Oh, Am I Driving?

I was reminded of this question recently by a discussion about family leadership. According to the story I heard, as two elderly ladies were traveling toward their destination the driver consistently violated traffic signals. The passenger held on for dear life as the driver ignored several stop signs and even drove straight through a red traffic signal. At that point the passenger became desperate so she asked the driver, “Didn’t you see those stop signs and that red light? Are you okay to be driving?” Her elderly friend looked surprised and responded with her own question, “Oh, am I driving?” Her question came to my mind as I was pondering the status of many contemporary families that are tormented by turmoil and torn by tension. In these families the issue is “Who’s driving?” In regard to leadership many parents are often uncertain about their roles and responsibilities, and their uncertainty paralyzes them into inactivity. While these parents are uncertain other parents are simply unwilling to provide the leadership that healthy families require and deserve. These unwilling parents know what to do; they just choose not to do it.  

Whether the issue is uncertainty or unwillingness one conclusion is clear:  too many contemporary families are in a serious state of leadership crisis. Through apathy or abdication too many parents withhold from their families the direction and discipline needed for basic survival.  Through oppressive and abusive leadership other parents are ineffective in the creation and maintenance of a healthy family. Any family with leadership problems is a family in crisis, and the clouds overshadowing the journey along the Family Highway are indeed dark and ominous. Without effective leadership a family fulfills the “runaway stagecoach” metaphor of family relationships. I heard about that metaphor years ago and have since seen its manifestation in many family units. The metaphor connected with me because in my childhood I saw movies about the Old West in which the “bad guys” would typically kill the drivers and the driverless stagecoach would then head for the nearest cliff, while the passengers inside the coach would yell and beg for rescue from the impending disaster. That’s when the “good guy” would show up and stop the horses at the last possible second, saving the passengers from death and salvaging the movie for another episode. In the metaphoric picture the “family car” is speeding toward the proverbial cliff with no one in the driver’s seat to stop the racing engine. The children in the back seat are yelling and screaming. On the back end of the car are the two parents, holding on for dear life, with hands latched onto the rear bumper and with legs flapping helplessly in the wind. Tragically, because there is no “good guy” who magically appears to rescue the family in distress another “family car” is lost over the cliff of Leadership Crisis. Clearly, family leadership is an issue worthy of our most careful attention.  

Types of Family Leadership . . .

In my work as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist I’ve seen many variations of family leadership. Sometimes the specific type of leadership is clear and recognizable; at other times the picture is blurred and confused. These variations usually fit one of three basic types of leadership. If we conceptualize leadership as a continuum, we’ll see the Anarchic type on one extreme and the Authoritarian type on the opposite extreme. In the middle is the Authoritative type.  

The Anarchic type describes the family in which there is a real scarcity or total absence of rules. Even if rules exist, they are not clearly understood nor are they consistently enforced. Essentially, leadership is absent. A state of basic anarchy reigns and each person in the family does as he pleases without regard to the impact of his behavior upon the rest of the family. No one is in charge; no one accepts responsibility; no one drives the “family car.” Just as the driverless stagecoach heads for the Leadership Crisis cliff, the anarchic family moves in unpredictable directions toward undesirable dangers. The absence of leadership might be the result of basic immaturity, as is the case in most teenage or youthful marriages. The anarchy might be caused by a simple unwillingness of either parent to accept and fulfill the responsibilities of parenthood. For some reason neither parent wants to “drive the family car.” In some situations the parents may want to provide leadership but they are too timid or too untrained to know what to do. As a result, they abdicate their roles and the family travels the Family Highway in a state of anarchy.

The opposite extreme to the Anarchic type is the Authoritarian type which is characterized by abusive leadership. In these families the adults take parental authority to an unhealthy level and become very dictatorial and excessively harsh. They rule with an iron fist, and the children are allowed no input or feedback regarding rules and regulations. Total obedience is demanded without flexibility or mercy, and punishment is quick and brutal. Children in the Authoritarian family probably feel like they’re in a prison with one or both parents serving as the oppressive warden. The parents drive the “family car” in a stubborn, self-willed manner, and they are not open to direction or discipline from any external authority figure. Clearly, a journey along the Family Highway with this Authoritarian type of leadership is not going to be a pleasant or welcomed experience.

