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Why won't they let go? Fear in the Family Business

The term “death-trap” comes to mind when I see this . . . but maybe that’s just me. Photo by  Priscilla Du Preez  on  Unsplash

The term “death-trap” comes to mind when I see this . . . but maybe that’s just me. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

A Personal Confession

Rollercoasters evoke fear for me. There, I admitted it. It's not that the action of the rollercoaster—speed, erupt changes in direction or height—cause me fear, they don’t, it's the notion that these mechanical wonders . . . are mechanically complex machines . . . and complex machines . . . break.

Having admitted my fear, now, maybe, you will understand why the idea of “having a good time,” in my world, does not involve strapping myself to one of these mechanical devices; indeed, it would take just the right motivation (force?) to get me to risk of becoming a passenger. You may also, having realized the basis of my fear, be able to reason with me that my fear is irrational, and perhaps even in a way that gets me to reconsider my fear. After all, I do fly on airplanes. Oh, and yes, I have ridden rollercoasters in the past.

But, in the future? Probably not. For me a rollercoaster ride it is a waste of time and money. There is no “up-side” for me. I don’t get a thrill from riding. There is no “fun.” I’m long past the age of doing something I don’t like just to prove to others—or myself—that I’m not afraid. The motivator is going to have to be pretty good to get me to change.

Fear . . . and Holding on

If you got me on a rollercoaster and you were an astute observer, you might notice my discomfort. Nervous conversation, keen observation of the attendant locking the bar . . . subtle clues to my fear. Fear makes us want to “hold on” to what ever object seems to promise to save us from the feared outcome. A child will clutch to the seat or the safety bar or the parent,. an adult may simply hold on nonchalantly as possible but give away their fear when they “stiffen” with anxiety as the car moves over the course.

This fear and the natural tendency to “hold on”, reminds me of struggles I see in leadership transitions and particularly in Family Businesses—where the senior generation is holding on to the business and the younger generation is anxious to take over the controls.

So let's talk about the pertinent question from the younger generation's point of view . . . 

Why won't they let go?  

Ever had to "take the keys away" from an aging parent? Not so easy. For my family it was prompted by a few minor “accidents” over the course of one year followed by our local mechanic telling us that he intervened when one of my parents left the vehicle “in gear” and “bouncing against the concrete barrier” at a local store. He opened the car door, stepped on the brake, and put the car in “park.” Obviously, it was time.

So, why won't they give those keys up? Especially given all the alternatives for transportation? Family members reassure them that they will be taken wherever they want to go. There are offers to pay for assistance. Uber, Lyft, and other services are readily available in some cases. Still, they don’t want to hand over the keys.

Once the transition is accomplished—voluntarily or not—the senior often complains, repeatedly, about the inconvenience of not having their independent transportation and may have to be reminded about the reasons the keys were handed over . . . repeatedly. But, too often this difficult transition is made even more difficult because we think this should be a simple transition based on a logical analysis of the risks, right? Well, for many, it’s not.

Photo by  Laura Gariglio  on  Unsplash

It's a funny thing about humans . . . “Keys aren't just keys.” Those keys represent much more. The senior may see them as “my independence, my freedom, my way of not feeling like a burden to others, my way of helping” . . . there are deep emotional ties that make what seems like a simple exchange, become a complex path to navigate. John Gottman, a researcher at the University of Washington, coined the phrase “dreams within conflict” to describe how, at the root of conflict, there often is a dream that is being unrealized or threatened. Not realizing the threat to that dream makes the senior’s resistance irrational—and invites unfavorable judgements of “stubbornness, controlling, emotional, etc.”

For my mom, as an example, I think that giving up the keys meant that she would worry about being a “burden” to others—anathema to her self-sacrificing consideration of others—in depending on them for rides.

Turning over a business

Why won't the parent’s let go?  After more than two decades working intimately with families, I can sum it up in a word: Fear. (Leaders of all stripes are, too often, Managing by Fear . . . and family firms are no different. In fact, “close-systems”—such as family business where there are more emotional ties—are more likely to be affected by management by fear at critical points during their development!)

What fear? Fear that . . . 

