Lessons About Life & Leadership From Parenting a 13-Year-Old

I’ve previously written blogs about incredible life and leadership lessons I’ve been gifted from my son, Peyton. And I know I’m not alone. When I’m doing developmental work with leaders, I regularly hear comments from them on how applicable the skills and tools are to parenting; it’s not in a paternalistic or condescending way but more about how we support the potential and growth in the people we care about in this world. 

Today, my son became a teenager (where does the time go?!). So, I thought I’d reflect on some impactful lessons I’ve learned about life and leadership so far from being a mom to this amazing dude.

LESSON 1: Be an Advocate for Yourself and Others

From the moment I found out I was pregnant, I started learning how critical it is to advocate for yourself and advocate for others who may be unable to advocate for themselves.

  • I had to switch doctors after my first visit when I was pregnant to find someone who knew how to partner with female athletes. Not that I considered myself an athlete, but as an avid exerciser, I knew as soon as the physician assistant started preaching outdated exercise advice that she would not be a fit for me. 
  • While I was in labor with my son, I knew he was in distress and the staff were trying to keep me calm and downplay it. But I also told them I needed them to be honest with me and not bulls$^t me (I probably didn’t say it that nice at the time – LOL). I demanded they be upfront with me about what was happening and include me in the discussion, not talk around me.
  • When Peyton was in preschool, we were diligent about his diet due to significant health challenges he had. When an outside school health consultant (who knew nothing about Peyton’s situation) tried to lecture us about his nutrition and dictate changes, let’s just say mamma bear took over pretty quickly. I was not about to let an uninformed individual pass judgment or dictate what my son consumed based on cookie-cutter guidelines.
  • Fast forward to last year when Peyton was in his first year of middle school and trying to navigate a lot of changes and a lot of responsibilities. He advocated for himself with his taekwondo master and swimming coaches to find a better balance between being involved in these sports and having sanity – and he was only 12 years old! (you can read that blog here)

There are countless other examples I could think of, and each of these got me thinking…How often do we sit back and say nothing rather than make a change we know will serve us or others better in the long run? Maybe we’re afraid of being labeled as difficult or don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Or maybe we’re afraid of being told “no” or being rejected. But what I’ve learned is that when we advocate for what we need, more often than not, we are able to get those needs met; so why not at least try instead of holding back and silencing yourself?

LESSON 2: Listen to Your Gut

Most of us have some sort of “Spidey Sense” but many of us don’t always pay attention to it. After many, many hours of being in labor with Peyton, the nurses were stumped that I wasn’t dilating at all; something just didn’t seem right to them – or me. Finally, around 7 a.m. as one of the night-shift nurses was getting ready to leave, she came in and asked me if I had had some specific previous medical procedures; I confirmed that I had those procedures in the past. 

You see, her gut told her something was off and this might be the case. And, what we learned in that moment is that, when I switched clinics, despite requesting all of my records be transferred, they weren’t. So critical aspects of my medical history were not conveyed. That nurse was then able to do a simple procedure to start finally allowing my labor to progress. She could have ignored it and gone home, but she didn’t.

And for the first few years of Peyton’s life, we knew something wasn’t quite right with him. However, every specialist kept coming back with the same conclusion – that nothing was wrong with him. Finally, by the time he was almost 5 years old, we found a specialist who had some hunches of what might be causing all of Peyton’s health challenges. I’ll never forget the day she called me to discuss his blood work; he was stumping a team of pathologists at the University of Minnesota. I had both a sense of relief (that I wasn’t crazy) and worry (about how serious his condition was). Had I not listened to my gut, who knows if we’d still be taking countless ambulance rides and sick days and draining our HSA account.

Here’s the thing…I’ve coached countless leaders who talk about having a gut feeling that an employee isn’t the right fit – either when interviewing someone for a role or when dealing with performance or behavioral issues with someone. But then they ignore it; and then it doesn’t take long before they’re struggling and wishing they would’ve listened to their gut in the first place. 

It can be so easy to be disconnected from our inner voice – where we ignore it and convince ourselves to listen to something other than our own wisdom. But what if we started slowing down enough to listen to ourselves more? We might find we make better decisions and have less unnecessary struggle along the way.