The Authoritative type of family leadership is a balanced, middle-of-the-road approach. The family goal is the usage of appropriate leadership by both parents. They assume the responsibility of driving the “family car” and make it clear that they are in charge and have the final say. At the same time they encourage and welcome input and feedback from the children. Family rules are appropriate for the ages of the children, and corrective discipline is given in an assertive, consistent manner. Though not a perfect solution, the Authoritative family maintains enough structure to provide security while at the same time it practices enough flexibility to allow for freedom. As a result, their journey on the Family Highway is an opportunity for growth and an adventure to enjoy.

Parents choose which of the three types of family leadership they want to use in their personal families. They could imitate what they had in their family of origin, or they might rebel against what they experienced and choose something very different. Wise parents will consider the three types and then select the one that provides the best approach for rearing children and launching them effectively into responsible adulthood. Of the three types I would encourage the selection of the Authoritative type, simply because it avoids the dangerous extremes and encourages the goal of appropriate leadership.   

Tips on Family Leadership . . .

The consistent practice of Authoritative leadership can be challenging for parents. In accepting the challenge most parents are looking for tips that can make their efforts less difficult and more effective. Parenting tips would probably not be useful to the Anarchic parents simply because they have a “no rules” philosophy in their roles as parents. The tips would not be welcomed by the Authoritarian parents because they already have their minds rigidly set on what they want to do. However, Authoritative parents are very open to tips and tools that can assist them in their work. I’d like to share three tips that hopefully will be relevant and useful to parents who adopt the Authoritative style of family leadership.

Identify your Ideals:  “What is my goal?”

Wise travelers always know where they are at any given point and where they are going. They have identified clearly their destination point and have developed a workable roadmap for getting them to their goal. Similarly, wise parents will think through their personal ideals and will clarify the ultimate destination for their parenting journey. These ideals represent the goals of their parenting efforts, and they suggest a standard of excellence. The key question is “Ideally, what are the most important goals that we want to fulfill in our work with our children?” The identification of your ideals will allow you to construct a roadmap that will help you reach your parenting destination. You will probably fall short of your preferred ideals, but keeping the ideals in mind will give you a clearer destination toward which you can travel successfully. An effective parenting plan is more achievable when both parents understand and commit to the same basic roadmap. Goals have to be set and priorities must be maintained. Specific family rules are chosen that will allow these goals and priorities to be fulfilled. In other words, parenting must be purposeful. Everything you do as a parent must move your family purposefully forward along the Family Highway.  

Several questions could assist you as you identify your parenting goals, that is, your ultimate destination. I hope that the following questions will stimulate your thinking and will generate additional questions to be considered in regard to goals and destination.

           *What kind of childhood do I want my children to have?
           *When they recall their childhood what memories do I want them to treasure?
           *What are the personal values I want them to practice when they reach adulthood?
           *What are my goals for my children’s spiritual development?
           *What practical survival skills do I want my children to have in place when they launch   from the family home?
           *What do I want them to learn about marriage and family life based upon their experiences in our home?

Improve your Interaction: “What is my style?”  
As you provide leadership for your family you will want to assess and consider your personal style of day-to-day interaction with family members. Your current style might need some repair (or at least some “fine-tuning”) so that you can improve your interaction with other family members. The preferred style involves a number of positive actions. You will be proactive and assertive. Your communications will be clear and understandable. You will maintain a communication climate in which your children feel physically and emotionally safe with you. You will expect cooperation and will deal with noncompliance issues promptly and appropriately. You will make rules that are age-appropriate and goal-oriented, and you will enforce the rules truthfully and consistently. You will welcome your children’s input and feedback including their requests for permission to do things or for rule changes. However, you will stay in charge and will always have the final say about family structure and individual behavior. You will want to be liked by your children, but you will prefer to be respected and obeyed even if they dislike you temporarily because they did not get their way on some particular issue. Your continuing message will be something like “You will respect us and cooperate with us as your parents whether you get your way or not. We love you, and we will do what we believe is best for you. Trust us and work with us.” Obviously, this message is often easier to speak than to practice. It is hard to be appropriate with children when their behavior tries our patience, wears us down, and increases our frustration. In this regard a Christian father admitted his struggles with practicing the parenting command found in Ephesians 6:4:  “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Even with his personal struggles this Christian man described a clear dependence upon the Scriptures as the best source of parental guidance. Perhaps you can identify with this father, particularly as you strive to implement Authoritative leadership without exasperating or provoking your children with excessive or inappropriate discipline. As you continue to improve your interaction with your children you will enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that you’re making good progress along the Family Highway.

Increase your Influence:  “What is my action?”

