Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Shaken, Not Stirred

Before I became a dad, I thought to myself my main job as a father would not to make some stupid mistake that got my child hurt seriously or worse. I've therefore avoided the local custom of kids standing in open sunroofs while dad barrels down mountains. We do pile one or two children on the scooter with us from time to time, but that's just the way it has to be at times. Elliot has had two scares in the past month, though, that have reaffirmed my belief that parents should always err on the side of caution.

Tonight, as I was working (really) on the computer Amalia came over and gave me a grape. Grapes make me nervous because I read somewhere once they are easy to choke on. I took note and went back to my work. A few minutes later, I heard a grunting sound from the living room -- not too unusual for our house, but I remembered the grapes. Sure enough, Elliot is draped over the arm of the couch full on choking. I ran over and lifted him off the couch, and from behind put my hands together where you see people in movies when they perform the Heimlich maneuver. Michaela now aware something was going on hollered for me to hit his back as I did so. In a few seconds (seemed a hell of a lot longer), the grape came out, along with the contents of his stomach. For the second time in a month, Elliot was suddenly aware of something approaching a feeling of mortality. Isaac seems over-aware, while his brother has always assumed he's invincible. He cried in shock for a couple of minutes and then was fine.

In August, we were at a friend's child's birthday party. The kids played in the pool for a long time and a good time was had by all. Elliot and Isaac are both fairly strong swimmers so we keep an eye on them but do not stand right next to them. At one point, I heard a mother shouting Elliot's name and assumed he was wrestling with someone. As I looked over Elliot was completely submerged and struggling to get his head above water. The problem was the lady's son was on top of his head. He was not confident in the water and got some place he could not reach the bottom. in the poor boy's panic, he grabbed Elliot.

I swam over as fast as I could, but obstacles in the way delayed everyone trying to reach them. I finally pulled him up and sat him on the side of the pool.

"Are you OK? Elliot. Talk to me. Are you OK?" He looked fine, but I wanted to hear him say something to make sure.

"Elliot. Are you too scared to talk?" He shakes his head, but remains silent.

Finally, he says, "I couldn't breathe air."

He was dumbfounded. The kid who's been diving in the the pool since before he could swim, at last realized he was not a fish.

Being a parent is a never ending battle of nerves. I cannot believe we have three and some have even more. With every passing day, I realize what my mother and father went through and wish I had been more well behaved.

Actually, I take that back. I was a great kid. I wish my sister had been better behaved, though.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Family Culture

The elapsed time since my last post is so embarrassing I won't even mention it (too late). I am not sure if this counts as a blog anymore. Who knows, maybe this will be the beginning of more frequent updates. I have been burning the candle at how ever many ends it is theoretically possible for a candle to possess -- so that is my excuse. I have had some thoughts recently, though, that I would like to share.

FAMILY AS A HPO (High Performance Organization)
I would never suggest one run a family exactly like a company (especially when it comes to hiring and firing children!), but I have just spent the weekend on a leadership retreat which I think provides useful insights for those out there with young families like mine. The title of the course is Confucianism and Leadership and it is part of my MBA studies at NCCU here in Taipei. The professor is a very well-respected authority in the human resources field and is highly sought-after by companies to lead just the sort of retreat I had the privilege to attend this weekend. As I was driving home, I thought to myself, "it's a shame that I haven't seen a similar offering to parents." I know there are loads of great parenting books that deal with all kinds of important themes and lessons on raising children, but there are some good core practices that good corporations follow that, when combined with Confucian-style (or even religious) motivations can provide parents with a great framework for their conversation on how to raise their children.

Raising a family starts with your and your partner's vision for the family and the people in it. So often in relationships we get caught up in the here and now and never think about how things will be a year from now or two years from now or ten years from now. We let things happen and react to the situation as we each want to react and then attempt to find common ground. Most of the time, in a healthy relationship, this is fine. Your mutual understanding and respect for each other make it possible to find common ground. But now it is time to have children. This changes things. A complete stranger is about to be thrust into your house. Even strong, happy and decent couples can have wildly different expectations about how to raise kids. As soon as you learn you are going to have a child, you should sit down and discuss your vision for your family. If you already have children, it is not too late.

