warm personalities.  My wife is outgoing, high energy, high structure, extroverted, logical, and female.  When she enters a group of people she jumps right into the mix, moves from group to group, and meets many new people.

I am struck by the fact that our different personalities also reflect our different styles of parenting.  She is perfectly comfortable managing and directing the crisis of taking four children to the grocery store.  She responds quickly in many situations and is adept at moving from child to child, while maintaining focus on the task at hand.  My reflective personality causes me to respond more slowly.  I want to think things through.  I wonder how my words in this moment may impact the future development of a fragile psyche.  I analyze motivations, body language, and tone changes all in the hopes of responding perfectly as to avoid any further complications.

Isn’t it amazing how who we are as people, so totally impacts who we are as parents?  I am very thankful that my wife is not like me.  I am also thankful that I am not like my wife.  Our personalities and parenting styles are complementary and we have become a really great team.  She is a force of energy, passion, excitement, and structure.  I am steady, thoughtful, calming, and relaxed.

I am beginning to realize that my anxiety and frustration with parenting on my own may not be the result of deficient skills.  I think it is more like losing a valued teammate.  I think I am a better parent in the presence of my wife.  We work well together and support one another.  She gives me strength and I give her stability.  Asking for help is like inserting a sub, the new player can never replace the trusted veteran but neither does it reduce the value of the remaining player.

 The weekend with my wife away went much better than I expected.  It was a nice opportunity for my children to spend time with their grandmother and cousin.  I enjoyed having new team members at my side and am thankful to have learned a lesson about accepting my weaknesses and strengths.

Oh, and my wife points out that it took three of them to replace the one of her!!

This Post originally appeared at The Good Men Project