How to Lead a Family as a Family
by Dick Wulf, MSW, LCS
The biggest mistake made in family leadership is not leading the family as a family. What passes for family leadership these days is not really leading the family, although it might be parenting. The two are not quite the same. And parenting is greatly enhanced by leading the family as a social unit rather than a collection of individuals.
THE FIRST EXAMPLE
Consider this difference. There are two families, Family A and Family Z. The same two problems exist in both families. The first problem is that one family member is not very committed to the family. The second problem is that each family has a family member who captures too much family attention, whether that be by excessive social behavior or by misbehavior. The leader of Family A believes he is leading the family, but he is not. The leader of Family Z is truly leading the family.
Only Looks Like Family Leadership, But Is Not
In Family A, one or both parents talk with the family member who seems withdrawn from the family, asks what the problem is, gives advice and encourages the person to become more active in the family. The person is restored to the family.
The Family A, one or both parents also meet individually with the family member who garners too much family attention and explains that others are not getting enough attention. They discuss the need for this family member to let others be in the spotlight. The person stops talking some but is still too needy in the family and still takes too much family energy.
Leading the Family as a Whole
In Family Z, a parent asks the whole family in a family meeting what it wants to do about the family member who has withdrawn from the family. Family members discuss their reaction to the problem and then analyze it. They express their desire to have a happy family, that they worry about their brother/son who seems not to want to be with the family, and express reasons why it is important to them for him to be more a part of the family. Then the leaders (this article assumes there are two parents, but the principles are the same for single-parent families) of Family Z ask the family what it is going to do about it. They tell the reluctant family member that they miss him and wish he would spend more time with the family. They ask him why he does not want to be around the family more. He replies that he thinks people don’t like him. They correct this wrong perception. Soon, his involvement increases and everyone tells him that they like him being with the family. By the time the family process is completed, the family has learned how to work as a unit to solve a problem, how to confront lovingly as a team, and that family problems are the family’s responsibility to solve. Members learn they are very capable as a family, as well as individually.
Also in Family Z, a parent asks the family during a family meeting if it is satisfied with how the family is going. The parents explain that it is their family, and their success is in their own hands. Many family members express unhappiness, a few are angry, and the over-needy family member is totally confused by the question. A silence follows that seems to last forever, even though it is only two minutes, while the family members get up the nerve to talk and figure out how to say in a loving way what is on each of their minds.
Then, finally, they begin to reveal their unhappiness at not getting more time with others, especially Mom and Dad, to talk or do things. A few other comments are made. Then the over-talkative individual asks why they don’t feel they can talk. There is another silence.
The parents stay quiet, since there is no sign yet that the family will not be able to take the next step. Eventually an angry member blurts out that Jim talks too much and even misbehaves and ends up taking too much of Dad and Mom’s time. It is tense for a moment.
The family seems stuck, so after a minute of silence a parent asks the family if others agree that Jim is taking too much of the family’s attention and energy. A sister says that she does not think Jim is doing it out of malice. Someone asks Jim why he is taking up so much of the family’s time with his talking and causing trouble. Jim, for one of the first times, must be accountable. He is uncomfortable. The family waits for his answer. Seeing that he cannot avoid answering, Jim says he does not know.
The family does not let him avoid understanding and/or admitting the reason for his behavior. They begin to ask him if it is for this reason or that. He finally admits that they were correct when they suggested that, as the oldest child, he was used to getting all the attention and resents the others being born and robbing him of his monopoly on the parents. The family lets him know that it must have been sad, but that they need him to give up his resentment. He says he knows he doesn’t really need all the attention and commits to try to do better.
In Family Z, some of the benefits of this kind of family leadership are easy to see; others are more subtle. Clearly, after the family is through with this process (which was engineered by one or both parents), the family will have a great deal of confidence in its ability to solve problems. It will know that whenever any member brings a problem to the family, the family working together can make a good try at solving that problem. Parents are valued for bringing out the strength of the family rather than creating dependency on them to solve all the problems and give all the answers. Family members are grateful that the parents let them take leadership and did not do anything that they could do for themselves. The parents are quite impressed with the good job the family did and feel privileged to have had a part in helping the family discover its abilities and go on to victory.
There are also many less obvious benefits. For example, the family learned that one of its members is not sure he is liked. That was important to discover.
Do you see the tremendous benefit to the family that comes when the parent/s leads the family as a whole? None of these benefits comes from just parenting kids individually, apart from the family as a small society.
Harm Done in Typical Family “Leadership”
But, unfortunately, there is harm done in Family A where the parents did not lead the family as a whole, but merely dealt with family individuals. There was powerful unspoken communication that the parents did not think the family and its members capable of dealing with its own situations and problems. Here is the tragedy: Confidence is undermined, and dependency upon the parents is bred and proliferated. As a result the family is actually made weaker.
