One of the sayings in my childhood home was that we collected memories, not belongings. Keeping our material possessions light was probably one of my mom’s strategies for navigating six rambunctious kids.
Given the nomadic nature of our family, we tend to be pretty light on possessions. Despite many moves over the decades, one gift my mom still keeps on display in her family room is a mother’s day plaque I gave her when I was 12. It says, “Thank you, Mom, for giving us roots and wings.” She said the reason she keeps it is because she felt so seen when she read it because that’s exactly what she and my dad were after: Roots and wings.
We were not a typical family. My parents had their own ideas about parenting. They definitely didn’t do what the Joneses did, nor anyone else I know of, for that matter. My sister Cynthia’s best friend used to say we were like the hippies of North Dakota except that we didn’t smoke pot.
Roots and wings really were the fundamental guideposts my parents used as they raised us. Roots were our shared values while wings were gradually bigger spaces to fail. Sound strange?
In a recent conversation, my mom confirmed that it was difficult to parent that way. With six kids, rules would have been much faster to explain than “roots,” which often involved lengthy debates from her spirited children. And “wings” often felt unsafe to my big-hearted mom. She could see that our youthful forays of freedom were often destined to be a nosedive or two before we could learn to soar. That space to fail was painful to allow, especially when a simple “rule” may have prevented the injury. The results: resilience and courage. Let’s explore that a bit.
The primary roots they instilled in us were the values of faith, family, community, and honesty – the power of our words. My parents were also big on personal responsibility, which meant always doing your best while simultaneously honoring each individual and their gifts.
This sometimes meant different measures for each of us, as long as we were working hard to do our best. Imagine six kids lamenting “that’s not FAIR” (in a long, drawn out howl that may feel a bit like jockeying for budget resources in a business meeting). For example, I had to get mostly As while other siblings were encouraged to get Bs. On the flip side, given my limited musical capability, simply showing up to sing a one-note song in a variety show program was sufficient for me while my sister, Cynthia, carted a French horn, which weighed as much as she did, to and from school for years on end.
What I loved and still love about values is that they aren’t one-size-fits-all rules. Values require a deeper level of curiosity, inquiry and exploration rather than a behavior template. A root says, “If we share this value, we can always work out the expression. Your form may look different than mine, but each will honor who we are and what we collectively stand for.”
Wings meant a safe place to test out ideas, fail, adjust accordingly, and keep growing. This meant allowing natural consequences. When I was 15, my sister, Gretchen, and I —the eldest pair—had our own teenage domain at the far end of the house. We painted our rooms in our favorite 70’s colors. Mine had a bright orange shag rug with a yellow rainbow bedspread and white circular donut-shaped phone (if you’re under 40 you may have to google this one). That Fall, I lied to my parents, saying there would be chaperone at a hockey game I was going to attend. There wasn’t. When they found out, instead of meting out an unrelated punishment, such as a weekend ground, we had a long conversation about trust; what it means, the consequences of lost trust, and the path to rebuilding this precious gift. The end result: we agreed on a plan for rebuilding trust. I didn’t get grounded, but I had to move closer to my parents to show them I could make good decisions and tell the truth. To do this, I lost my room and the freedom it represented. For six months, I had to swap with my younger sister, Deborah, and move into a room right across the hall from my parents. Six months of agony!
Despite some tough lessons along the way, when I talk about my family, my voice brightens. My childhood home, while demented and dysfunctional in its own quirky ways, is a frequent source of inspiration for me in my work with teams and leaders.
Given this, many people are surprised to learn that my parents split up after we kids were grown. Divorce means a failure to family values, doesn’t it? Not always. My siblings and I knew that. While my parents were great co-parents and one heck of an executive team, they were not good life partners. Despite divorce and subsequent remarriages, they each remain committed to the value of family.
For example, we make a point to vacation together. That means my divorced parents, their new spouses, us six kids, our partners, the gaggle of grandchildren and an occasional family dog all trek to the woods to celebrate family. We toast marshmallows around a campfire, play Crazy-8 games until the wee hours of the night and share stories of adventures new and old.
My mom’s husband, John, is as frequent a spectator at grandkid’s sporting events as my own Dad. Together they cheer the roots and wings of the next generation, their vastly different expressions contributing new richness to the fabric of our family.
Together looks different now. My parents, and their new spouses (who get a lot of credit for choosing into our clan) chose to grow outside of societies definition of divorce to honor their shared value, and deep love, of family.
A value has the holder choose growth in an area of high esteem. What we value is worth stretching and becoming more on behalf of.
These roots and wings gave us the grounding to know who we truly are and the space to grow into who we might become.
I invite you into your own inquiry. What are the shared values you can gather around at your workplace? Name two or three expressions of that value you see. (E.g. The Dollyhopper Mop Manufacturing Co. values a feeling of camaraderie at the office: for Jane, that looks like building consensus at a meeting and for Austin that looks like always making sure the coffee is fresh.)
What are some places where it feels “difficult” to reconcile values with the real world (like our families’ divorce), and what can you do to create a richer expression of what is truly shared?
Where can you allow someone you love to spread some wings? What makes you most nervous about allowing a coworker, friend or partner the space to explore, fail, build resilience and become more of who they truly are?