Now, by vision I don't mean "little Johnny is going to be a doctor and little Ashley is going to be an astronaut." Vision should be general enough as to not limit your possibilities, but clear enough to provide a guiding principle for your decisions down the road. I personally think the simpler and more absolute the vision, the easier it is provide a direction for the family. I personally choose one that goes beyond the fence around our yard (this is a metaphor as we have no fence, nor a yard. Our house is surrounded by jungle).

My vision, "The Brennands will bring good will and positive change to every family and organization with which they come into contact."
(Please note it you are one of those families or organizations, we haven't started yet. I still have to talk with the wife!)

The next step is to make this vision clear to every one in the family (in an age appropriate way) and reinforce it through our words and actions.

Obviously, we are not going to talk to our children like they are senior managers in a multi-national (thought that would be awesome: "Amalia, put down the finger paint, dad's secretary has paged you and canceled all your meetings for the rest of the day. To the board room, quick!"

The heavy lifting will be done by my wife and I and there are some great organizational tools we can use to lead our family and help each other discover what works (very little sometimes) and what doesn't (quite a lot it turns out).

These are a couple of useful tools I will try to incorporate into daily situations.

PDA (Purpose, Desired Outcome, Action and actual outcome)
How often do you go somewhere with your kids and assume they know how to act? If you take your kids to the store and they act like they do when they are playing with each other at home, it is a nightmare. You react far worse than you would if the environment were different and kids can get mixed signals as to what is expected of them.

Establishing good PDA is vital and doesn't have to take a lot of time with some practice. The next time you go to a friend's house or a public place prepare yourself and your children. Now I know we all do it (or at least think we do it), but I am going to take the idea of PDA and apply it in a more professional way. When dealing with employees, we assume they understand us or will act in a way we want, but how often do they do something that makes us shake our head and think, "how is it even possible for someone to have misunderstood me that much?" Now that is with adults (I assume you are not running a sneaker sweat-shop in SouthEast Asia) Imagine trying to establish PDA with a six, four and two year old. Pulling them aside for 60 seconds before you go into the supermarket and saying "indoor voices, don't run, no treats today, be nice to your sister, let's go" simply cannot be expected to work. And considering the disproportional reaction they are going to receive for misbehaving, we owe it to them to put as much energy into preparing them as we will most certainly put into to disciplining them.

Purpose: Tell them why you are going to the store. Make them a part of the task at hand. Give them a job to do and show them how they can help you accomplish what you need to do inside. Don't just tell them to stay close. I sometimes luck into this by letting them push the cart or by sending them off in search of different items (we don't really need to worry about kidnappings in our local Taipei supermarket. It may be different where you live) and it invariably leads to them being more well-mannered. Why don't I incorporate it into every trip?

Desired Outcome: Let them know not only what your purpose is, but also what a successful trip will look like. "What we want is to go in there, get these things and to do so with everyone in there wondering where I found such wonderfully-behaved children."

Action/actual outcome: Let them know the actions they can do specifically to achieve the desired outcome. Don't give them a long list of things they can't do. I wouldn't do that to employees. I would warn them about some trouble spots and a few things they should avoid (and solicit ideas from them as well) but I would mainly focus on what positive actions I want them to take AND how it will help us reach our desired outcome. When you're done and walking back to the car, go over what actually happened. Ask them if the desired outcome was achieved. Ask them how the outcome was different. Why? What could they do differently next time. The idea is not to get them to be angels. The idea is to give them a framework about how to approach a task and evaluate themselves in a non-threatening manner. It is to help them mark their own improvement.

(Note: I am not crazy. I am not going to use the actual words, I will paraphrase it and put it into ideas six and four-year-olds can understand. Will I use it with my two year old? No. To be honest she doesn't need it.)