It is absolutely critical, therefore, that families be led as families. The most basic, essential skill in leading families is leading the family as a family (as a whole, as a social system). Leading individuals in a family setting does not accomplish things; it destroys the power of the family and keeps individuals from learning how to get along better with people, solve problems and a host of other things.
THE SECOND EXAMPLE
Let me provide another example. Two families have a child who is being bullied at school.
A parent of Family A asks the bullied child a few questions, usually privately, apart from other family members. But, for this example, let’s say that the questioning takes place at the dinner table with everyone present. Perhaps another brother or sister speaks up, but because of the way the parent brought it up, they likely keep silent, depending instead upon the parent to help their bullied brother or sister. As a result of our individualized Western culture, parents often talk to individuals rather than the family as a whole. Then, individual family members take no ownership in seeing the problem solved and the bullying stopped.
In Family Z, the parents envision the family working as a team, capable of solving the bullying problem. The parents ask what the family thinks needs to be done to stop the bullying. But because the parents just started this “whole-family” approach a couple of months ago, the family is stumped. The parents, still talking to the family and moving head and eyes to every member, ask, “Tell the family of anyone you know of who was bullied and did something that stopped the bullying.” Once the other children in the family know that the parents believes in them, they begin to thoroughly discuss bullying and what to do about it. One older sibling even offers to talk to the bullies and receives ideas on how to do it educationally rather than threateningly.
Again, the contrast is striking. Family A did not deal with the problem, leaving the solution up to parents who were quite distant from contemporary bullying. Most likely their advice was limited in value. However, Family B was led as a family to solve the problem, and all sorts of resources, ideas and suggestions were offered. I could go on for pages listing the advantages of having the parents in Family Z focus on the family and its process rather than on just the child being bullied. The parents gave the problem to the whole family, and all sorts of possible solutions were identified. Also, the members of Family Z did more than struggle with the bullying problem. They also struggled with things like bringing others into the task, understanding each other, depending upon each other to come up with something superior to individual thinking, and helping one another to be victorious.
THE THIRD EXAMPLE
Both Family A and Family Z have a very saddened parent who needs emotional and physical support for the task of taking care of an elderly mother (the children’s grandparent) until that parent goes into an assisted living facility. Taking care of another household and the needs of the elderly mother doubles the week’s pressures. Additionally, the parent is stretched emotionally by the conflicting feelings of sadness, compassion and resentment. In both families the moodiness of the burdened parent is noticed and dealt with right away.
In Family A, after the parent tells the family of her/his burden regarding the failing mother, the parents let the process develop and a few family members share some of their own feelings, everyone being close to the grandparent whose health is diminishing. Then the parents ask if anyone has anything else to add. Throughout, because of the individualized focus, the problem is dealt with as if the parent’s burden of taking care of her/his mother is primarily her/his problem.
The parents of Family Z view the problem differently. They see the problem as belonging to the family primarily and only secondarily to the parent whose mother is failing medically. So the other parent says, “Okay, family, let’s help Mom/Dad. It is our job as a family to help. Anybody have any ideas?” Then the parent backs off and lets the family spread its wings and fly. The parents watch carefully, analyzing the family’s efforts and process, not just individual contributions.
Mary, age 8, asks more about her grandmother’s health, and the family changes course to help all family members deal with their feelings about the poor health, pain and suffering that their loved one is facing. Once this is done, everyone begins suggesting ways they may be able to help with the workload. John, aged 14, asks if it would be helpful to spend time after school on Monday, Wednesday and Friday with Grandma, helping out and playing cards with her. Mary chimes in that she would like to spend some time there also, and the family decides that Mary and John will work as a team two or three days a week after school. Many more suggestions on how to help are made and adopted.
Finally, the family asks Mom/Dad about her/his feelings about the grandparent’s failing health and evident move to an assisted-living facility and eventual death. Mom/Dad expresses feelings, perhaps cries a bit, and the family all move to her/him and a family hug lasts about five minutes.
Let me repeat: Do you see the tremendous benefit that comes when the parents lead the family as a family, as a whole? Can you see that Family A was parenting but not leading the family? It is absolutely critical, therefore, that families are led as families. The most basic, most essential skill in leading families is leading the family. Leading individuals in a family setting does not accomplish much in comparison.
What Results Do Families Want?
Most families want everyone, especially the children, to be capable, confident people. People grow in confidence when they can make their own contributions to the success of their families. When parents help their families struggle and succeed by staying out of the action whenever possible, they will have a family full of confident people, each doing his or her own part.
