I recently read The Dichotomy of Leadership, written by retired navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.
Here’s the description from Amazon:
…the authors explain the power inherent in the recognition of the fine line that leaders must walk, balancing between two seemingly opposite inclinations. It is with the knowledge and understanding of this balance that a leader can most effectively lead, accomplish the mission, and achieve the goal of every leader and every team: victory.
Simply put, in most situations your approach to leadership isn’t going to be clear-cut, which is why leadership is so challenging. There’s always going to be two sides to the story; for example, here’s an excerpt from the book in which Jocko describes “The Ultimate Dichotomy” he experienced while deployed overseas:
It was difficult to grasp, the hardest and most painful of all the dichotomies of leadership: to care about your men more than anything in the world–so much so that you’d even willingly trade your life for theirs–and yet, at the same time, to lead those men on missions that could result in their deaths.
I actually found the idea of dichotomies to be disheartening, at first. If everything is a dichotomy, are there no right or wrong answers? If that’s the case, then what’s the value in even talking about it?
I encourage you to read the book. It does a great job of answering these questions and more, while also providing a healthy dose of perspective (no matter how bad things might seem at home or at the office, at least there aren’t bullets flying around).
I found that studying these dichotomies resulted in two immediate benefits for me:
- I began to see them everywhere, which has helped broaden my perspective on issues I used to consider to be black-and-white.
- Once I began to see dichotomies, I started to recognize my own inclinations, my “default approaches” to them, and this has allowed me to course-correct in a positive way.
What does this have to do with parenting?
There’s a playground for toddlers near our house that has sort of an “Under The Sea” theme. The last time I was there I saw two dads, each watching their kid play on the equipment.
“Dad A” was squatting down right next to his daughter, his hands hovering nervously under her arms as she stood on a seashell-shaped platform that couldn’t have been more than six inches off the ground.
“Dad B”, on the other hand, was watching his son scramble up a giant shark. Watching his son teetering at the top, Dad B had a big grin on his face, almost like he wanted his kid to fall just to see what would happen next.
So, which dad is “doing it right?”
Well for starters, I’m totally Dad A. I’m the dad who pretends to throw his kid up in the air but doesn’t actually let go at the top. I’m the dad who checks the slide with his hand to make sure it’s not too hot before his daughters go down, and is more than willing to hold their hands the entire way down.
And I’ve come to recognize this tendency. So once in a while, I try to course-correct and let go of the reigns a little, because I know my daughters need to experience (and hopefully overcome) challenges in order to grow.
As I thought about this, I came up with the following concept, which I call The Dichotomy of Parenting:
I want to protect my children from immediate harm, but not at the expense of their long-term development.
Once I recognized this dichotomy, I began to see it everywhere.
Take, for example, the use of antibiotics. They’re great for treating and preventing bacterial infections–and yet at the same time, the misuse or overuse of antibiotics can contribute to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. So, when should you use them?
The way my wife and I address this dichotomy is simple: we trust western medicine, and we usually punt to the doctors for decision-making. If they prescribe antibiotics, our daughters take them. We still do our homework, but following the doctor’s orders is our default setting. Simple enough, right?
But here’s where it gets frustrating. At this point, both of my girls have developed potentially life-threatening allergies. Allergies are becoming more common in the U.S., and while nobody really knows why they’re on the rise, there are a few emerging theories. One is called the “hygiene hypothesis.”
From the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology:
(The hygiene hypothesis) suggests that living conditions in much of the world might be too clean and that kids aren’t being exposed to germs that train their immune systems to tell the difference between harmless and harmful irritants.
And not only that…
Studies have shown that increased antibiotic use parallels the rise in allergy and asthma.
So wait, you’re telling me that the very efforts we’re making to keep our daughters safe, such as keeping things clean and giving them medicine, might actually be contributing to an incredibly dangerous long-term problem?
Well… that’s frustrating. It’s frustrating when your kids are sick and you feel powerless. It’s frustrating that my daughters may have to spend their whole lives asking about ingredients. It’s frustrating when I catch myself worrying about inconveniencing others when I ask them to please be careful with foods that could kill my child.
And it’s frustrating that, as I’m writing this, I’m feeling guilty complaining about these things when I hear stories about other parents and other children facing challenges that are much more difficult than mine. And I in turn roll my eyes when I hear parents complaining about challenges that I perceive to be less severe than what we’re going through.
It’s all frustrating. Parenting is frustrating sometimes.
So, what’s the answer?
Well, I think the problem with this dichotomy is that it’s grounded in the idea that the goal of being a parent is to protect your children from harm, both in the short term and the long term. And that’s just not realistic. I can’t make a New Year’s Resolution to “Protect My Kids More” – there are just too many factors outside of my control.
So if protecting my children isn’t the goal, then what is?
I’m not sure. But I think a good place to start is providing them with love and security as best I can, and perhaps more importantly making sure they know they are loved and secure through my words and actions. If I’m coming from a place of genuine love and protection, I’ll (hopefully) navigate the Dichotomy of Parenting just fine, course correcting where necessary based on my own inclinations and circumstances.
Because at the end of the day, whether you’re Dad A or Dad B, if you love your kids, and are making an effort to teach them and be present with them, then you’re doing the best you can. And to me, that’s “doing it right.”