  • the change/transition will make things worse

  • the transition will place a burden on their children

  • their own value and self-worth will be lost

  • spending more time with intimate relationships will make life more difficult

  • the business itself will struggle or fail

  • their departure as a leader will, some how, harm the family

  • fear that leaving will expose some personal weaknesses

One of the barriers to moving beyond this transition point, is that people are not very insightful about what is motivating their family member’s actions. The aging parent may think, "They are making too big a deal about this!" or "They just want my car!" . . . and their defensiveness, often becomes the excuse to redirect themselves from their own fear. The children do the same. “They won’t ever let go!” or “They want to keep control!” hides fears of not being trusted, anxieties about performance, and other issues. But back to the parents . . .

Find the Dream . . . and Address the Fear

Tied to each of these “fears” is a dream. The senior’s dreams that the change will not make things worse for the family, the employees, or the business. That there will still be a valuable role that the parent can occupy within the family or children’s lives. That family relationships will improve or at least not be damaged in the transition. That the business will continue to grow and succeed.

Helping the parent with the transition includes a couple of important steps.

First, they may need help in recognizing and stating their underlying dreams—taking care to both acknowledge the ones tied to the business role and not neglecting dreams that are not connected to the business**—and recognizing that there may be inherent conflicts within the dreams. For example, the senior may want to travel more, have less stress or responsibility and at the same time want to be present to make sure the burden on the younger generation is not too great to handle.

Second, they may need a well-defined process of addressing the fears and supporting movement toward making risk/reward decisions . . . normalizing and challenging the fears—that can help them get “unstuck” and make the transition move forward.

This is not an easy process. Often, it takes time, careful persistence to address the issues. Trust building (yes, even between parents and children!) and the slow process of addressing, and lowering, fears so that changes can proceed naturally. At times, families simply can’t, won’t, or will want to decrease the risks of a negative outcome by engaging an outside entity to guide the process.

However it gets approached, trying to force someone to get past their fears (i.e.: Fear Factor style) is fraught with risks. There is no doubt that it can make things change, if successful, but too often it will heighten fears, create more resistance, and worst of all, create a traumatic event that may harm the relationships necessary to make a transition good for everyone.

**Often the younger generation will over emphasize the dreams not tied to the business as a means to leverage change. This often backfires. The senior sees this as the younger generation trying to “force them out” or manipulate because the dreams and fears tied to the business are minimized instead of being addressed.

Available eBooks:

Engaging Your Team: A framework for managing difficult people.

Family Legacy: Protecting family in family business.

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Consultants and Clients shouldn't be Friends!

Three is an awkward number . . . and a good illustration of the challenges of dual relationships!  Photo by  Vidar Nordli-Mathisen  on  Unsplash

Three is an awkward number . . . and a good illustration of the challenges of dual relationships!

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

A Priori . . . Dual Relationships . . . to Conflict of Interest

My background is in the health profession—specifically mental health. Anyone training and practicing in this area is well aware of the limitations on what the profession calls “dual relationships.” A dual relationship is where the professional has both a professional duty to the client and has another relationship which might compromise that duty. It is strictly advised against, could be the cause of an allegation of unprofessional behavior and, at it’s worst, could be the cause of losing one’s license to practice. To say that it’s emphasis as the apex of ethical professional behavior in the mental health world is not hyperbole.

In the consulting world there generally is no such restriction. Consultant regularly seek to be engaged with leaders and develop relationships with decision makers that may turn into clients. They become gold or hunting buddies, spend time at social functions together, perhaps even becoming close friends. In business this is not seen as problematic for many reasons, primary among them is that the client is not seen as somehow vulnerable or at risk of being harmed through the dual relationship. Fair, I think, since business leaders are not, on average, as vulnerable as patients being treated by a professional.

Unrecognized Conflicts of Interest Can hurt everyone

But, does this mean there is no risk? Hardly. Consider this . . . a consultant I once talked to had been invited into an organization by his best friend— a conflict of interest with high damage costs if the project ends badly. He accepted the contract but found, when he got deeply involved in the organization, that there were a lot of issues within the organization, issues that were intimately involved in his friend’s interactions with others in the organization. Awkward!

