The Link Between Parenting and Leadership

Last Sunday morning, my 18-month-old grandson, Jonah, was scheduled to be the ring bearer at his aunt’s wedding. It was a tall order for a toddler to walk down the aisle carrying a ring successfully, especially since the ceremony was scheduled to start an hour later than Jonah’s usual morning nap. I could see him beginning to fray.

When the wedding procession began, Jonah was in it, but coming down the aisle, he was in the arms of his father, Phil, and alongside his mother, Kate. Jonah is a buoyant, joyful and social child, but the combination of fatigue and a large crowd challenged his limited resources.

Two thoughts occurred to me. One was how vulnerable and hungry for security and reassurance a child can feel in any moment. The other was that Jonah found it on this occasion in his father’s arms.

The scene also made me think about one of Paul Ryan’s nonnegotiable demands as Republicans were recruiting him to be speaker of the House. “I cannot and will not give up my family,” he said, referring to his wife and three children, ages 13, 11 and 10. As a congressman, Mr. Ryan regularly travels home to Wisconsin for three-day weekends. “It’s his oxygen to be here with his family,” his wife, Janna, said.

Mr. Ryan’s demands were met, and he was elected speaker of the House this week. I have no idea how much time he spends with his children, but I deeply believe – and a growing body of research confirms — that the more time and attention children get from their parents, the better off they will be in life.

Mr. Ryan negotiated well for himself and his family, but unfortunately, not for the rest of us.

The powerful new speaker does not support legislation that could make it easier for working parents to take better care of their children. The best example is the Family and Medical Insurance Leave bill, which would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave for employees to care for newborn children or address serious medical issues in the family. Mr. Ryan is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which has yet to take up the measure.

The United States is one of only three countries in the world that do not mandate leave for women after childbirth with at least some pay (the other two are Papua New Guinea and Suriname). A much smaller number of countries mandate a week or two of unpaid paternity leave for new fathers. The United States is not among them.

What’s the incentive for companies to step in where our government is falling so woefully short?

The argument on society’s behalf is clear and common sense. For better or worse, our children (and grandchildren) are our future. Thanks to the work of researchers such as John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, we know a great deal about how critical it is for each of us to build a basic level of trust and secure attachment with our primary caregivers early in our lives.

The more reliably children receive love, comfort, support and soothing from their primary caregivers– still most commonly their mothers — the more secure, healthy and effective they become in their lives.

My grandson Jonah receives an extraordinary amount of love and attention from his four grandparents, who live nearby, and it visibly fills him with delight. Still, when it comes to comfort and reassurance if he is upset, Jonah will almost invariably turn to his mother or father.

This is where the intersection between work and family life begins to get more interesting. On the one hand, research suggests that working parents who get paid leave when their children are born tend to build better bonds with them over time. Not surprisingly, children also fare better in life when they grow up with two involved parents.

On the other hand, as The New York Times reported last week, new research shows that boys struggle from any early disadvantage more than girls do, and notably so from the absence of an involved father. The reasons are complex, but one likely explanation is the absence of a male role model.

In homes in which fathers work long hours and take on limited family responsibilities, that becomes the norm for their sons. Indeed, most women still take on the primary responsibility for raising their children. As Robin J. Ely of Harvard Business School has found, many men often feel compelled to sacrifice their families to advance their careers, while many women feel compelled to give up or cut back their careers to take care of their children.

Companies suffer from the poor parental choices made by both genders.

Men, who are neither permitted nor encouraged to take parental leave, end up deprived of the early level of bonding that could help them become better fathers by building more capacity for caregiving, empathy, vulnerability, attunement and emotional connection.

Coincidentally, these are increasingly critical qualities for leaders operating in a highly networked global economy. It is scarcely a surprise that women, who are encouraged to nurture those qualities from early in their lives, are consistently rated by their employees as better leaders than men.

My daughter Emily lives in Amsterdam, and she is pregnant. Both she and her husband, Omri, are committed to equally sharing the responsibility of parenting. They have decided to continue living in the Netherlands, in part because government policies are much more family-friendly than in the United States. But an even bigger factor in their decision is that the culture in the Netherlands strongly supports a genuine balance between family and work for men and women.

I’m convinced that it will make Emily and Omri – and anyone else given that opportunity — better at both.