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A Failure of Nerve

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For several years now I’ve appreciated and benefited from Edwin Friedman’s book on leadership, A Failure of Nerve. I enjoy thinking about big ideas that help to make sense of God’s world. For example, it is helpful to think of all sin as being a form of idolatry, or a form of pride, or arising from a kind of covetousness. We look for a structure of conflict and climax in most of our stories. René Girard teaches us to look for imitation and scapegoating in all of the crises of story and history, and points us to the one scapegoat who alone can cover mankind’s sin.

Edwin Friedman’s organizing big idea revolves around anxiety. He was a student of organizational behavior, ranging from families and churches to businesses and nations. He suggests that all of the ways that an organization can break down involve a kind of anxiety on the part of the group or the leader or both. And from this he draws a program of non-anxious leadership.

Friedman sees anxiety behind how a group or organization becomes stagnant, resistant or even hostile to change and growth; and also behind leaders’ addictions to either quick fixes or to data rather then decisive action. He suggests that a non-anxious approach to leadership is crucial, that the “calm presence” of a leader matters more to calming an organization’s anxiety than almost anything else the leader says or does. He develops this into an idea of what he calls “differentiation,” which is the leader’s own focus on his integrity and stability. Out of this non-anxious differentiation, he charges leaders to allow their organizations to experience a healthy dose of their own learning experience and even pain so that they can mature; what you might call a sort of non-anxious “tough love” that is appropriately sympathetic but does not devolve into the kind of empathy that is powerless to help others grow. In Friedman’s model, the leader functions both as a kind of anxiety absorber and also an immune system.

Although Friedman was not a Christian, many of his ideas have Christian parallels. Jesus charges us not to be anxious, and the fact that Jesus himself is not anxious is perhaps the greatest boost to our own faith. It is faith, after all, that is the true antidote to fear and anxiety, and Jesus invites us to bring our cares to him. Perhaps a way of expressing Friedman’s differentiated self is to say that it is a faith-filled, wise, mature, patient, and Spirit-governed self. This integrity of a leader includes the careful watching of his life and doctrine, and the taking of logs out of our own eyes before we address the specks in others’ eyes.

There is a superficial way of reading Friedman that suggests that leaders should be aloof and uncaring. I don’t think this is what he is saying, but in any case we want to be careful not to swing the pendulum that far. And while anxious leadership may be the problem of our time, we should also be on guard for a sinful complacency.

Additional reading:

Written by Scott Moonen

November 17, 2019 at 5:54 pm

Posted in Books, Parenting, Vocation

Friedman’s outline

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Edwin Friedman summarizes his leadership principles as follows:

A summary of principles

1. Society

  • The characteristics of a chronically anxious family, organization, or society—reactivity, herding, blaming, a quick-fix mentality, lack of well-differentiated leadership—will always be descriptive of a regressed institution.
  • When any institution, relationship, or society is imaginatively gridlocked, the underlying causes will always be emotional rather than cerebral.
  • All pathogenic (that is, destructive) organisms, forces, and institutions, whether we are considering viruses, malignant, cells, chronically troubling individuals, or totalitarian nations, lack self-regulation and are therefore invasive by nature and cannot be expected to learn from their experience.
  • For terrorists to have power, whether in a family or in the family of nations, three conditions must be fulfilled: (1) the absence of well-defined leadership; (2) a hostage situation to which leaders are particularly vulnerable; and (3) an unreasonable faith in reasonableness.
  • A major criterion for judging the anxiety level of any society is the loss of its capacity to be playful.
  • A society’s culture does not determine its emotional processes; rather, a society’s culture provides the medium through which a society’s emotional processes work their art.
  • The basic tension that must constantly be re-balanced in any family, institution, or society is the conflict between the natural forces of togetherness and self-differentiation.

2. Relationships

  • It is easier to be the least mature member of a highly mature system than the most mature member of a very immature system.
  • Increasing one’s pain threshold for others helps them mature.
  • Stress and burnout are relational rather than quantitative, and are due primarily to getting caught in a responsible position for others and their problems.
  • In any partnership, the more anxious you are to see that something is done, the less motivated your partner will be to take the lead.
  • In any stuck relationship between an overadequate member and an underadequate other (person or organization), the overfunctioner must change before the underfunctioner can change.
  • In any relationship anywhere, the partner doing the least amount of thinking about the other is the more attractive one to the other.
  • When people differ, the nature of their differences does not determine the extent or the intensity of the differing.