LESSON 3: We Can Call Others to Greatness at ANY Age

It’s not uncommon to think of leadership and parenting as a one-way path for growth and guidance. However, I have learned countless lessons from my son when he has called me to greatness and reminded me to be present rather than work, paying attention to what matters most, and reminding me of my promises and commitments. He’s also called his teachers and coaches to greatness when he has been on the receiving end of instructions that aren’t clear or don’t make sense or guidance or redirection that wasn’t fair.

I have also learned so many lessons from people whom I’ve had the privilege of leading over the years. Age or position has nothing to do with who can show up as a leader in their life. We all have an opportunity to support others and call them to greatness by being clear and compassionate at the same time; we simply have to believe we can make a difference and choose to use our voice to make a positive impact.


LESSON 4: Letting Our Uniqueness Shine is a Gift

As kids, our biggest needs are love and belonging. We want to be honored for who we are while also feeling like we belong. At some point, our self-protective instincts kick in and we start putting on masks and armor to hide our flaws and inadequacies, pretending to be something we’re not, and dim our sparkle to try to fit in.

Watch any middle schooler, and you’ll hear the insecurities run rampant. The thing is, many adults are being run by that insecure childhood version of themselves and don’t even realize it. We’ve had various instances where Peyton gets sucked into situations where friends are making fun of another kid and using hurtful labels and names. Each time, we try not to shame him; instead, we try to use it as a teaching moment about our differences and how we all have qualities that make us unique – not better or worse than others.

When we are insecure, we behave in all kinds of ways that aren’t helpful and increase our disconnection from others. But when we let our own sparkle shine, we give others permission to do the same. One thing that makes me unique is that I can remember a crazy amount of song lyrics and can turn most any event into a dance party. When I was waiting to push out Peyton, I had nothing else to do so started rapping “Baby Got Back”…

So your girlfriend rolls a Honda. Playing workout tapes by Fonda. 

But Fonda ain’t got a motor in the back of her Honda.

My anaconda don’t want none unless you’ve got buns hun!

Oh yes, I DID go there! I remember the delivering physician saying, “Well that’s something we’ve never had before.” To which I replied, “well you’ve never had ME on your delivery table before!” I’m pretty sure that became a memorable moment for all and was a relief after a stressful labor.

Maybe we’re not all going to bust out into a rap or song. But just imagine if we all started owning who we are – flaws and all – and created courageous spaces where masks and armor were no longer necessary or rewarded. What a gift that would be! I know I certainly want that future for Peyton where he can be himself and let his awesome sparkle shine in his own authentic way.


LESSON 5: We Need to Give Ourselves & Others Permission to FEEL

Most of us were likely not taught growing up to be curious about, talk about and process our emotions. Consequently, we deny ourselves and one another the permission to feel. We suck it up, avoid difficult conversations, explode at loved ones, stress eat or drink without knowing why, and the list goes on and on. We lose the ability to even identify what we’re feeling and go a little numb inside; when this happens, there’s a long list of unwanted outcomes that follow.

I’ll admit, one of the hardest things as a parent is when your child is hurting; it’s natural to want to jump in and make things better. But leaning into tragic optimism (where we silver-line things and brush aside unpleasant emotions) isn’t helpful at all. Giving people space to feel whatever it is they’re experiencing is a critical part of the process of building self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and building the skills to show up as a leader in life.

Our world is really hard right now, and hearts are hurting. Not acknowledging that only perpetuates people not feeling heard and seen. What we can do is lean into each other and hold space for ourselves and others to sit with our feelings and experiences; that is the only path to coping and building resilience.


LESSON 6: Who We Spend Our Time with Matters

It doesn’t matter how old we are, who we spend our time with matters. We can choose to be sucked in by energy vampires who dim our sparkle and brighten the room when they leave; or we can set boundaries and hold space for people who are energy-givers and with whom we can let our sparkle shine.

During Covid, we were spending time with people in close proximity because of convenience. And, we learned that some of the people were energy vampires. Once we put boundaries in place and limited interaction, we found things dramatically improved – for Peyton and us.

The same holds true for workplaces. Because culture is EVERYONE’s responsibility, every single one of us can either contribute to or contaminate the workplace culture. We regularly hear leaders and team members complain about the people who are negative and contaminate the workplace culture. Yet, these behaviors are being ignored because these energy vampires might do good work otherwise, or the department might be already short staffed, or the leader doesn’t feel they have the time to hire and onboard someone new. But that energy is toxic and will spread and either turn the culture contributors negative or lead to them leaving.

