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Parenting through the pandemic

A conversation about work-life integration with a Wharton leadership professor who has spent his career studying the topic

Stew Friedman

“In these pandemic times, when the physical boundary between work and family has disappeared, these kinds of conversations are more important than ever.”—Stew Friedman

Coronavirus has compressed all the different parts of our lives into one place—the home. So Shaun consulted with an expert in work/life integration on how to navigate our new reality. How does one cope when work demands happen alongside family demands? And what’s more important, quantity or quality of time spent with children? Stew Friedman is an emeritus professor at Wharton business school. He founded the Wharton Leadership Program and its Work/Life Integration Project. He’s also a bestselling author and the coauthor of this spring’s fascinating book, Parents Who Lead. Listen to Eat Move Think on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play or your favourite podcast platform. And in the meantime, following are some of the key points that Shaun and Stew made during their conversation.


With travel gone, and with all activities and sports practices suspended for children, we’re all spending more time with our families than ever before. That can lead to friction between generations, spouses, siblings, yes, but it’s also a chance to address the challenges. Probably the single most valuable epiphany Stew suggested is to consider the pandemic as an opportunity—for parents to improve their relationships with their children. To do that, consider the following:

Determine your family’s core values. “For us, our core values were fairness and justice,” says Friedman. Have each person in the family write down their core values. Next, create a leadership vision for your desired future. After you’ve written these thoughts down individually, come together and write a collective leadership vision for your family. What does an ideal day look like—morning, noon and night? Who’s doing what, with what impact? What’s your legacy? What’s your “why”? This may not be an easy exercise for your family—often when everybody comes together, they don’t want the exact same thing. So this may be a real challenge, for you to figure out how to come together, how to be curious, collaborative, committed and compassionate in your conversations with your partner and your children. But by figuring out what your ideal day looks like, it tells you what you most care about and gives you a sense of purpose, direction and control.

 Everyone’s different. The hardest aspect of the whole game of leadership in parenting is loving people for who they are—especially your kids. Every child is different and what each one needs from you is different. “This was our mantra when our kids were young,” says Friedman, who suggests an exercise for parents seeking to improve their acceptance of their children. Write down what you think each of your children needs from you. Then, compare your thoughts with your partner’s. You may realize that your views are very different. “People are often quite surprised to understand what their partners think about their children,” says Friedman. Next, sit down with your kids and have the same discussion. Hear directly from them what they expect from you—and see how that lines up with what you imagined they expected from you. The more you can treat each child as an individual, the more likely it is that each one of them is going to get along with the rest of the family. Finally, resist the impulse to make judgements. They’re never going to be the person you want them to be. They’re going to be themselves. This is a key leadership idea; you’ve got to accept people for who they are and help them improve in the direction that they want to go.

 It’s never too late to be the kind of parent you want to be. Start with today. Try not to dwell on what you could’ve already done. It’s hard to avoid those feelings, but what we have to do as leaders is see things as clearly as we can right now and find some reason for some sliver of optimism and hope. Your main contribution as the leader of your family is to say: “Here’s where we are today, and here’s what a better tomorrow looks like, not just for me, but for us, as a family. And here are some things we can do right now to help us move toward that. Are you in?” That’s an important dialogue to have—and it’s never too late to have it.

It’s quality of time—not quantity—that matters. One of the things that’s true especially in the digital era, Friedman says, is that if you’re physically present but psychologically absent—if you’re on your phone while you’re with your child, no matter what the age, but especially when they’re young—they know it, they feel it and they are hurt by it. Just being physically present is not the answer. Have dinner together or go for a hike together—device free. And when you are together, be connected. Find small ways of engaging to help your children understand that they’re the most important thing to you. Let them know that you’ll do anything you can to help them in any way that you can, given the limits of your resources. This is especially important now, during the pandemic, as children have fear and anxiety about the uncertain future. The key is to be there for your children, to let them know you care about them and to listen to them, and to honour whatever it is that they bring you in terms of their needs and interests.


Please subscribe and rate us on your favourite podcast platform. Follow Stew Friedman on Twitter @StewFriedman. Buy his book, Parents Who Lead, at Amazon or Indigo. Eat Move Think host Shaun Francis is Medcan’s CEO and chair. Follow him on Twitter @shauncfrancis. Connect with him on LinkedIn. And follow him on Instagram @shauncfrancis. Eat Move Think is produced in conjunction with Ghost Bureau.

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