Successful parents recognize the synergism possible when family members work together, building upon one another’s contributions.
Leading a Family Is Much Easier Parenting
This parenting of a family as a whole is actually simpler and easier than leading individuals. It is less burdensome on the parents. The family has greater abilities because of its expanded resources in many different personalities, greater number of life experiences, and the various talents of its members. If the parents do a good job of leading the family, the individual family members will be excellently and thoroughly led by the family itself. And, even after the children are grown, the family will still work more effectively as a team rather than just a few individuals with ideas but no synergism.
A FOURTH EXAMPLE
Here is one last example contrasting the parenting of individuals, the parenting of individuals in a family, and, finally, leadership of a family.
One of the children, Joan, is having difficulty understanding why she has to do chores other than cleaning her room. She expects everything else to be done by the others in the family. She is 13 years old and the youngest.
Parenting of Individuals, One-on-One:
The parents meet with Joan and try to explain that she is part of the family and has to make a reasonable contribution to the family in the way of chores. They spell out what she needs to do and the consequences of not doing her assigned chores. She realizes she must do her chores, doesn’t like it, and leaves the meeting quietly angry.
The parents feel frustrated at the meager results.
Parenting of Individuals in the Family Gathering:
The scenario is the same as above, except that the whole family is present eating, driving or doing some other thing together. The parents try to explain to Joan that she is part of the family and has to make a reasonable contribution to the family in the way of chores. They spell out what she needs to do and the consequences of not doing her assigned chores. Occasionally one or two family members might say something to the 13-year-old sister, often angry, hostile and provoking. But the pressure for dealing with the problem is still upon the parents. The other teenagers do not take responsibility for the outcome because the parents have assumed all responsibility and authority, as is usual in almost all models of parenting.
Other family members are observers most of the time. They gain some benefit from the insights the parents communicate to the 13-year-old. But all remain dependent upon the parents to solve this problem.
Leadership of a Family:
However, this problem is a family problem, not a parenting problem. The family has a lot of work to do to run the “family business,” and everyone has to pitch in. It is a team issue. Everyone needs to be on the team, and the coach just cannot make that happen unless he/she leads the team as a whole.
Therefore, parents give the whole job to the family, possibly saying to the family, “The family needs to help Joan understand her responsibility to do her chores as her contribution to the family.”
All family members grapple with the problem. They go about the task of helping, not only during the one meeting, but over time, until Joan does her chores sufficiently and becomes a valuable contributor to the family workload and the family’s happiness. The parents do not participate as actively as the children, thus allowing it to be a family problem rather than a parent problem. This allows the others in the family to do most of the work. But the parents are quite active in helping the family reach its maximum helpfulness.
Quite a discussion ensues, too long to narrate here. But a summary might be that the other teens confront Joan with her responsibility to contribute, asking her why she thinks they want to or have the time to do her chores. They also explain how the parents do not have all that much extra time either. They might express some anger at Joan for not treating them as important, in the way of contributing to their living situation, since they contribute to hers. They might even tell her that the consequence of not acting like a part of the family will be that they do not do anything with her or for her. Occasionally, the parents might add something, but, mostly they stay in a leadership role helping the family as a whole deal with this family problem. Eventually, Joan will likely agree to do her chores and the family will agree to meet again in a week to discuss how she is doing on those responsibilities.
The advantages of leading the family as a whole rather than parenting individuals should be obvious. There are many good outcomes to this approach. I will mention only a few of the products of such a model of family leadership.
Each family member works on the problem, which gets each of them to “own” some responsibility for creating a happy home situation. No one feels dependent upon the parents to solve problems in the family, thus increasing the possibility that problems arising in the absence of the parents will be solved independently and constructively, the parents often not even being aware that the problem existed. Every family member develops interpersonal skills and also “leads” in some way. Some, if not all, of the children see their capability in solving problems and learn that they can relate to people in difficult situations. Everyone feels important, even Joan who is faced with her own importance to the family.
At the same time the family members are helping one another, each family member (including Dad and Mom) struggles with his or her own issues concerning his or her own necessary contributions to the family’s success. Everyone improves in doing their chores and other contributions like getting good grades in school and going to work and earning the family’s income.
The parents feel very important, not so much because the problem was solved but for helping the family achieve as a team. To help the family work together and come out with superior results is quite rewarding. To have the burden lightened because everyone pitched in greatly reduces parental stress.
When you lead individuals in a family setting, you do not get a helpful, loving, interacting family. But by leading a family as a social system, you build a better family. Children get more and more experience in problem-solving, planning family events, and the list could go on and on.
Let’s lead families! Let’s give them a chance to bring out the best in family life and cooperation.