Blink—And They're Grown

Parents, Families and Child Care

Backbone and Heart

It seems every conversation I’ve had this week has been around the concept of using backbone and heart. According to Mary Beth O’Neill’s book, Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart, “Backbone means knowing and clearly stating your position, whether it is popular or not. Heart is staying engaged in the relationship and reaching out even when that relationship is mired in conflict.” I’d never heard of this before beginning my master’s degree in Executive Coaching last fall, but ever since I learned about it, I’ve found myself applying it not only with the child care program administrators I coach, but in many of my relationships with adults.

Bringing backbone and heart can be challenging, especially for those of us who haven’t done it much. Up until a decade ago, even if I knew my position, and held strong convictions about it, I’d shrink back from stating it, especially if it was unpopular. And rather than staying engaged in relationships that were full of conflict, I’d disengage completely in order to avoid it. More times than not, that behavior did not serve me well.

Then I had my children. Realizing they needed a mom with enough backbone to stand up caused me to grow a spine, and my desire to model what healthy relationships look like has enabled me to work through conflict appropriately in order to maintain them. Thankfully I was able to learn these skills later in life. Now I’m determined to teach them to my children early on.

For instance, this past fall when my 10-year-old, Liv, was going on her fourth grade trip to Camp Kern, each student was guaranteed to be in a cabin with at least one friend of their choice. To ensure this, they were to submit a list of four friends. Liv wrote down four names and was about to turn it in when another girl saw it and begged Liv to add her because she’d put Liv on hers. Liv likes this girl, but not as much as the girl likes her, so she did not want to be in a cabin with her. But she didn’t state her position. She didn’t want to be mean or unkind and she was afraid. When I found out what happened, Liv refused to tell the principal because she didn’t want conflict. Of course it turned out that she ended up in a cabin with the girl and not one of her close friends. She was miserable the entire trip and ran from her group to join her friends every chance she got. At the end of the year there was a cabin reunion and Liv was reminded yet again how the trip she’d looked so forward to was less than she’d hoped because she hadn’t either gently told the girl she liked her but had already put down who she’d like to bunk with or been honest with the principal when asked if she was ok with things the way they were.

I understand how difficult speaking up one way or the other would have been for Liv but not getting to be with one of her BFFs was worse. Because she wasn’t able to bring backbone and heart to the situation at the time, she’ll always remember what it cost her. It was a hard lesson, but we’ve talked about it a lot and I’ve noticed that Liv is learning to bring backbone and heart to various situations. In fact, I couldn’t have been more proud of her when she was at her father’s on Mother’s Day and forgot the card she’d bought me at his house. While en route to me for the holiday, she remembered the card and asked to turn around for it. When this was met with resistance she held her ground and insisted he take her back (backbone). She also reminded him that it was, after all, her mom’s day, and the right thing to do (heart).

As much as I loved the card and its admonition for me to do whatever I wanted for the day, just as Liv will remember the time she didn’t use backbone and heart, my card will remind me of the time she did.

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