The Art Of War, drifting from music to parenting

Sun Tzu

Authors Note: This post is from June  of 2020, when the Howl At The Moon band in KC was formally disbanded due to Covid-19

Sun Tzu

The Art of War in Parenting

My buddy Drew recommended Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to me years ago.  He enjoyed framing the audience as the enemy to be conquered.  I’ve read The Art Of War three times now, each time with a different translation.

My first foray, I felt lost.  While I sensed that I was reading wisdom, the language was too stilted for me to appreciate.  Drew’s analogies seemed like a stretch, but I enjoyed searching for them.  This was also high tide for e-readers, and I’ve never been able to enjoy an e-book the same way as a traditional hold-in-your-hander.

I purchased The Art of War for Managers a few years ago.  The authors sprinkled in casual managerial lessons through-out, making finding the leadership lessons much easier.  By this time I was leading my band at Howl on a nightly basis.  I felt like I had “troops”, instead of being an army of one.  I enjoyed it, and I passed it on to one of my favorite band-mates, Sean.  Sean has been gracious to share stories about his Chinese heritage and trips to the mainland, and I’ve loved learning about China and Hong Kong through his experiences.  I’m always ready to bond over Chinese philosophy with Sean, or any philosophy for that matter.

Now, I have no band in a professional sense.  I’m reading the latest translation, the first by a woman, Michael Nylan.  I’m enjoying it immensely.  Nylan’s translation holds on it’s own; she hasn’t inserted any modern anecdotes as a crutch.  My mind constantly drifts towards having a band, and conquering a crowd.

For a time, I wanted to continue to use The Art of War in this manner, but now I’m picking up parenting tips.  Most recently, I found this passage:

In Warfare, there is

1.     Deserting

2.     Insubordination

3.     Peril

4.     Collapse

5.     Chaos

6.     Rout


These six are hardly due to natural catastrophes, they are the commander’s fault.

I was able to lightly ascribe these to leading a band, but they really hit home for parenting.  Any six of these is basically a failure of leadership.  Here we go.

Desertion follows one arm attacking another ten times it size, when the strategic advantages are equal on both sides.

             I’ve seen my kids give up or become frustrated when they feel completely outmatched by something.  This has happened only a few times in organized sports, but seems more likely in scenarios that challenge their intellect.  If it’s ten times beyond their understanding, they will abandon it.  It’s my responsibility as a parent to present challenges that will push them, not overwhelm them.

Insubordination follows when the infantry is eager to fight, but the officers are weak.

            This is my children failing to be patient when something they want is just out of their reach, and they take it without permission.  This can be theft, or commonly extra food in the kitchen.  My kids are probably testing boundaries, and also testing the consequences for their actions.  I need to give them a strong sense of integrity to keep them from making impulsive decisions, and give them comparable consequences when they give in quickly to temptation.

Peril follows when officers are eager to fight, but the food soldiers are weak.

            The metaphors get slippery when Sun Tzu seems to interchangeably use terms like rulers, generals, commanders, officers, and soldiers.  I rarely position myself as ruler, and most of the information in this book is for generals and warfare.  So let’s say in this example I’m an officer.  Peril happens when I shove my kids into an activity that they find frightening, but I don’t.  They are too scared to function.  This is similar to desertion, but not quite the same.    It’s okay for them to be challenged and out of their comfort zone, but I still need to teach them about fear, and Ideally coach them through it.  Even when attempting something dangerous, they should have a way to feel safe.

            Sometimes, I’m the thing that’s frightening to them.

Collapse comes when unbridled rage consumes a senior officer, so much that he moves with-out authorization to engage the enemy and fails to understand his capacities.

            The warning here is for me.   Do not loose cool.  I should be thoughtful, strategizing, and not lashing out at people when I fail.  My kids are watching.  They will collapse when they see me flailing.

Chaos comes when a weak commander fails to enforce the regulations and delvers instructions that are far from clear, so that his officers and men cannot be trusted and his military formations are in disarray.

            When my three kids play with their three cousins, chaos usually ensues, and we parents laugh and use that term lightly.  However, we bristle when we sense that our kids aren’t respectful, and their energy is out of control.  Are people are getting injured or property is being damaged?  It could be that I failed to adequately calculate the risk of the activities, or the chemistry between children is off.  They might need to be separated for their own well being, especially if disagreements are spiraling out of control and turning violent.

Rout comes when a commander proves incapable of assessing the enemy, so he sends a small force out to engage a large, a weak force to attack the strong, or he operates without crack troops as a backup.

            Bad planning led to total failure.  Nobody had fun, and the only thing we learned was that we should have had a better plan.  That’s a tough lesson, and I’m unsure how much my kids should be penalized for their perceived lack of a plan, especially if I’m supposedly in charge.

Reflecting back on this list, I find that some of these things are inevitable.  Making mistakes and failure is how we learn, even as parents.  I’ve undoubtedly experienced these six failures as a parent, but the true crime would to be refusing to learn from them.  The supreme lesson from the Art of War is that the best preparation will yield to no battle at all.  Conquer your enemy without fighting, before the battle ever began.

Paul will give a presentation about the Art of War: Onstage, July 8th at 2pm, at the Central Resource Library in Overland Park.