What’s this consultant to do? Unfortunately, this consultant did not realize the risks, find a way to extricate himself from the contract, and refer the organization to someone who could help with the particular problems they were facing. The result of not doing this was quite dramatic for the organization and there friendship.

Politics may be the most egregious sector for embracing situations that should raise concerns about possible conflicts of interest. I would speculate, for example, based on an article from the Washington Examiner and another in the Post, that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Chief of Staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, may present one example. Reading about the numerous organizations Saikat was involved in—Brand New Congress, Justice Democrats, Brand New Campaign and AOC’s campaign (multiple LLCs and Pacs)— it is hard to imagine how he could avoid conflicts of interest in this complex network. The actual, or appearance, of conflicts of interest—perhaps even rising to campaign law violations—may have led to his resignation.

Leaders Beware!

Leaders—especially leaders of family-based firms, where relationships are particularly vulnerable—need to be very careful about using consultants that become “too close” to the leaders. Danger lurks when consultants and leaders become more than business partners, because . . .

  1. The objectivity the organization needs from the consultant is compromised . . . by the close connection the consultant has with the leaders. Consultants who become too close cannot help being influenced by those relationships. As in a family setting, decisions may be made based on the relationship itself and not on what is best for the organization.

    Consulting relationships naturally have a built-in conflict of interest. If I develop close relationships with the leaders, I may get more work. But consultants need to ask themselves, “What do I care about the most, my business or providing the best service to the organization"?’ Yes, building a friendship may be good for the bottom line but it willfully introduces risk for the leader and the organization.

  2. While you can argue that the close relationship may be a strength, and probably is in good times—trust is heightened, loyalty is built, decisions are informal and quick—often when a crisis hits it can be a big liability. The same strengths of trust, loyalty, informality, can paralyze or misdirect the consultant’s role and exacerbate the problems.

    It is often during a crisis when one of the real dangers of forming a “too close” relationship presents itself. For the same reasons that families can struggle during critical moments—taking away Mom’s keys, putting Dad into assisted living, or estate planning—emotions often cloud good judgement and damage relationships. The consultant’s role as an “objective outsider” is lost when they cross into a close relationship with the leaders.

  3. Consultants that are too close may not address the hard issues—choosing to remain on good terms instead of pointing out problems. Denial, avoidance, procrastination . . . there are many words that describe the tendency to not address problems—even ones that threaten the organization’s existence. Consultants who retain more distance can direct leaders and organizations to confront problems more easily.

    It may not only be at times of crisis that consultants who are “too close” may negatively impact the organization. The closeness also risks avoiding issues early on when they might be dealt with and a crisis avoided.

  4. Most consultants come from business backgrounds and have little awareness of, and no training in, the risks of dual relationships—therefore, they may not maintain good boundaries and avoid these relationships. Any training in conflicts of interest also tends to give them only a cursory overview and little real insight into the potential traps. Ask a consultant to define the risks of dual relationships and you are likely to get a blank look. Ask them about avoiding conflicts of interest and you will get a general understanding of the danger . . . but little depth in what the real risks involve.

    Should the consultant attend the company party? Do they become “golf buddies” with the leaders? Do they circulate in the same social circles as the leaders or go on vacation together? If you are asking yourself, “What is the harm in that?”—then you may not have a deep understanding or the risks of dual relationships.

  5. A consultant’s loyalty, or other factors, in close relationships may prevent them from walking away from a toxic issue. In other words, a consultant with less involvement may, due to some over-riding disfunction in the system, may choose to “not help” by walking away. This “walking away” may be what the organizations needs to address a chronic issue they have been avoiding. Sometimes this separation is needed to help leaders or organizations grapple with the issue and bot become depended on others to fix issues they will not/ can not address.

    It’s a hard reality, but sometimes a helper needs to walk away. Some individuals, and organizations, in chronic conditions will not turn away from their “addiction” until they have no choices left. Consultants, at times, need to—for the sake of the organization—walk away. If there are unethical practices, persistent poor judgement, hidden abuses, the consultant can enable and support real damage by continuing to prop up the leadership and the organization. The proper course may be to make the problem overt and disengage from the organization.

