When Madalyn Parker, a web developer for the software company, Olark, emailed her colleagues saying she was taking time off to attend to her mental health, she was essentially calling on her company to live up to its values.
In response, rather than dissuade other employees from following Parker’s lead, Olark CEO Ben Congleton, in a tweet, applauded her candor and willingness to prioritize her personal needs.
Congleton’s response drew widespread praise because he wasn’t paying lip service to his organization’s work-life balance philosophy; he was celebrating an employee’s use of it. How leaders put company policies into practice says a lot about them and their businesses. Congleton’s response to Parker resonated because he demonstrated empathy and sincerity, traits that people don’t often associate with corporate executives.
The world needs more leaders like Congleton. And parents who hope to raise founders and entrepreneurs can influence this trend. By following through on the commitments they make to their children, mothers and fathers can teach the next generation to be trustworthy people who lead with integrity.
Raising reliable kids — and founders
All parents have broken a promise to their children at least once. They got stuck in a meeting and couldn’t make it to their son’s baseball game, or a delayed flight home from a big conference caused them to miss their daughter’s recital. Kids feel those absences deeply, but they’ll move on from them — if broken promises are anomalies.
Yet when parents repeatedly break promises, they teach their children not to trust them. And kids learn from this behavior, if it’s frequently repeated, and, as adults say what feels right in the moment; then they backpedal when their promises become inconvenient. That’s no way to lead others.
Parents who don’t follow through on their commitments may feel that because they’ve failed their children in the past, there’s no point trying to do better. But, with the right strategies, they can correct their behavior and teach their children the value of following through on promises. Here’s how:
1. Put broken promises in context.
Moms and dads are stretched thin. Working parents in particular feel that they don’t spend enough time with their children, spouses and friends or on their personal interests, according to Pew Research Center. When you’re struggling to balance so many demands, it’s easy to overcommit and underdeliver.
If you have a habit of breaking promises, explain to your children why that’s happened. Perhaps you underestimated the amount of time you’d need to finish a project at work, and that’s why you’ve been at the office so late. Maybe you are still mastering effective time management, and are striving to do better.
Being vulnerable about your own struggles will help your children understand that you love them and want to support them and that your broken promises don’t negate those feelings. Discussing your setbacks and strategies for doing better will also teach them humility and offer your kids tactics for improving their own behavior.
2. Involve your kids in your process of prioritizing.
Honoring your commitments to your children requires planning and boundaries. If you want to make your son’s big science fair presentation or your daughter’s track meet, put those events on your work calendar and say no to any conflicting meetings or opportunities. Set hard and fast rules about when you’re working and when you’re off the clock. Then enforce those rules with yourself and others.
Entrepreneur Stu McLaren sets limits on how often he travels for work so he can minimize time away from his family. He also schedules his work day so that he’s always available when his kids come home from school. Sticking to these boundaries means saying no to some opportunities. But doing that allows him to show up for his kids when he says he’ll be there.
Going further, involve your kids in your commitment-making process. The next time they ask that you be home to help with homework or attend a special event, strategize together about how you’ll make that happen. What time will you need to leave work to fulfill that promise? What deadlines will you have to clear to avoid being stuck at the office? Are there any social events you’ll need to reschedule to ensure that you’re there for your child?
Making a plan together reiterates that you take your children’s request seriously, and gives them a model for meeting their own commitments. As they grow older, they’ll know that they need to plan and set rules for themselves to avoid developing a reputation for being untrustworthy.
3. Stay on top of things when emergencies happen.
Work emergencies happen. When they do, inform your children and explain why you are breaking a promise to them. Don’t wait until the last minute out of guilt or fear of upsetting them. Keeping them in the loop helps them realize that you respect them and allows them time to process feelings of anger or disappointment. Springing a cancellation on them at the last minute makes them feel like an afterthought.
Establish boundaries with your children, as well. If you’re working from home, explain when you’ll be available and when they’ll need to rely on your partner or a caretaker to meet their needs.
McLaren teaches his kids that when his office door is shut, he doesn’t want to be interrupted. Although it can be difficult to turn your children away, they’ll learn healthy boundary-setting when you do this. My children learned the meaning of “the palm.” When they entered my home office and I raised my hand with my palm facing them, they knew not to interrupt me during a conversation or deep thinking. Establishing clear boundaries is important to being a person of your word.
4. Hold kids to their promises.
Once you’ve straightened out your own promise-keeping habits, hold your children to the same standard. Require them to keep the commitments they’ve made, even if they decide they don’t want to when a particular event comes around. Birthday parties are classic cases of kids wanting to flake out on their plans.
Maybe they RSVP’d “yes” but then received a more exciting invitation from another friend. Insist that they attend the party anyway. The same goes for volunteer activities or promises to visit elderly relatives. This teaches them to think carefully about the commitments they make and to prioritize other people’s feelings over their own in-the-moment impulses.
Consistency is the key to raising trustworthy, reliable founders. People who bail on their plans or don’t respect other people’s time rarely become good leaders or good parents — and tcertainly not effective ones. Being consistent in your commitments to your children — and in how you handle breaking those commitments — will teach them to be thoughtful and respectful in upholding their own promises.