Your Children Are Listening More Than You Realize

by Dennis Miller

Children listening to parents

The world was different before the invention of effective birth control. I had three children at age 22.

My wife and I were primarily raised by our grandparents – we were scared. What did we know about parenting?

Dr. Benjamin Spock’s best-selling book, “Baby and Child Care” touted, “mothers know more than you think you do”. What about fathers? You did what you thought was right and hoped for the best. It might take decades before you knew if you did a good job.

My oldest son Dean is in his late 50’s. He’s a high achiever; graduating second in his class at the Naval Academy, master’s degree in nuclear engineering from MIT, and served as a submarine officer. He’s now pursuing his bike racing hobby, having cashed out when the company he worked for was sold.

He recently remarked, “Many times my employee counseling sessions would begin with, ‘One thing my father told me…’”

Wow – I was shocked! He reminded me of experiences from 50 years ago.

I said I might need a pinch hitter for a column as I’m going through chemo/radiation. I asked him to jot down some of those sayings and how he used them. He grinned and said, “Sure, why not?” I gave him free hand and off he went. Take it away Dean…

Dean Miller here. I’m excited to share some of the childhood lessons that I drew upon during my career. I’m a believer that core values, ethics and a sense of right and wrong are generational values. Both mom and dad shared similar core values so their messages were consistent. I appreciate how much we carry our parents in our hearts and minds every day of our lives.

While I might embarrass dad, MarketWatch called him a “RetireMentor”. I feel that is incorrect. For whatever reason, he looked at his job as mentoring my entire life. My siblings and I have discussed how we “did not like his lectures” when we were young, but how much we appreciate them today.

I jotted down some of those sayings. As I became older, and my parents wiser, my conclusion was that many of these sayings communicated enduring generational values. I felt compelled to continue the cycle of passing them onto others.

“I believe a person who only spells a word one way is inflexible.”

On the surface, it looks like my father was making an excuse for being a notoriously poor speller. I later realized he meant this in a much larger context.

The most poorly written report, authored by the least educated person, might contain the best solution to a problem. Don’t reject it for the wrong reasons.

As a junior naval officer, I was in the engine room of a nuclear-powered submarine – along with the engineer (my boss), the Captain and several enlisted personnel ranging from very junior to our senior chief. It was my problem to solve and I wasn’t sure what to do; all eyes were upon me. I don’t know what prompted me to ask the senior chief, “What do you think?”

He smiled, and with his South Carolina drawl replied, “I reckon this is what we should do…” As I listened, I looked at the Engineer and Captain. They were nodding in agreement – he was spot on. His experience was invaluable. I responded, “Good idea, do it!”

Unfortunately, some people today may look down at others because they did not go to college, (or the right college) and think they are stupid. That is a mistake. Lack of formal education does not mean stupid, nor does an educational pedigree mean a person is smarter than everyone else.

“It doesn’t matter what you say. It matters HOW you say it.”

I was having one of those unbelievable strong gut reactions while talking with my boss. He repeated, “They just need to thicken their skin, listen and learn.” I was struggling to control my frustration. I believe to be most effective as a leader, we need to alter our style to effectively communicate with each person.

My mind flashed back to elementary school. I was trying to help my younger brother with his homework.

“But Dad, I am just trying to help him!”

“I know son. Why do you think your brother is so frustrated right now?”

“I don’t know.”

“What did you say?”

“I told him, ‘It’s easy. I know that you can do this.’”

“And that is when he got upset?”


“Son, this is what your brother heard. ‘I must be stupid because it is easy for you, but it is not easy for me.’”

“But that’s not what I said or I meant. I was trying to encourage him.”

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“I understand. In many situations it is not WHAT WE SAY, BUT HOW WE SAY IT. Put yourself in their shoes and think what the other person may hear. The minute you said ‘it’s easy’ he stopped hearing you.”

“But I don’t know what to say.”

“How about, ‘I know this is frustrating. I’m happy to help, we will figure this out together.’”

“Thanks, I will try.”

Boom! Back to the moment with my boss. I had to rethink what I heard. I realized getting employees up to speed in a comfortable manner was the goal – not trying to re-train my boss. I asked, “What if I take the lead on this and try it my way?” “Good Luck!”, was his response! Some stories have a happy ending, just like it did with my brother! (He played college baseball and was his school’s first Academic All American.)

“Be careful, you can go broke saving money.”

I heard this cautious phrase many times growing up; generally, after a shopping trip excitedly discussing how much money “we saved”. Dad would caution, “Be careful son, you can go broke saving money” – followed by a reiteration of wants versus needs. Little did I know….

A few decades later, I was a manager at a medium-sized company involved with an urgent project to evaluate the potential acquisition of a competitor. The business broker said the asking price was significantly below fair market value, implying a terrific bargain because the seller was motivated.

After analyzing the opportunity, I opposed the acquisition. Their technology was inferior to ours. They were not developing new technology. We had taken significant market share from this competitor over the past year and I felt the trend would continue.

I presented my rationale during our meeting. My immediate boss agreed, but others, including the COO and CEO, did not. Before ending the meeting, the COO asked, “Does anyone have anything to add?” I said “Yes.”

I continued “One of my father’s favorite sayings was, ‘Be careful son, you can go broke saving money.’ I feel we are in one of those situations. Snapping up a bargain could prevent us from the acquisition that is truly needed for this business. I request that we take one more night to think about this and reconvene early in the morning for a decision.”

I had a knot in my stomach, the room was dead silent! Finally, the COO said, “Okay, let’s do that.”

I walked in my boss’s office and looked at her. “Well?” “I think you got their attention” was her reply.

The morning meeting was short; unanimous agreement that we should not pursue the opportunity. I smiled to myself thinking about how my father’s lesson had helped me. And yes, we did find a company that was developing the right technology for the business and acquired it for a fair price within a year.

“There is a big difference between being right and dead right.”

I saved the best for last. I found myself thinking about this phrase often when I was the COO of a small company. Many times, I could have used my positional authority to quickly get things done. This may have been convenient in the short run, but with significant negative long-term consequences.

I joined a small company and realized their current product expiration dating system would eventually lead to problems. I expressed my concern to my boss, the company founder, with my proposed solutions. He agreed. However, when I brought the changes up with other managers, there was a lot of resistance.

I was frustrated. The required process changes were minimal. While the problems would not be catastrophic if they occurred, I struggled to understand why they wouldn’t want to prevent a problem versus react to one.

I was confident I could push through the changes if I wanted. Once again, a flashback – “There is a big difference between being right and dead right.” I ended the meeting commenting, “Okay, we are not ready as a company to make this change.”

Two years later my prediction came true. I had since been promoted to COO. A good action plan was drawn up by the manager; including the change that I previously proposed. Problem solved.

I never mentioned the prior discussion. Being “dead right” was not as important as the positive working relationship that developed among our management team. The company grew from 5 to 55 employees in about ten years.

A personal note

I want both of my parents to be assured we listened to them, probably more than they realized. Their core values, work ethic, and never-ending love will be passed down for many generations.

Dad, thanks for the opportunity to pinch hit. It was fun!

For more information, check out my website or follow me on FaceBook.

Until next time…





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