It is easy to assume that the turbulence of dual relationships can be navigated safely. In truth, despite the hidden risks and undisclosed damage, they often are accepted eagerly (see the political-organizational hegemony in the U.S. for example). But the predominance of these arrangements do not suffice for “best practice” in consulting and do not protect the leader or the organization from its harmful effects.

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9 Common lies . . . Family Business Founders Tell Themselves

Family Legacy Leaf.png

9 Common lies . . . Family Business Founders Tell Themselves

1. Family members will appreciate the opportunities the family business provides.

2. We can keep the business separate from the family.

3. Our sacrifices demand loyalty . . . to the business.

4. I built it, they should follow my lead.

5. Lack of conflict is a sign the family is doing well.

6. Our family can avoid misunderstandings and hurt relationships.

7. Planning for succession means we don't need to think about "exit plans" or winding down the business.

8. You can't leave the family, but leaving the business is a simple process.

9. You don't tell yourself lies about the family business.

Family Legacy: Protecting family in family business.

Family Legacy Cover.png

 

 

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Family Business: The family "code" and tips on creating a "code of conduct" policy.

Pirate ship? Photo by  Igor Ovsyannykov  on  Unsplash

Pirate ship? Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash

Family Business: The “family code" . . . and Tips on creating a "Code of Conduct" policy.

". . . the code is more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules." Captain Hector Barbossa, to Elizabeth Swann who tries to invoke the rules to her purposes. Pirates of the Caribbean

"So, what'll happen next?" I asked the daughter of the owners.

"Mom and Dad won't talk to us. There will be no invitations to their house. They won't come to a few of our kids events. They may not see it this way, maybe they just feel hurt, but it will feel like they're punishing us."

"How does it end?" I asked.

"Oh, after a couple of months they'll call about some issue. They'll pretend that nothing ever happened. But everyone knows it's just a matter of time till it happens again. It's a pattern. I guess it's 'just what we do.'"

The Code is the Code. It’s often “unwritten” . . . but powerful.

This family has a code of conduct. It is unwritten, not “discussable,” but clearly set by patterns of interactions over years. It has not, at least yet, undermined the family itself, but has a powerful impact on the family, the interpersonal relationships, and also on the family business. Employees feel it. They know when the family is avoiding one another. They know what issues not to bring up.

Families have different styles of communication and approaches to conflict resolution. Most styles are stable--but not necessarily conducive to growth--a few styles are not stable or sustainable. These patterns of family communication and conflict management are, most often, instinctual and learned--not structured, planned or chosen. Families do what "feels right," carry on the patterns they experienced in their own families, or react against what they experienced--trying to do something different. The results are often mixed.

The Psychology Behind the Code?

While most manage to "put things behind them" for the sake of the family  Few people are aware of the psychology that influences their actions--yet, their family members may be keenly aware of the effects. Fear of rejection or failure? Nope. Afraid of isolation or lack of inclusion? No way. Unrealistic expectations or too much self-sacrificing? Not a problem. Ego tied up in being "in charge" and in control? No, just driven to succeed. But the effects are real and, again, they are often keenly felt within the family dynamics.

Helping the Family: Creating a Written Family Code

One small, proactive, step family businesses can take to minimize some of the risk to family members is to make expectations concrete. The process or discussing, writing, and adopting, a family "Code of Conduct" brings to surface the "best intentions" of the family, creates an "expected minimum" for family members, and establishes a structure for the family to return to when issues arise. It provides the extra benefits of modeling good leadership and can help you deal with difficult family members as well (not that you have any in your family!)

Why many will avoid creating a Family Code of Conduct.

One of the biggest hurdles to getting families to write a code of conduct is the belief that "things are fine the way they are." Maybe. But too often this "status quo option" is the view of one or two family members, not the thinking of family itself, nor in their best interests. It can be a denial of the "unwritten" code of conduct that already exists--"Everyone better do what Dad tells them to do," for example, and resistance to a transparent move toward change and growth.

A second reason it is avoided is the fear that it will surface some to the underlying tensions or problems in the family. Often there is an unspoken agreement to "let sleeping dogs lie"--fearing that approaching the issues will make things worse. Well, the truth is it can. Families with underlying tensions, often experience more tension, and even conflict in the short-term; some are even harmed in the process as they try to address issues on their own or even with consultants poorly prepared to use skills, training, resources, or knowledge to help the families successfully circumnavigate the potential dangers. 

