As his seven-year-old daughter gambolled away, my nephew reflected on the negotiation that I had just witnessed, where she asked repeatedly for something to which he had each time responded no.
“It’s frustrating when she or any of the kids keep asking,” he said. “At the same time, I don’t want to shut them down. I want to listen to their reasons, and take them seriously. And . . . sometimes they’re right,” he concluded.
I was impressed with his insight and humility. He was demonstrating healthy leadership, authority that is firm, clear and flexible. He and his children both know he is in charge; eventually his daughter stopped repeating her request and continued on with her play. At the same time he had honoured her appeal and invited her to put reasoning behind it. With his final comment to me, he indicated he is willing to listen openly. Such mature parenting is a sign of a healthy family.
In this column, I continue a series on characteristics of a healthy family. Previous columns spoke of the value of cherishing diversity and being adaptive. Here I address qualities of leaders. Often that means parents, but as families evolve, it can refer to others, like siblings or adult children. It’s a changeable dynamic; there is certainly no perfect response that fits all situations.
Some might quibble with my opening story, for example, thinking the parent is erring on the side of being too lenient, and permitting too much challenge from his child. Some leaders insist on a high level of obedience and compliance. In other situations, parents have abdicated their authority, and do not set any boundaries to shape or guide their child.
Generally speaking, either of those extremes contributes to unhealthy family relationships. When chaos is the norm, the young and the vulnerable do not receive the support they need to grow and thrive. A family that has known extreme pain, such as those torn apart by war, abuse or addictions, can lose its centre. Little is provided in the way of authority and leadership. Food and shelter may be tenuous, and the members are not able to offer dependable emotional connection to each other.
A slightly more healthy family, with similar wounds in the past, may organize around a rigid and controlling authority figure. Usually a parent or an elder member of the family dominates with unbending rules; others must submit or are then ostracized, in effect “killed.” Individuals are assigned roles of either perfect or monster. There is no ambiguity, only black and white, right and wrong. As in the chaotic family, intimate connection is sacrificed.
Always, we are encouraged to move towards health, as demonstrated by our leader Jesus. Even though we cannot expect to achieve his perfection, we are guided by his example. Ron Edmondson offers 12 leadership principles of Jesus. Two that seem particularly fitting here are that “Jesus cared more about people than rules and regulations . . . (and) Jesus practiced servant leadership better than anyone.”
Christian parents have chosen to exercise their familial authority as followers of the servant-king Jesus. The mission of nurturing the young is held within the larger mission of God’s vision for the world, a vision that is Jesus-shaped and Jesus-centered. Parents serve God’s mission, nurturing those in their care to grow into the likeness of their heavenly parent. By following Jesus’ example of non-domination leadership, they raise children who know they are loved and respected. Because of what they have received, such children are more likely to pass it on to others, and God’s kingdom is increased.
Melissa Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a passion for helping people develop healthy, vibrant relationships with God, self and others.