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The Business Concept That Changed the Way I Think About Parenting

06/09/2015 06:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016
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I stopped reading books. I have piles and piles of barely opened parenting and self-development books stacked around my house -- on my nightstand, next to the bathtub, in the kitchen, in the living room and even in the kids' rooms. I want to be the best parent I can be, but I'm overwhelmed by and frustrated with all of the ideas, suggestions and varying perspectives floating around in the parenting world. No matter what the issue is, somebody has come up with a solution. Where does one start when there is such an abundance of competing solutions?

At first, I thought there was too much to read and too little time. Moreover, even after trying to be efficient in my search for parenting "solutions" (by reading a ridiculous amount of reviews on Amazon), it was still almost impossible to figure out what would work well for my family. I remember living through the New Parent Daze... when days and nights seemed to wash together, when my singular purpose in life was to provide milk for my crying baby. I remember trying to assemble our parenting approach to sleep from a selection of seemingly contradictory books. Impossible!

Then came all the potty-training and discipline books... same story all over again. Sure, I may have picked up a couple of suggestions from each, but none of them helped me form a parenting perspective that I could reliably fall back on when trying to extract my kicking and screaming child from a disagreement at the playground. Which brings me to my next point... even if I read something that made sense to me, there was no guarantee that I would be able to put it into practice and do things any differently going forward.

Thankfully, one evening, as I was collapsed on the couch while listening to the usual post-bedtime singing contest through the monitor, I caught sight of the title of a business book I knew well from my previous life: The Knowing Doing Gap by Jeff Pfeffer, a Stanford professor. In an instant, I realized what my problem was. It wasn't that I didn't have the parenting knowledge I was so eager to acquire... I actually knew TOO much, but couldn't apply it.

Only a tiny subset of the population (let's just call them the lucky ones for now) can read a book and then turn around and effectively apply its suggestions on a daily basis. The rest of us are left with varying amounts of passive knowledge... all nice to have, but it makes no difference on a practical level in terms of making our family happier, more balanced and more fulfilled.

Digging deeper, I realized there might be a thing or two from the corporate environment that could help me reconcile my parenting "Knowing-Doing Gap." Pfeffer and Sutton highlight how companies are held accountable (in a way you and I are not) for making the changes they are committed to, which drives them to invest in employee development to shift behaviors and mindsets so intended cultures can be manifested and stick. They suggest a set of techniques that managers can do to minimize the "Knowing-Doing Gap," and upon reflection, I realized that there is much to this idea that could be applied to our parenting:

'Why' before 'how.' Too many of us want to learn "how" (concrete behaviors and techniques) rather than "why" (philosophy and greater purpose). If we first chose a philosophy that resonates with us, the set of necessary behaviors aligned with that philosophy might come more easily, or even naturally.

• Knowing comes from doing. Learning is done best by trying a lot of things, figuring out what works and what does not work, reflecting on and integrating what was learned, and trying again.

• There is no doing without mistakes. Even well-planned actions go wrong. All learning involves some "failure." Without it, one would not continue to learn. Reasonable failure should never be received with anger, rather, viewed as an opportunity to learn and grow... especially our own failure, our kids' failure, or our spouse's "failure." Risk = opportunity.

• Fear fosters knowing-doing gaps, so drive out fear. Fear in organizations (or in families) causes all kinds of problems. We are often afraid to try something new if the outcome might not make us look good. Fear starts, or stops, at the top. In a corporation, this would be the CEO and president and in a family that would be YOU.

• What leaders do and how they spend their time matters. Leaders of successful companies understand that their priority should not just be on making decisions, but on building high-performing cultures. In the family context, the most important choices we can make are how we spend our time with our family, and what environment, or family culture, we create in the home.

What resonated most with me here are the first two summary points. I am learning from experience that if I consciously choose a "philosophy" or holistic approach to parenting, versus trying to dogmatically apply a variety of techniques recently read or suggested by well-meaning people who don't know my kids the way I do, then I can more easily and instinctively figure out what to do in ANY situation. Things just flow better. I am not saying parenting becomes easy, but it just feels less stressful, I am more confident and I am able to stay more attuned to my kids and myself. Regarding the second point, practice creates mastery. I remind myself of this when the first few times I'm trying something feels awkward. If I believe in what I am doing and keep trying, if I talk about it with my kids, my husband and other parents, then over time, it becomes routine, second nature.

Eventually, I started reading again. Now, though, I am very selective... I choose books that help me shift my way of being and explain more of the "why" behind development and parenting, rather than those that just offer tactical advice or a technique or two. Instead of reading/skimming five books at a time, I take one and read it slowly, really take it in. But most importantly, as I read, I reflect often and ask myself: What does this mean for me? What does this mean for the family? What can I do to apply it on a daily basis? What can I do to make this our daily practice our reality?

Last but not least, to make a lasting change, most of us need a community. A community of like-minded individuals (in this case, other moms and dads would be the logical choice) to share experiences and ideas, provide support, commiserate and celebrate. We are so isolated in our quest to become the perfect parents that we forget that we are not alone. It truly takes a village to raise children who thrive and to keep us, their parents, sane.