However, for families that can effectively function, even through difficult and stressful circumstances, the discussion and adoption of written policies of family conduct is often very  helpful in promoting communication, decision making, and avoiding future conflict.

What to Include?

What should be included? That depends. The developmental stage of the family business will greatly impact what is addressed in this policy.

The needs of the "one controlling partnership" of a "Mom and Pop" just starting to incorporate their second generation into the business is dramatically different that the "cousin consortium" that encloses a complex group of families, owners, and business involvement within the family.

However a few key points are helpful to keep in mind.

First, you need to establish the purpose or goal of the policy. Why are we creating this? It should address a general philosophy of the family's view of the business and language about the importance of the family, the business, and the separation of work and family

Second, you need to establish who this policy is for and consequently what should be addressed. If you are staring to think about adding the kids to the business it might only need to address employment, professional development, loans, remuneration, and other basics.  If it is addressing a large complex family it might need to address the issues already noted but also expanded to address other topics such as the use of the family office, stock ownership, or many other issues as well.

Third, like it or not, the code of conduct has to address the issue of "what happens" if someone breaks the code. How will issues be addressed? Who will be included in trying to remedy any issues? Who will have the final "say" about actions taken?

Newer family businesses are less likely to feel the "need" for a written policy. However, by ignoring this, they only "kick the can down the road" and miss out on an opportunity to learn and grow, so that, later they have knowledge and experience to address more complex issues. So, don't delay! Protect your family proactively and don't fall victim to crisis planning at a time when the pressure will make it more difficult and potentially less successful.

 

Free eBook: Family Legacy: Protecting family in family business..

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Who is advising family businesses? . . . That's brilliant!

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

A love of “Catch Phrases” 

My family has  a tendency to "latch on" to catch phrases from our favorite media (If you hear . . . "Inconceivable! or "Beam me up, Scotty!" . . . you might get the idea). We do this, perhaps, even to the point of being nauseous.  If you hung out with us, you could probably guess our current obsession from our banter.

Cabin Pressure . . . a great Britcom!

One of our current favorites, is a British radio program called "Cabin Pressure." It is about a . . . (Yellow Car! *) . . . family business where Carolyn, acquires, in the divorce from Gordon, the one thing her ex-husband "truly cares about" --a plane called "GERTI" for it's call sign of Golf, Echo, Romeo, Tango, India--and creates a business, MJN Air which stands for My Jet Now Air. The show stars a couple of acting heavy weights (Benedict Cumberbatch and Stephanie Cole) and, perhaps even more impressive, a comedic duo of unknowns (Roger Allam and John Finnimore, the latter of which, is also the author of the series). The program is a delight.

The airline owner, Carolyn, employees two pilots, one fired from the big airline, and the Captian, who is a technocrat who took four tries to get his license. She also has a "crew," her son, Arthur, played by Finnimore, who declares everything he experiences as "brilliant!" So whether it is the "Skipper's" ridiculous gold-braid embossed hat, the task of giving a lecture on polar bears, determining if he can--or cannot--imagine a thousand penguins, or just cleaning the lavatory . . . are equally wonderful, and Arther exclaims this with great enthusiasm as "Brilliant!." In fact, the only exception to this pattern of viewing the world in such superlative terms is when talking about his father who is . . . is . . .  ". . . not brilliant," and thus severely condemned in Arthur-parlance.

Consulting with Families . . . in Business.

What does this have to do with therapists and family business?  Well, for one thing, the crew of MJN Air could use the help of a good advisor . . . with some behavioral health experience. So could, for that matter,  the divorced-but-still-family of Carolyn, Gordon, and Arther. But that's a story for another day, the point is, that businesses, especially family businesses, are inextricably interwoven with the relationships of the family members.  Art here, as it does so often, mirrors life.

Most family business owners, like those in the sitcom, are left to "work it out among themselves" -- with greater or lessor success. But that is slowly changing. Family Business owners are recognizing the need to be planful about preserving the family.