Another concept I will pay much closer attention to is UAC.
UAC (Understanding, Alignment, Commitment): This is critical. The reason this is so important is that we all go through this process already, the problem is we emphasize and spend too much time on the wrong phases.

Most people will spend less than 25% of their energy on establishing understanding. Why are we doing what we're doing. What is the purpose? Then maybe 5% on alignment. That is establishing that not only do they understand what our purpose is, but they are on board and their desired outcome is now aligned with ours. Finally most people spend 70-75% of their energy on eliciting commitment to pursue that goal. The problem is if there is not sufficient understanding and alignment, then the commitment is empty and you are more likely to have an undesired outcome.

"Say you'll be good inside. Tell me you are not going to run. Say the words. Say 'I won't run, Daddy.'" Uh, that isn't going to work. And then they run and you say, "You said you wouldn't run!"

Now I know, they will not be able to understand completely and will not be able to align themselves with your desired outcome all the time, but the other way doesn't work either. Remember, we are creating a framework. If you spend 50% of your time on understanding, 25% of your energy on alignment and then 25% of your time on commitment then the chances for success this one time are better. But, more importantly, you get into a good habit that a month down the road, a year down the road or ten years down the road yields much better results and contributes to better understanding and alignment between you and your children. How valuable is that? Will it work this one time? Probably not, but neither will the alternative.

One final thought and probably the most important thing I learned was the value of good feedback. This is more for the parents interactions with each other but is also invaluable for kids. The difference is children expect feedback from us, but what about our spouses?

The thing to remember about feedback is you cannot improve yourself without it.
Husbands and wives are the perfect people to give feedback to each other, but are probably the worst people at it. Number one you have to detach yourself emotionally and listen to the feedback without defending yourself. Whether you agree with it or not, it is valuable to know it. Also, you need to have a context within which to place it. I am thinking about a typical scene where the wife will walk in while I am at my wit's end and am yelling at one of the children [yes, I've tried to give it up (see earlier post) but haven't succeeded (yet)] and she tells me to either calm down or takes over. It happens the other way as well. This is a bad time for feedback. No saying, "hey you have to cool it around the kids or they are going to be monsters when they are older!" It is obviously better to have a system in place already where another parent automatically takes control when the other is about to lose it, but this is how it goes sometimes with husband and wife. All of our 'good feedback' comes in the heat of the moment. But if you both are clear on your family's vision, then feedback should be very positive. Some tips (from the class, not my own!).

Giving Feedback

  • Set aside time when you are together to give feedback.
  • Be positive, but don't shy away from negative feedback. This is why spouses should be the ones best equipped at feedback. (There should be no chance you are going to lose your job!)
  • Be clear and specific. Deal with a narrow selection of issues at a time. No need to get into why she brought so many bloody dogs home when you first met.
  • Calmly deal with excuses the person might make. Don't let them get away with them, but be nice. Simply point it out and let them know what you think.
Receiving Feedback
  • Listen. Relax. Listen with an open mind and put your ego and pride aside a while.
  • Be appreciative someone (especially your spouse) is willing to put themselves in the awkward position of giving honest feedback and know they are willing to do the same.
  • Don't defend yourself. It is ultimately up to you what to do with the feedback, but don't argue with it. This is what your spouse sees. That is important whether you agree with it or not.
  • Ask questions if you need to to understand. (Not sarcastic ones though)
  • If it's true, own up to it and move on to what to do about it.
I apologize for the length and perhaps incoherence at times. I have thought at several times over the past few months about posting something and always put it off (until I have time to craft it) and then a few days pass and it never happens. I wanted to write something last night but was too tired. Tonight I have too much work to do, but I realized it was tonight or never. I doubt anyone will get to the bottom of the post to read this apology and so you are undeserving of the apology by definition. That is why it appears at the bottom and not the top!

不患人之不已知,患不知人也。 (Confucius, Analects 1.16)
"Be more concerned that you do not understand others, instead of too preoccupied that others do not understand you."