3. Self

  • Trauma lies in the self-organizing quality of the system and the response of the organism rather than in the event. In other words, the trauma is in the experience and the response to it, not in the event itself.
  • The toxicity of an environment in most cases is proportional to the response of the organism or the institution, rather than to the hostility of the environment.
  • What is essential are stamina, resolve, remaining connected, the capacity for self-regulation of reactivity, and having horizons beyond what one can actually see.
  • There is no way out of a chronically painful condition except by being willing to go through a temporarily more acutely painful phase.
  • People who are cut off from relationship systems, especially their family of origin, do not heal, no matter what their symptom.
  • Most of the decisions we make in life turn out to be right or wrong not because we were prescient, but because of the way we function after we make the decision.
  • A self is more attractive than a no-self.

4. Leadership

  • Mature leadership begins with the leader’s capacity to take responsibility for his or her own emotional being and destiny.
  • Clearly defined, non-anxious leadership promotes healthy differentiation throughout a system, while reactive, peace-at-all-costs, anxious leadership does the opposite.
  • Differentiation in a leader will inevitably trigger sabotage from the least well-differentiated others in the system.
  • Followers cannot rise above the maturity level of their mentors no matter what their mentor’s skill and knowledge-base.
  • The unmotivated are notoriously invulnerable to insight.
  • Madness cannot be judged from people’s ideas or their values, but rather from (1) the extent to which they interfere in other people’s relationships; (2) the degree to which they will constantly try to will others to change; and (3) their inability to continue a relationship with people who disagree with them.
  • People cannot hear you unless they are moving toward you, which means that as long as you are in a pursuing or rescuing position, your message will never catch up, no matter how eloquently or repeatedly you articulate your ideas.
  • The children who work through the natural difficulties of growing up with the least amount of difficulty are those whose parents made them least important to their own salvation.

(Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 201-203)

Written by Scott Moonen

November 17, 2019 at 5:39 pm

Posted in Parenting, Quotations

Challenging presence

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Edwin Friedman has his own way of charging parents to keep a close watch on ourselves, to pay attention to the logs in our own eyes:

Everything I have said above [about data addiction and anxiety] holds true for parenting as well. Over the years I found parents so engulfed in data and techniques that I stopped trying to educate them and started trying to free them from this “syndrome.” I developed a presentation entitled “How to Get Your Kid to Drop Out and Save $100,000 in Tuition” (it was $30,000 when I began). I always mention at the very beginning that all the specific “techniques” I am going to offer such as how to escalate conflict, screw up communication, and increase the generation gap will work better if parents will commit themselves to reading all they can about raising children. This, I point out, will help make them more anxious, more inconsistent, less self-confident, and far less the kind of non-anxious, challenging presence that could ultimately cost them a bundle of tuition. The advantages of trying to keep up, I point out, are that they can consistently worry if they are reading the right book, if the real truth has just come out and they do not even know about it, and if there are experts out there who “know” how to do it.

Parenting is no different from any other kind of “managing.” The critical issues in raising children have far less to do with proper technique than with the nature of the parents’ presence and the type of emotional processes they engender. I have, for example, almost never seen a mother who had mature relationship with her own mother have trouble with her daughter. Similarly, I never saw a highly reactive or hypercritical father who was not distant from his own family of origin (and who, thereby, made the members of his new nuclear family too important to him).

Where parents are willing to take responsibility for their own unworked-out relationships either with their own parents or with one another, children rarely develop serious symptoms. Symptoms in a child are most likely to develop in the areas of the parents’ own traumatization where they, therefore, have the least emotional flexibility. (Parents never seem to get the problems they can handle.) And to the extent child-focus enables parents not to have to deal with their own relationships or their own unresolved issues, that projection process will retard if not nullify all techniques and well-meaning efforts to improve the child, including the aid they seek from tutors and counselors.

To expect parents to focus on the emotional process in their own relationships rather than focus on their children requires having counselors (therapists, educators, clergy, and so on) who are willing to do likewise. And it is much easier for everyone to conspire to focus on data and technique instead. The social science construction of reality that would diagnose children instead of family emotional process, and that would allow parents to blame their ethnic background rather than take responsibility for their own responses, furthers the anxiety.

Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 112-113

Written by Scott Moonen

November 17, 2019 at 5:20 pm

Posted in Parenting, Quotations

Becoming

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We sometimes think our child is deficient because he wants to touch the vase and we have to transform the child into somebody who does not want to touch the vase. But your task is not to teach the child how to be a child—the child already knows how to be a child. You are not teaching your children to be children. You are teaching your children to grow into adults.

This is why, when you are in this showdown across the coffee table, you should look into the future with the eye of faith and see your child standing where you are now standing and their children standing where he is now standing. And how will he know how to deal his son? He will have learned how from you!