In 2004, The Economist published an article on Succession called  "Passing on the Crown." In it, they reported that 70% of the attendees at the annual conference of the Boston Family Firm Institute were Family Therapists. What? Therapists!  Surprising? Probably. But it highlights both a need and one of the great challenges for Family Businesses--The family element of succession planning--and the risks it poses to both the business and the family.

Sources such as the Family Business Institute report that 88% of Family Business owners expect that the family will continue to own and operate the business in the following generation. But, as students of family businesses are well aware, in actual fact only about 33% make it to the second generation and around 10% to the third.

The sad part is not necessarily the outcome. After all, if the family itself decides that they no longer want to continue on as a family business--for what ever reason--and close down, get bought out by the management/employees, or out right sell--this is hardly a tragedy. It is simply a decision and an action no different that choosing to sell a car.

No, the sad part is that too often the end of the family business is not due to a plan but a reaction to tensions in the family itself. Dad or Mom won't let go. The kids can't get along or are uncomfortable inheriting the business. Personality characteristics threaten to disrupt the family or perhaps get tired in a public, legal, battle.

Family Therapists and Family Business . . . a perfect match.

So, it's a good thing that family therapists are preparing themselves to be advisors to these families. You see, the truth is, family therapists--like the family businesses themselves--typically have no education, training, or experience with family business issues. 

So, sending families with family business issues to the average helping professional is likely to end in a less-than-optimal outcome.

Family businesses need to prepare for succession and the difficult challenges they will face as the generational shit approaches. Helping professionals need to recognize that the majority of businesses are run by families and to prepare themselves to find the appropriate referral sources or train and educate themselves to be a good advisors.

This latter path often requires a change in the paradigm of the helping professional.  Am I a business expert? No. Can I tell them what legal or financial structures are recommended? No. So what value do I bring? Well, I can tell them how to set good boundaries, practice effective communication, not abdicate out of fear into avoidant behaviors, how to manage estranged family members . . . and much more. 

The things is, our value lies in what the family business owners say is their highest value, "The family!" In this, we are the experts.  Our involvement has the profound effect of making it more likely that family businesses, once left to their own survival, will experience an increase probability of being sustainable or closing without straining the relationships.

Helping professionals in general, but MFTs in particular, with the proper education and training can be invaluable resources and advisors for Family Firms. Utilizing skills like in-depth ethnographic interviews, assessment tools, coaching skills, family therapists can help craft action plans to aid these families with their move toward a successful succession and the maintenance of family relationships.

Planning retreats to reconnect disengaged families and coordinate planning for the future, sitting in on the family council meetings or participating in annual family meetings, coaching young leaders, helping families manage or prevent family conflict etc--the advisor's focus is on the health and well-being of the family wit in the ownership-management-family dimensions. 

A Family Business Consultant, with a family therapy background, can encourage the family to continue it's growth, address issues before they become toxic, keep open dialogue and provide support for the family's goal to maintain, preserve, and protect the family, and . . .

"That's Brilliant!"

 

Photo Credit: Gustavo Bellmen, Unsplash

Photo Credit: Gustavo Bellmen, Unsplash

 

* P.S.- One of Arthur's games is "Yellow Car!" where you say, "Yellow Car" if you see a yellow car. But if you see a car that's not yellow, you don't say "Yellow Car!" I know, I know, the rules can be quite tricky but fortunately, Arthur has completed a tutorial to explain the rules. Oh, and if you are a therapist, I think you will love John Finimore's take on therapy . . . see it here.  Finally, I must tell you . . .  "the lemon is in play."

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Parents and Kids: Don't make it easy! Especially if you own your own business.

A knife, the right one, can be a useful tool.  Photo Credit: Juan Jose Alonso at Unsplash.

Warren Buffet, the "Oracle of Omaha," has started giving away his wealth . . . and it's not to his kids. He gets it.

 

I needed to run into the "big box store" for one thing. My son, courageously, volunteered to stay behind an take care of our dog. "Courageously" I say because I knew what was on his mind. The same thing that had been on his mind for the last week or more. The knife. "Maybe you could stop and look at the knife?" he cautiously asked . . . . I steeled myself, knowing this was not the time to be generous and give in. It was too important . . . for my son.