It’s time to start setting boundaries and being really clear about what behaviors are and aren’t okay; then we can surround ourselves with people who contribute to making us and others better. Whether it’s in our personal or professional lives, it makes a difference.


LESSON 7: Asking for Help is a Sign of STRENGTH

Over the past few years, one consistent piece of feedback continues to emerge about Peyton during school conferences…he needs to ask for help more. He tries to figure things out on his own or doesn’t want to bug the teacher, so he ends up frustrated and struggles sometimes more than he needs to. Unfortunately, I know where he got this from…

I know I’ve been guilty of this more times than I care to recall. When my self-limiting narrative hijacks me, the hyper independent part of me kicks in. The problem is that in this do-it-myself mode, I take on WAY more than I can handle and then become frazzled, disconnected from those who matter most to me, and end up sacrificing the things that are critical in order for me to show up as the best version of myself.

And I have worked with countless others who also have this do-it-myself mentality. We are not meant to go it alone. Asking for help is a sign of strength and that we’re willing to learn and grow and let others contribute to us. Being over capacity, frustrated, and isolated doesn’t serve anyone well. Instead, when those hyper-independent tendencies try to take over, we can remind ourselves to lean into others and be in community.


LESSON 8: Growth > Perfection Any Day of the Week

In our society, the narrative of perfection runs strong and deep. We convince ourselves that we have to be perfect to be “enough” and think that if we are perfect that we can somehow avoid judgment. Consequently, there is an unhealthy obsession with the end result where we miss the value of the journey along the way. After all, we learn more from our missteps and detours that from when things go perfectly.

On numerous occasions, I’ve heard Peyton stressing over getting B’s in school. I have to remind him that he’s only in middle school and is building habits to carry him into high school and college. I want him to focus more on the learning than the grade and know that the grades will follow. Each time something doesn’t go the way he wants – in school, in his activities, or elsewhere – it’s an opportunity to learn and adjust.

I’ve carried this to our team. Every Friday we have a brief huddle where we reflect on the week. In addition to celebrating the peaks and wins, we have F-Up Friday; we each share our biggest misstep or challenge from the week and what we learned from it. So many of our best improvements in processes, work flows and more have come from leaning into openly sharing our mess ups.

So the next time something goes astray, try finding the value in the learning that detour provides and how it can help foster growth – in people or processes. By leaning into growth instead of perfection, we create opportunities for us to become stronger, better versions of ourselves and set aside the masks and armor.


LESSON 9: There is Tremendous Power in Resets

Speaking of leaning into growth, we have to remind ourselves that we’re never going to be perfect. No matter how deliberate and intentional we try to be, our humanity will get the best of us. But we can always hit the “reset” button and start anew. And while it may not be an overnight process, it has tremendous value. So many times we may think we’re too far down one path to be able to course correct; however, the reality is that the costs will be usually much greater if we don’t make a shift.

Resetting has been a game changer in our house. When growing hormones get the best of Peyton and we’re hitting those challenging times in parenting, we call it and say we need to hit a reset. It’s a way of acknowledging that the path we’re on isn’t helpful or working and we need to course correct. What I love is that Peyton has now been calling for his own resets; in doing so, he’s acknowledging where he wants to start over and shift his attention and behaviors. (You can read more about the power of resets in this previous blog I wrote)


Putting These Lessons into Practice

I hope these lessons are helpful to you as you navigate the complex waters of life and choose to show up as a leader. As you do, I encourage you to reflect on how to apply these lessons in your own life:

  • Where can you be a stronger advocate for yourself and others?
  • Where have you been ignoring your gut, and what would open up for you if you listened to it a little more?
  • What opportunities do you have to give the gift of growth feedback and support others to step into their greatness?
  • Where have you been holding back your authentic self? How can you let more of your unique sparkle shine?
  • Where are you short-circuiting letting yourself or others feel?
  • Who are you spending your time with? Do they give you energy or suck the energy out of you?
  • Are there opportunities where you would benefit from asking for help but have been avoiding doing so?
  • What practice(s) can you put in place to embrace the squiggles, detours and missteps as opportunities for growth and let go of the myth of perfection?
  • Where have things been off-course for you (personally or professionally) or any teams you lead or are part of? What can you do to own it and hit a reset button?

I’d love to hear what’s opening up for you as you put these into practice.

Stay brave. Stay human. Stay safe. And never dull your sparkle!


1 Comment

  1. sgeneralDecember 6, 2023

    Nice article.keep up the good work


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