My son and I were late.

Rather, I was late and he was blissfully unaware that late was something a person could be. At age 7, his concept of how time passes is under construction. This disparity bothered me because we were trying to get to his karate class. It was for him! As he embraced his inner sloth I grew more and more frustrated. I could do little more than repeat, "We need to hurry up, you need to put your shoes on faster". My demands for speed had little to no effect. You cannot order someone, even a child, to follow your lead. You can only inspire, and being frustrated isn't inspirational.

Once we were finally in the car and I had a moment to think I recognized the opportunity. My reasoning prevailed and my frustrations abated; I thought about the outcome first. When I understood the outcome I wanted it became easier to avoid shallow statements like "It's rude to be late!" Instead, I attempted to explain why, and why it matters to our family. I wanted him to become intrinsically motivated to live in harmony with his, and our, values. I know he'll struggle for the next few years with timekeeping, and that's ok. I need to focus on the big picture. 

If I had just shouted about rudeness and being late, he would have made the connection that being late makes me angry. It isn't being late that makes me angry, it is the disregard for the people who are impacted. This was a prime opportunity to teach values, and specifically our family values. Being late is more than simply "rude"; it disrupts the class and takes time away from those learning. That time we cannot give back, even if it's just a minute. We steal that time and it is lost forever.

A family value we possess, and one that is just as important in any company, is "don't steal time". There are many ways we steal time. We can be late. Or our laziness creates extra work. Worst of all we can undo or sabotage someone's work and their progress, maliciously or not. All of these things happen with alarming frequency. Like stealing property is wrong, so is stealing time. Except this theft goes unpunished, and often times unnoticed except by the victims.

My honest intention in the beginning was to teach him a value, and just this value. I thought the higher concept of values was perhaps too much. I told my son, "This is important. It's a family value! We don't steal time from people." He calmly replied, "Ok, but Dad... I have one question." 

"What are values?"

When my son asked me this question my brain froze over. I wasn't surprised that he would ask it. I was surprised I didn't have an immediate answer. I also worried I had no good answer; no way to explain values and principles in a way that makes real sense. I know plenty of text book answers, of course. The knowledge we consume but have not practiced is difficult to teach effectively. Especially to a 7 year old.

I had to first admit to myself that perhaps my understanding of values may not be as strong as I would like. I was struggling to explain exactly what values are and so I told him about this struggle. Then I tried my best and explained that values are what we use to help us decide how to act and behave, especially in difficult situations. When ever uncertainty over the right decision is present, we should look towards our values. The values will suggest the right path. It's up to us to decide what comes next, which actions to take. Values make deciding easier. Values can guide our decisions, and our decisions guide our actions. 

My son, like most 7 year olds (and many adults), is still working on self-regulation. He brought up his concerns. He is a class clown and occasionally feels retrospective guilt over the disruptions. I assured him that it is ok to deviate from our values with a degree of innocent naivety, accepting that he's learning and inexperienced. This is different than making conscious decisions, or avoiding those decisions deliberately. I encouraged him to never make decisions that run counter to our values. This is different than forgetting to decide due to inexperience.

It is difficult, but possible, to have a greater awareness of our actions and then identify behavior that violates our values. This takes work and practice but this is the goal. I stressed that he isn't alone, either. It is my job, as a parent and partner, to constructively, without judgement, inform him when his actions are contradicting those values. I must also reward and praise him when he acts boldly in unison with our values.

He listened intently, asking a few questions here and there. He finally said, "Dad, I think I understand values. Can I use a figure of speech?"

"In life there are walls that block us..."

He began, "In life, there are walls that block us from what we want to do. Values are how we learn to climb up over the wall. You and mom are bigger and older, you know more! It is easier for you to climb over the wall. Me and [Sister] are still little and we don't know very much. You have to help us get over the wall and also teach us how to do it ourselves. Is that right?"

Never in my life have I heard such a poignant description of the real, tangible benefits of living a value-focused life. Nor have I heard a description of a leader's responsibility to their followers. A leader is not the one who makes the most decisions. The leader carries the values, the vision, and guides the direction. They inspire people to learn to climb the walls.

It's those that follow who make the most progress and who do the most work. I have never fully understood the great Lao Tzu quote until now:

"When the best leader's work is done the people say, 'We did it ourselves.'"

This post may seem like I'm doting on my son, and I am proud and surprised. But I am a student, regardless of who teaches. My son taught me an amazing lesson that day, and I feel privileged to share.

To take away:

  • Explain important values and principles to a child. If they can't understand them, keep working on it. Very few concepts cannot be understood by a 7 or 8 year old. It's good practice to be understood and clear.
  • Embrace leadership that requires both instruction and assistance. Overcoming obstacles is different for everybody. A person's experience, personal growth, and personality changes their capability and what they need to excel.  Leadership is ensuring everybody gets over the wall.
  • Lead by example; if the leaders take short-cuts around the walls, those following will too.


Cover photo from Flickr, courtesy Fort Bragg