The Price We Pay

This post is about fatherhood, the most challenging leadership role I’ve ever possessed.

For several decades I’ve been inspired by Peter Drucker and W. Edward Deming. Drucker’s approach to management, and Deming’s ideas on quality improvement are not just inspiring, but revolutionary. My early involvement in EMS led me to find ways to improve the fledgling profession, as well as inspire professionalism. As I aged, I found myself increasingly in leadership roles.

A few months ago my friend Paul introduced me to the idea of a “Just Culture.” This takes Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) to the next level. It expands the ideas and moves forward with a philosophy that inspires and rewards good systems, good behavior, and yet still effectively deals with human error, mistakes, risky behavior, and reckless behaviors. But this post is not about management, EMS, or CQI. This post is about fatherhood and parenting.

I’ve been reading a great book that my friend Paul gave me. It’s called Whack-a-Mole: The Price We Pay for Perfection, by David Marx, a systems engineer who founded Outcome Engenuity, Inc. Though I’m less than half-way through the book, I began to immediately see the implications to parenting – and here’s why….

It seems that men in this culture are always under pressure. (Not that women aren’t, I just won’t speak for them.) In fact, it seems that fathers in particular are very impatient. We speak harshly, not with any malice, but because we are task-oriented, busy, and tired. The tired part compounds the busy and task-oriented parts.

“it seems that fathers in particular are very impatient”

Just this weekend, while camping at Fort Stevens, I heard a great many men speak harshly to their wives and children. Not only did it bring back memories of my own childhood, but made me cringe with self-reflection.





Tent CampingTwo campsites over a woman told her husband that she was going to the bathroom. His reply was classic: “OK! Then GO!” I understood him and I would not be offended if he were speaking to me. This is where men and women differ. When it is just us guys out on the job site, we don’t tell each other about our potty-breaks – and no one really cares. Women on the other hand tend to keep each other informed and are more inclined to not want to offend each other.

As I watched the scenario unfold in the neighboring campsite, I determined he was more impatient with her timing than with the task – nonetheless, she cowered and scurried to the restroom 50 yards away. I quickly put myself in their situation. If my Wonderful Wife had waited to go to the bathroom after I got in my truck, that would bother me too. If she had gone before I got in the truck, I could have kept fiddling with other tasks (eg; make kindling, sweep the tent, make a cup of coffee, knit a hat, build a fort, go for a hike – whatever….). But waiting until I get in the truck, and I’ll just sit there for the five or ten minutes it takes her to walk to the restroom and back. In this case it was timing.

Because we are task-oriented, we don’t like to just sit. We are always busy – even if our task is mindlessly unimportant. We also like to plan ahead. If I saw my wife going to the bathroom while I was still getting ready myself, I could easily figure out some more tasks to complete while I waited. But when I’m already in the truck, already on my bike, or already walking out of the restaurant – well, noW I’m left hanging.

So, why can’t we just chill?

Seriously? Why can’t we just hangout in the car, cool our heels outside the restaurant, or walk with our beautiful wives to the restroom. (There’s a good chance we could use the loo too, right?) I think it is because we are tired and generally we forget our wives (and kids) are more relational and tender than we are. According to John Eldredge and the movie Fireproof, women want to be cherished. Men forget this. We are idiots. We forget we aren’t on the job site anymore.

“For me to be an effective father and husband, I’m going to have to seriously retrain myself.”

That’s where the Whack-a-Mole book comes into play. On the book’s website, they invite you to take the Whack-a-Mole Challenge. In the book, Marx lays out a simple paradigm:

  • Console human error
  • Coach at risk behavior
  • Punish reckless behavior
  • and all of this is independent of outcome

Whack-a-Mole: The Price We Pay For Expecting Perfection

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So, when I think of being a Dad and Husband, I want to put this form into play. If my kids are simply being kids (eg; spilling milk, breaking toys, or accidentally hurting themselves or their siblings), then I merely console them. Kids will be kids and mistakes happen. I want my kids to grow up in a home where it’s OK to make mistakes. Regardless of the damage done, or the cost, if it was simple human error, then I just console them (and me!).

“Reading this book has inspired me to be more patient, more understanding of mistakes, and more aware of the type of behavior exhibited.”

  • When I see my Smiling 4yo Son running full speed down our gravel driveway, I grow concerned. Having lived about 50 years longer than him, I know that people sometimes fall when they run, especially downhill – and gravel driveways make all this worse. So, I coach him to “be careful,” but he really doesn’t have any context for this phrase – so I try to help him understand, kindly, and in a way he can understand. I not only hate to see him hurt, but emergency department visits are inconvenient and expensive.
  • As my kids get older, gain confidence and independence, they are more likely to engage in reckless behaviors. According to Marx, reckless behavior is not ignorance, but willful. When people (eg; children, spouses, or employees) know the consequences and risks, but engage in that behavior anyway, there are consequences – or punishment. Even when there is no harm caused – the punishment needs to fit the behavior, not the outcome.

All of the above is administered equitably and justly – regardless of the outcome. In other words, if my child spills milk, due to simple human error, I don’t scream at him, spank her, or administer some other form of punishment. It is simple human error. Offer consolation and move on. If they continue to place their milk glass near the edge of the table at are continually at risk of spilling their milk, then I coach them on their behavior – whether the milk spills or not.

  • However, after they have grasped the concept and they understand the risks, but continue to treat their milk glass in a reckless manner, they need to have appropriate punishment administered – whether the milk spills or not.

Reading this book has inspired me to be more patient, more understanding of mistakes, and more aware of the type of behavior exhibited. So, if my wife decides to go to the rest room right after I get in the truck – according to the Whack-a-Mole Challenge – I’m likely to make the same mistake – and I can’t punish her for behavior that I’m inclined to make also.Day 39 :: my own worst enemy


I’ve noticed some parents who yell at their kids for simple kid-like mistakes – for instance, when they accidentally spill their milk. Some husbands show great impatience with their wives when they make simple errors that have poor outcomes. Most of us fail to realize that mistakes are common. People seem to focus on the outcome – if something breaks – then the wrath comes. But according to Marx, we need to focus on the behaviors – independent of outcome.

For me to be an effective father and husband, I’m going to have to seriously retrain myself. This starts with being well rested, putting the loved ones in my life above the tasks, and ignoring the outcomes. I want to do this – and I’m curious to see how the rest of the book will help me apply these principles.

What about you? Do these principles ring any bells in your life? Are you the type of person who focuses on behaviors, or outcomes?

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  1. Mike Hansen says:

    Interesting traits that have grown into my character as a husband and father are those of patience and shifting of expectations. I learn to pick the battles, the least of which are the battles in my own mind. I try, sometimes not successfully, to get some perspective of the reality of the moment-does it really make a big difference in the larger scheme of things to get angry or frustrated? And more often than not the answer is NO.

    1. gwalter says:

      Indeed. It is one of my more selfish reasons to get married in the first place – that is, character development.

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