If you do not know how to be patient in the face of repeated provocations, your children are not going to know either. When you discipline your children correctly, you are loving your grandchildren. Your job is not to teach them how to be an acceptable child, but to show them how to be a responsible adult—because that is the whole point.

Be honest—you bought the vase at a yard sale last summer and that vase is going to be in another yard sale this coming summer. Who cares about the vase? The child is going to live forever. The child is not something you acquired or are going to get rid of in a yard sale. The vase is. You are not teaching the child to be a good version of what they are. You are rather teaching them to be what they are becoming. . .

This principle does not change. Suppose you are dealing with an obstinate teenager and you are thinking “How to fix the teenager” is your task for the day. Your job is not to fix the teenager. Your task is to model for that teenager how to be a parent. Your teen, in just a few short trips around the sun, is going to have a teenager of her own. You are not training her to be a teenager. She has that down already. You are preparing her for the day when she won’t be. . . .

. . . If I have mastered all the parenting techniques but have not love, I am nothing . . .

Imagine a father and a son in the presence of an unsplit cord of wood. What is the father’s duty? His duty is to take two axes, hand one of them to his son, and to love God and to also love a morning of splitting wood, and to do so alongside his son whom he also loves. That is what godly childrearing is.

Love God, love what you are doing, and love the people God gave you to do it with. Does that remove the need to correct? No, you have to show them how to hold the ax and keep them from swinging it around carelessly. Correction, discipline, teaching, mentoring—all of it must be there because you love Jesus, because you love the wood, and because you love your son. That is what you must do.

Douglas Wilson, Why Children Matter, Chapter 13

See also: Self-control

Written by Scott Moonen

July 26, 2019 at 3:43 pm

Posted in Parenting, Quotations

Singing

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Ephesians [5:1] says that God treats us as children. Since Scripture shows how He treats us, we should desire to be like Him in how we treat our children. As He deals with us, so we should deal with our own children. And we see from Zephaniah [3:17] that He rejoices over us.

When Jesus intervened to save us, He did so at great cost to Himself. When He took the loaf of bread that represented His own broken body, He picked it up and gave thanks. As Hebrews 12 says, Jesus did what He did on the cross “for the joy that was set before Him.” . . . God is mighty to save, and He saves with singing.

Now we know from the story of the whole Bible that saving people involves sacrifice, blood, and things being broken. He who knew no sin was made to be sin for us, but He did it with singing. Not only did Jesus give thanks the night He instituted the meal, but afterward they sang a psalm, and then they went out (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26). Jesus literally sang as He was preparing to go to the cross.

So, the sacrifices that you will make for your children should be something you can sing over. If there is not a song in it, it is not a biblical sacrifice. Without a song, it is a poor-me, look-at-the-martyr-go sacrifice, and those kinds of sacrifices have a very poor return. You are not just supposed to sing over your children when they are being adorable, asleep in their bed, and you can be at peace with them since they are not misbehaving at the moment. Life is messier than that, and the whole thing—including the mess—should be met with a song. The delight that we are imitating is not an unrealistic delight. This kind of delight takes account of the world as it is, and even so, it rejoices. You sing over your children when you are sacrificing for them, when you are taking the hit for them, and when they have no idea what you are giving up for them.

Douglas Wilson, Why Children Matter, Chapter 3

See also: Singing and slaying

Written by Scott Moonen

July 26, 2019 at 10:30 am

Posted in Parenting, Quotations

Singing and slaying

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The Rohirrim sing oft in battle:

Merry and Pippin heard, clear in the cold air, the neighing of war–horses, and the sudden singing of many men. The Sun’s limb was lifted, an arc of fire, above the margin of the world. Then with a great cry the Riders charged from the East; the red light gleamed on mail and spear.

And much later:

And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of the battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.

See also: Worship is warfare, Treebeard, Worship is warfare (2)

Written by Scott Moonen

December 9, 2018 at 7:31 pm

The secret of religion

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Protestants are inclined to leave [education] more to the public school. It should be the other way around, because the living religious attitude is that part of our growth, or spiritual growth, is that we are becoming more and more the authority for our children, the more we are real fathers and mothers. . . .

The secret of religion [is] that it is a relation between two generations. . . .

Religion begins, gentlemen, with the point of contact between two lives separated by a death. . . And all religion is a victory over death. (Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Comparative Religion, 1954)

Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. (Malachi 2:15 ESV)

Written by Scott Moonen

November 27, 2018 at 5:41 pm

Posted in Parenting, Quotations