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Robert Holton

I’m Not Smarter Than A Fifth Grader: Lessons in Parent-Child Relationships

This past winter I had the wonderful opportunity to be a coach for my youngest daughter’s grade school basketball team. As the season got underway, it was clear we had a group of very eager players coming together to learn, have fun, and play the game with the intention of winning. I saw our role as coaches as teaching fundamentals and a love of the game. I had every intention to remain the voice of calm throughout the season, in a supporting role to the head coach. My happy go lucky attitude lasted about 15 minutes into the first practice. With the season now over, there is time to reflect on some of the dynamics of a parent/child relationship in that setting, and what it might say about similar dynamics in family business.

Realization #1: I was more Emotionally Invested than I Expected 

We were victorious in our first game by a final score of 6 to 4. There is simply no rational reason to get over-excited about the play of a ten-year-old in a recreational basketball league. Still, there I was jumping out of my chair and shouting defensive instructions, exhorting the girls to move their feet and get their hands up. As if the intensity of my instruction could directly translate into the intensity of their play. Why? Because my personal investment was higher. I felt personally responsible for the success or failure of the team.

As a student of behavioral economics, I realize we often make decisions and take actions for reasons other than logic. Similarly, as family business leaders, we may have every logical intention to remain objective about the involvement of our family in the business. We may believe we can act rationally and segment work from family life, “wearing different hats” as some consultants suggest. I’m now more uncertain of that premise.

Realization #2: My Child Inevitably Has a Different Experience

Despite my efforts to treat everyone equally, I realize my child got a very different experience than her teammates. My daughter got additional coaching from me each time we drove to and from practice and as we watched games together and discussed the same ideas worked on in practice. I would run new ideas by her first to test for understanding and when the new idea was presented in practice, she already had a preliminary understanding, giving her a slight advantage. She would naturally help me explain the new ideas to the other kids, giving her standing as a leader in the group. As a coach, I also knew when she clearly grasped an idea due to the extra time we had to talk about it, giving me greater confidence to put her into the game in certain situations to help the team win.

As family business leaders, we often speak of treating our children the same as other employees; everyone must earn their role and not act as if entitled. I’m uncertain we can ever truly balance that playing field, but we can develop an awareness of what is naturally occurring. The family dynamic occurring between my daughter and me was very different than the dynamic occurring on the team. She was a member of both groups, which had different social dynamics.

Realization #3: My Child is Inevitably Held to a Different Standard

I also realized my child is naturally held to a different standard than the rest of the team, because I have a better understanding of what my child knows.  For example, I did not know if an experience would be emotionally difficult for another child. I took great pains not to embarrass them and tried to be empathetic to how they felt. I had a better idea of my child’s level of understanding and resilience, so I was more comfortable addressing my child personally in order to send a message to the other girls about the effort level needed or the importance of listening.

There were times when my roles as a parent and as a coach were in conflict. During one particularly intense and physical game, my daughter was knocked down as play continued. At the next timeout, she came to the bench hobbling and beginning to tear up. I rather brusquely told her to take a seat on the bench and get some water, then pivoted back to the team gathering for instructions.

After the game my daughter’s tears flowed as she sobbed, “You didn’t even care that I was hurt!” Obviously I cared, but I made a deliberate decision to focus on the team, rather than my daughter. In that moment I believed her physical injury was minor, but her pride was more deeply wounded, and thought I could address it after the game. My role as a coach took precedent in that moment, but she never stopped seeing me as her father first. At the time, I was confident and clear in my decision-making, yet I can still clearly recall how the other girls looked to her and looked to me, uncertain how to react. Looking back, I cannot say with confidence I made the right decision.

At times our different roles lead to ambiguous decision-making. Performing different roles simultaneously may mean one decision cannot perfectly satisfy them all. Family business leadership involves getting comfortable with ambiguity. The dynamics of a family are complex. When family dynamics intersect with the complexity of successfully operating a firm, there are no easy answers. Be skeptical of clichés and pithy advice. My daughter’s tears were not easily dismissed and perhaps with a moment of empathy, they could have been avoided.

Realization #4: Learning to Let Kids Lead 

We ran a drill in practice which involved throwing the ball ahead of the girls, so they run it down at full-speed and harness their momentum to shoot a basket. After about ten minutes, they would be sweating and exhausted. They begged to do it every practice. I recognized they worked much harder at things they enjoyed. There were parts of practice we insisted upon which they did not enjoy, but over the course of the season they came to accept as part of being on the team. Each practice, we tried to balance what they enjoyed and what we felt was essential. I learned not to assume what they would enjoy.

The team demonstrated a level of knowledge beyond my expectations. In one practice, short the full complement of players, the three coaches played on one team against five of the girls. With some simple rules of engagement, we let the girls figure out on their own how to defend against us. When their aggressive two-on-one defense didn’t work to stop us from cutting to the basket, they called a timeout. We stood back and let them fiercely debate different approaches. When the scrimmage re-started, they settled into a zone defense. We never taught them a zone defense. When asked about her favorite moment of the season, my daughter picked that experience. She felt they had come together to figure out the strategy on their own, which made her very proud.

I learned they could teach each other better than I could teach them, which was made clear in the final game of the season. As time was running down and the game in the balance, we called a timeout to set-up a final play. Our primary ball-handler came to the huddle and said “I have a play.” She proceeded to diagram a new play and let each of her teammates know what to do. We broke the huddle and they executed the play flawlessly. We won the game, but far more importantly, we witnessed the team come to trust each other. As coaches, we could not have wished for a better outcome.

Looking back on our season, I realize the girls likely learned far more from one another than they learned from us coaches. I know I learned more from them than they could possibly have learned from me. I chuckle to myself as I recall my frantic gestures and panicked instructions from the bench all season long, only to have the successful final play of the final game diagrammed by a ten year-old. I’m clearly not smarter than a fifth grader. But thanks to them, hopefully I’m a bit more self-aware. For the leaders of a family business, self-awareness may help navigate the different roles, stresses and strains inherent in the process. It does not mean clear answers, but at least we can start a dialogue by being open to the questions.

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Views and comments expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the positions of Cleary Gull or fellow Cleary Gull associates.