Does it feel happy? Is it fun? Maybe busy?
How can I make my home feel safe for my kids?
It was a strange intersection of work and family that occurred last week. I am a little nervous to teach an upcoming class, not because I don’t know the subject matter, but because I am a little intimidated by the environment I’m expecting to walk into. Sometimes the classes I teach are energetic and happy, and it feels like everyone is excited to be there and anticipating a great time. Other classes have a heavy cloud over them and everyone can sense there is little to no motivation to learn what I have to present, whether it’s because they are resistant to change or because they don’t want me coming and telling them how to do their jobs, I don’t know, but either way I have to teach them.
So I read an article on – of all things – Psychological Safety. I was looking for specific actions I could take that would break the ice, so to speak, and get people to lower their guard and participate in a positive way. Otherwise I knew the class would feel much longer than ten days. It was as I read this article by Amy C. Edmondson entitled, “Managing the risk of learning: Psychological safety in work teams (2002)” that I was struck with just how much of this related to the home, as well as to the classroom.
As a dad, I want so much for all my children to succeed in life and to dream big. I want to be their biggest cheerleader and fan; to inspire them to do more than they ever thought possible. I want them to explore their world and try new things without being afraid to fail. And I want to help them avoid making any mistakes that I can before it’s too late.
What would you attempt if it was impossible to fail?
In order for my kids to do that, they need to have a home that feels safe. Psychological safety “describes a climate in which the focus can be on productive discussion that enables early prevention of problems and the accomplishment of shared goals because people are less likely to focus on self-promotion.” In other words, if people can stop worrying about how they will appear to others, they are free to take risks, ask questions, seek help, admit they don’t know, and learn from their mistakes. But if people think they will be judged for getting an answer wrong, or looking stupid by asking a “dumb question”, they do not try new skills, they do not get all they can from the class, and in turn they hurt themselves by limiting their abilities.
What can I do as a parent to help my children feel safe at home? Let me give an example of what not to do from my own life first.
I asked my kids to “clean up” the living room and headed into the kitchen. Ten minutes later I walked back into the living room and almost everything was picked up. We’ve been really struggling to get them to put things away when they’re done, especially Pax, so this is definitely a lofty and ‘risky’ goal for them. What do I do? I point out the one or two toys that are hidden in obscure places before offering any sort of a job well done.
What does this do for my kids? Maybe a brief moment like this, in and of itself is not enough, but over time these all add up to make them feel like nothing they ever do is good enough. So why try? Perhaps they would have ventured out to do great things, but instead they don’t feel safe enough to try and fail, because they know that failures will be pointed out instead of successes.
Tonight I walked into the bathroom to get Ella out of the tub and found water on the floor, certainly dripping into every crack or seam and rotting the wood from under my feet. At least my first reaction was to treat it like this. But with this idea of psychological safety in mind I asked her what she was doing. It appeared she had invented some new way to play basketball, all inside the tub as my bath time rules stated, but this innovative game did result in a few splashes onto the floor. I’m glad I didn’t blow up on her for once again getting water outside of the tub.
So naturally I think, how can I be supportive and allow my children the wiggle room to do things wrong and still send a clear message that certain behaviors are just not acceptable. Like saying “Guess what? Chicken butt.” Edmondson addresses this, too (well, not the ‘chicken butt’ part directly):
“…it is inaccurate to equate psychological safety with the removal of consequences for lack of performance…skilled leaders can reward excellence, sanction poor performance, and at the same time embrace the imperfection and error that are inevitable under conditions of uncertainty and change”
“Wow,” I thought. What is a more uncertain and changing condition than childhood? Every day their minds and bodies are changing, their understanding of the world around them is growing. Certainly I need to remind myself that kids will not be perfect. I especially need to remind myself that my kids will not be perfect, since i do have a slight bias towards them.
“Psychological safety is nurtured without sending the message that “anything goes.” In this way, team leaders…must communicate clear expectations about performance and accountability, without communicating that they are closed to, or unwilling to hear, bad news. Psychological safety means no one will be punished or humiliated for errors, questions, requests for help, in the service of reaching ambitious performance goals. To make this work, team leaders must inspire team members to embrace error and deal with failure in a productive manner. This balancing act may be difficult to enact without some natural leadership ability or training, or may require excellent interpersonal skills, and perhaps even humor.”
I certainly could use more training in this dad-thing I do daily. And I’m glad she threw in humor. I wasn’t expecting that in a paper like this, but I realize that sometimes you just have to be silly to let everyone know that whatever they did wrong wasn’t the end of the world.
Here’s a list of specific actions to take that will help create a psychologically safe environment. I took them word for word from the article, but if you read through them I think you can see where these also apply to parenting as well:
Demonstrate tolerance of failure
Acknowledge one’s own fallibility
Take interpersonal risks
Avoid punishing others for well intentioned risks
Repeatedly practice self disclosure
Respect other’s opinions
Sanction poor performance
Embrace imperfection and error that are inevitable under conditions of change
Request input from the team
Empower those in lower status positions to speak up
Minimize domineering tendencies of high power individuals
Use direct actionable language
Articulate norms for working together
Be flexible while imposing structure
Prod the team to reflect
Remain open to what transpires in the reflection process
Set team goals that are clear and compelling
Allow group participation in shaping goals
Continually clarify the meaning and importance of the team’s goals
Modify goals to meet new changes in the team environment
Do not engage in authoritarian action
Allow team members latitude for innovation
Structure without rigidity
So whether it’s potty training or learning to play the violin, T-ball or choosing a difficult elective in school, I want to be the kind of dad who creates a feeling in the home where my kids feel free to try and fail; as long as they have tried to do something that for them is “big” I’ll be proud that they did their best. I want to patiently encourage them to try new things, and be open to suggestions on how I can be better. Having that kind of open dialogue can begin now, even though my daughter is likely to blurt out that she doesn’t like me when I punish her (and after I punish her she is quick to repeat back to me, “I forgive you, too”). I can admit when I’m wrong and have those kinds of discussions with her and Pax. We can work together at this thing called family, so we all feel safe.