Leadership and Parenthood: So Long, Caesar!

“Because I said so.”

I’ll never forget the first time those dreaded words came out of my own mouth. For a fraction of a second, as the last syllable still hung in the air, the universe stood still.

I, like many of my peers, swore I would never use that phrase on my own children. In fact, there are many things my parents did that I swore I wouldn’t – and for the most part I’ve been successful. Yet there it was. The ultimate Machiavellian statement.

In my defense, I must say that it took me at least four years to reach this point – maybe even closer to five. And I must say that my oldest daughter is exceedingly challenging (Google “Spirited Child” to find out). And I’m not all that patient by nature, and I sure as hell ain’t June Cleaver. But because I’m not June Cleaver (more like Joan Jett), I always hated it when my parents employed such autocratic tactics. Blind obedience to authority just isn’t my bag and never has been. So what happened?

When asked about my parents, I always say I had a lot of examples of what NOT to do. And I really took them to heart. I always gave my daughter a reasonable, age-appropriate explanation of why we were doing a particular thing, or gave her choices whenever the end result didn’t really matter (are striped tights and a flowered skirt really that important?). And for her intellectual, philosophical temperament, this Caesarian approach worked well. Mind you, I was not some softie, pushover mom. I just let her have more freedom when it didn’t really matter. After all, that was a lesson in decision making, individuality, and autonomy.

But then – probably when I became busy with a second child, among all the usual stuff – the constant explanations got to me. Just once I wanted her to accept what I said at face value. Because I said so. I hated myself in that moment time stood still. And yet I realized, I was driven to it.

I wanted to say she drove me to it, but that wouldn’t be fair. She is what she is, and lord knows I encouraged it. No, it was more the circumstances of life that did pushed me over the edge: inquisitive child, new baby, full time job, remodeling the house, and so forth. Normal, everyday stuff.

She’s now seven, and the situation is only worse. Two very strong little women I have as children – and my husband is a saint for living with us. The older one (appropriately named Tempest) is insanely persistent – and frankly, life is too short to argue with her. So….Because I said so. Just do it. Now. One. Two. Three…….

The point of all this rambling is this: isn’t our role as parents one of our proving grounds for leadership? If so, then how does this play into my earlier pieces on Machiavelli vs Caesar? How can I truly believe in the Caesar method and yet be completely embroiled in Machiavellian parenthood?

Maybe I should look at it the other way around – not that Machiavelli is infecting my parenthood, but that Machiavelli applied parenting to leadership. Perhaps he noticed that authoritarianism worked with children, so why not on peasants? After all, treating them like children subdues and subjugates them, bends them to your will.

So maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad about saying it. Maybe instead of feeling that I didn’t live up to Caesar, I should recognize that perhaps what Machiavelli wrongly imposed on an adult populace was nothing more than successful parenting techniques.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no intention of implementing this authoritarian bullsh*t any more than I have to. Unfortunately, given my own temperament and that of my daughters, I think a certain amount of it is unavoidable. I have no illusions of being a perfect parent (subject of another blog). I want my girls to know that I respect them and I want to give them as much autonomy is appropriate for their ages and that they can responsibly handle…..but at the same time the sheer facts of life as a working mother dictate that I must unquestionably maintain my alpha status.

I feel like a hypocrite. My parents were so awful; I feel soiled at having ANY similarities with them. And yet I know that I am a WAY better parent, and leader. My girls will grow up knowing what it means to be a leader in the community, as a citizen of the country and of the world. And if it takes a little Machiavelli to get us there, is that so bad?

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Leadership does come from all places – from parenting to running a neighborhood group to coaching a child’s soccer team. My dad always told me that he would never yell at me for my music being too loud or weird b/c his parents did that to him. But as I became a teenager listening to 2Pac, he came up to me and said he felt bad but to turn off that horrible music 🙂

Scott Hielen

As one in the military, there’s a common misconception that because we have a hierarchical organization, it’s easy for us to get away with “because I said so”. I can issue a lawful order to my Sailors. I can, by virtue of being a parent with all the resources and brute force at my disposal, order my kids around. If I did either of those all of the time, eventually I’d be overthrown and my girls would pull the plug on my life support some day.

To that end, we try very hard to earn the mandate we’ve been bestowed by giving reason to our actions and persuading them to follow the course we’ve set. We take the time to explain things and at times we may offer concessions to cajole them into remaining in our camp. There are times (he says with lowered voice and a trace of solemnity) though, that orders need to be followed. If we’ve earned our followers trust, be they troops or children, then the occasional “because I said so” is much easier to accept. No, I don’t think my troops are children nor my children troops, but earning their respect is important on both counts. You’ve established a track record that allows you to say “trust me, we need to do this” on occasion. By nature of being a leader, one has to prepare for an authoritarian moment or two in their careers…

Profile Photo Paulette Neal-Allen

But leadership in real life is never really totally one way or another. Sometimes, in a crisis, a leader has to make a decision and everyone else just has to DO it… and you figure out later if it was the right decision or not, and if not, what to do about it. Your daughters sound a lot like my kids, and I think they turned out / are turning out pretty well. Most of the time, I tried to give them a reason for what I was doing… but eventually, whether they like it or not, some things have to be done just because the parent / boss / leader said so.
I’ll resist the urge to comment about how it only gets more fun when they get to be teenagers and can use your reasoned arguments back at you… : D

Profile Photo GeekChick

Oh I’ve heard plenty of the “you think it’s bad now/wait till they’re teenagers” kind of thing. : ) I am hoping that we are getting some of the teen-type stuff out of the way early — lord knows, my oldest sure talks like a teen already!

But you’re right, nothing, including leadership, is ever completely black and white. A good leader will be mostly Caesarian, but will know how/when to apply Machiavelli appropriately. And, he/she will have earned the people’s trust so that they will say, ok, when those times come. (Apply to upcoming elections as desired.)

I like Scott’s point about earning respect. That’s one thing I really remember hating about my childhood — the ideology that adults deserved respect just because they were adults and children did not because they were “just” children. I always found that incredibly insulting and illogical. Everyone deserves a basic level of respect, regardless of age. As a parent or leader you earn a bit of blind allegiance by your track record, as Scott says. That is one lesson I try really hard to teach my kids — that I respect them as individuals. I’m hoping that will pay off in the end.