Keeping the Balance


There are a couple of interesting new posts regarding a topic that is dear to my heart: trying to keep a balance between your work life and your family life. Fred Wilson writes about a lecture he attended a few years ago at which the speaker said that if you don’t connect deeply with your kids before they become teenagers, you never will. I bet now the applicable age is even younger. Kids grow up so fast these days. One day they are learning to ride a bike and the next day they are heading to a friend’s house for their 3rd sleepover of the week.

As my kids move into primary and elementary school, I’ve noticed all levels of parental involvement, from almost none (my kids have some friends whose parents we have never met, but whose nannies we know well) to very involved (which is the position we and our close friends have achieved and work hard to maintain). Some folks won’t like to hear this, but based on my experience the more involved parents have the happier kids. I’m talking happy here, not well behaved. My kids, while very happy, are not always so well behaved, but (most of the time) I’ll take that trade. A kid may listen to her 24/7/365 nanny, but I can’t help but believe on some level she wonders where her parents fit in the equation. To be clear, I am not equating nannies with uninvolved. Lots of involved parents have nannies. Lots of uninvolved parents have them too. The test is whether or not the nannies are accretive (good) or parent-substitutes (not good).

Complicating things is the fact that when it comes to connecting with your kids, you only get once chance and then only for a short time. I feel like my oldest (now 7) was born a couple of years ago. I feel like my youngest (now 4) ought to be maybe 18 months. If you don’t show them from day one that you are very interested in them and their daily activities, you’ll lose that important connection. I have seen it happen with guys I know who never intended to ingore their kids- their kids just grew up while they were working on some deal (or more accurately a series of deals). It wasn’t an intentional thing. But it happened and now there’s no way to get it back.

So how hard is it? Maybe it’s me, but I sense that people in general are pretty understanding in 2005 if you aren’t available on a certain date due to a family event (I refuse to use the word obligation). When I first had kids, I felt a little uneasy telling someone I couldn’t make a meeting because I had to go to a soccer game or ballet recital. Even now it feels residually odd. But I (and lots of other big firm lawyers I know) do it fairly regularly. We do it because if we don’t we’ll miss out on those special memories that bond families together. Not because they are related, but because they are a family in every sense of the word. Plus, it’s fun to see your kids play or dance or swim. I can’t think of one time where a client has reacted badly to it, nor can I think of one deal I lost because of it. In fact, most of my clients are committed dads who appreciate my priorities. The lawyers who work with (for) me know that it’s not only OK to make a soccer game, it’s expected. If we have to work a little later that night after the kids go to bed, that’s just fine. Improved technology makes it much easier now to be efficient and productive from home. My colleagues know that if need be, I’ll review a document or respond to an email after 10:00 p.m. Better that than for all of us to miss the dance recital or swim meet.

Fred’s post cites another post by Brad Feld. Brad writes a great post about failing and then finding balance. Brad sets forth a 5 part plan he uses to create balance. While there’s little I can add to his ideas, I have a couple of additional things I try to do to keep a deep connection with my kids.

1) I try to never, ever blow them off when they want to tell me something or show me something. It blows my mind how often I see (even good) parents blow their kids off. Soon enough my kids won’t want to tell me anything as daddy transforms from best friend to teenager fun police. So I try to treat every single story as a blessing. I try to ask questions- not throw away questions, but real ones to show that I am listening and I care. It sounds cliche, but this one trick works wonders when I remember to do it well.

2) I try to spend some one on one time with each child at least every other week. We are blessed to be a part of a wonderful group of families who do family-oriented things en masse several times a week. But it’s also good to go one on one with a kid on a regular basis, so she can get all of my attention. My kids know they are lucky to be part of the “tribe,” but they also look forward to our Saturday lunches at our “secret place” (a local hamburger joint).

3) I try to let my kids be kids. There seems to be a movement lately to make kindergarten on up into some sort of Harvard-light. I want my kids to do well in school (trust me), but I also want them to have fun. There will be plenty of time to obsess about academics later. Go play. Catch a frog. Set up a lemonade stand.

I don’t do these things perfectly all the time. But I try hard to do my best, and I believe one day my kids will look back happily at the stuff we did together. I am sure they won’t look back and wish I had worked harder or closed more deals. Yes, balance is a hard thing to achieve in this highly competitive rat race that most of us run. But it’s too important not to try and you only have once chance to do it.

Here comes my daughter with a deck of cards. Time for some Go Fish. Maybe tonight daddy can win his first game of the week.

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