As we consider our work in family leadership we need to remember three clear realities about our children. First, our child possesses free will. Secondly, our child has a mind of his own. Thirdly, our child will make his own choices in life regardless of what we might want or request. Because of these realities our parenting work is limited. We cannot “make” our child do everything we want them to do or “make” them be everything we want them to be. At best we can influence them through our consistent leadership. Hopefully, our positive influence will produce adult children who have the maturity and ability necessary for survival and success in life. In providing family leadership we can increase our influence through three important actions.

First, we influence through example. As parents we must serve as the models of the behavior we expect of our children. We cannot expect them to behave if we are misbehaving in the same area. For example, I recall one father who wanted me to “fix” his son’s anger problems. It soon became clear to me that the father’s own anger was out of control and merited some serious attention. Unfortunately, the father felt justified in his behavior and maintained a double standard in regard to his children. He expected his son to live by a standard he as the father was unwilling to use for himself. Such hypocrisy will only fuel a child’s anger. Children are perceptive and can see the existence of double standards. Parents must “practice what they preach” if they want their example to have a positive influence upon their children. Being a positive example is a treasured legacy for all parents to leave for their children.

Second, we influence through exposure. We purposefully expose our children to instruction and information with which they will grow and mature. We send them to school where they will gain knowledge and learn skills essential to their survival. At home we teach them as much as we can about personal values and appropriate behavior. We expose them to as much information as possible, assuming that the information is appropriate and is consistent with our parenting goals. In this regard contemporary parents must pay close attention to the type of and amount of exposure our children have to public media, especially the internet. Admittedly, the internet provides a great deal of helpful resources that are beneficial and useful, but, unfortunately, it also poses a major threat to the health and safety of our children. Wise parents will exercise continual caution and control over what specific websites the children can access and use. This ongoing discernment is necessary with the internet and with other activities to which our children are exposed. As responsible parents we must be “smart” in the way we utilize the “smart technology” that permeates current culture. The parental goal is to provide exposure to helpful information and to prevent exposure to harmful information.   

Third, we influence through experience. We involve our children in specific activities and adventures that will help them to learn and grow. Through these experiences they will internalize the values and develop the skills we are trying to get them to achieve. Creative parents are constantly looking for opportunities through which they can involve the children in growth experiences. The fulfillment of daily chores can build personal responsibility and a good work ethic. Personal involvement at a local food bank for the homeless can increase values like compassion and volunteerism. The completion of homework in a timely manner can encourage good time management skills. Participation in a church mission trip can promote individual spirituality. Many other activities could be mentioned, but the activities used will support a common theme:  “experience.” Use meaningful experiences to influence your children toward positive behavior and personal growth.    

These three tips deal with goals, styles, and actions. We must keep our destination clearly in mind so that we will travel with purpose. We will use a behavioral style that promotes healthy interaction with our fellow travelers (that is, our family members). We will engage in specific actions that increase positive influence upon our children. Through the actions of example, exposure, and experience we will influence our children toward growth and maturity. In applying these tips we will make progress in the daily provision of effective family leadership.

Concluding Thoughts . . .

The Family Highway is a wonderful road to travel, but at times the journey can have its dark clouds of stresses and challenges, particularly when the family is in a state of leadership crisis. Effective family leadership removes many of the dark clouds and replaces them with sunny skies more conducive to safe and successful travels. Since there is no “auto-pilot” feature available on the “family car” the parents must do everything possible to provide effective leadership throughout the journey. Of the three basic types of leadership described earlier the Authoritative type has been highlighted and recommended. Three specific tips for better leadership have been presented and described.

A family’s health cannot exceed its leadership. When men and women get married and choose to have children they must be willing and able to assume the roles of family leaders. Effective leadership may mean that personal preferences and pleasures are set aside so that parenting goals and responsibilities can be fulfilled. This spirit of personal sacrifice is inherent in responsible parenting. For most parents the required sacrifices are outweighed by the joys that come as children mature and are launched into full adulthood. At that time the parents can look back over their parenting journey and feel a deep sense of satisfaction with a job well done. Thankfully, the errors committed and the mistakes made are less painful as parents watch their grown children survive and succeed in their own personal lives and in the new family units they establish. Sometimes our children succeed because of us; in some instances they seem to survive in spite of us. In both cases we have a great deal for which to be thankful when we see our grown children traveling their own Family Highway safely and successfully. 



VIDEO:  To watch a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Family Leadership:  Who's Driving?" please click on the image to the right or you can click here. 







 (To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)


            Parenting/Children #409


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