Recently, my 11 year old set his sights on buying a knife. His hope, a big-bowie knife. Now, some of you might be thinking . . . uh, no! Given the immature nature of many young boys, the culture of as presented in the main-stream media, parental anxieties, and the potential for "unintended outcomes" we, of course, worked to establish a more reasonable alternative.

That does not mean, in this instance, that our automatic answer is, "No knife." Since we have a very active average--complete with chicken coop, high tunnel, three garden spots and all the accompanying minutia of hey bales, tractors, tomato cages and the like--a knife is a practical tool that a "chore=laden" (at least in his eyes) boy could find useful. Not to mention his parents. Besides, we live in the heart of the farming community where 14 years olds drive farm equipment and help with the harvest. Really. It's not that weird for youngsters to carry a knife, at least, around the farm. (I have had to tell a few young lads that they cannot bring them to social events to show their friends however.)

So, yes, the knife is still in discussion. After all, this isn't my first time around at this. We have six children (four of which are boys) and I regularly counted on the other boys help in working around "the place." "Hey, do you have your knife on you?" was  not an uncommon question, especially,  if I didn't have mine on me at the time.

But, the discussion about the knife is always about responsibility. "Do you think you are old enough to be responsible with a knife?" I'll ask, putting the necessity of this requirement to their mind. This youngster, in my assessment, is on the verge of consistently acting responsible enough . . . but not quite. So, I had a talk with him about his lack of consistency--giving his mother a hard time about chores, being upset that she didn't buy him the knife when he expected it, his general attitude and treatment of others.

"I can't give a knife to someone until I know they are going to be responsible," I told him. "i see you becoming more and more responsible but you need to do it in all areas if you want to be trusted with something like a knife.  Your mother and I look forward to when you are responsible enough to have a tool like a knife." I concluded.

I was practicing the age old rule of "not making it easy." It's advice I give to parents in general and especially to parents who have done well--many who own family businesses. Oh I know the sad truth that there are parents out there that are mean, withholding, even abusive to their children--those parents need a different rule called "be kind"--but I think the majority are more in danger of wanting to do too much for our children. Thus, we rob them of learning early on how to handle disappointment, frustration, and to reinforce the satisfaction of turning their hard work, and patience into meeting their needs and wants.

This does not preclude another of my parent rules, "Say 'Yes" as much as you can." You see, as I said earlier, our answer is NOT just "No." In fact, the answer to the knife is "Yes, when you're ready." The same foes for getting a car in a few short years. When you are mature enough, have earned the money to pay for it, and grateful for the privilege of owning it.

Parents who are owners of their own businesses run into an even greater danger of making it too easy. Saying "Here, son/daughter, "here are some opportunities, assets, cash, etc." may make good business sense. it may help pass down your assets, make create tax write-offs, and may just tempt you to want to be kind to your children. But, just like staking a tree too soon for fear that it will break, staking it before it has strengthened itself against the wind and other elements, only weakens it and makes it likely to fail when it is grown and it's weakened condition is overcome by the weight and stresses placed on it as an "adult."  Like the tree, these "coddled," advantaged, children may not develop the internal strength to weather the storms of life.

"I'll look at it," I responded to my son, "But don't expect me to be coming back with it," I warned. "I know," he said. I watched as determination and courage followed the initial disappointment. Inwardly, I winced, my heart grieving for the kid and the disappointment he felt. My thoughts moving to the pride I felt however  in seeing him work to be the mature young man he can be, and reminiscing about the joy of watching my other boys become men.

The funny thing, which I knew would happen (remember it's not my first "rodeo"), is that his general mood has been better. Saying "no, for now" has actually released him of the pent-up pressure of "wanting."  He's more pleasant, more helpful, just happier. The good thing is, it's no longer just about trying to manipulate me into getting the knife either. It's real. That afternoon, he voluntarily, sauntered out and helped me replace the wheel on his sister's car and he enjoyed helping. It's progress.

I'm still going to try and talk him into a more reasonable knife--not one that is "flashy" and "mammoth" into one that will be more useful. But the type of knife is not the biggest concern. No, my danger, as a parent is . . . I'm already wondering--now that he showed some mature fortitude--how soon I can take him to buy a knife. Yes, I'm my own worst enemy. I may have to "practice what I preach" and exercise a little frustration tolerance.

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