Saltshaker Parenting

A few months ago, I started a new job doing marketing for a company called Dynamic Directions. We do coaching and consulting for financial advisors, but are reaching into other industries as well. One of the cool things about the job is being exposed to lots of new ideas and concepts about business, leadership, entrepreneurship, etc. Many of the things I hear apply to many areas of life, not just business.

As part of the job, I’m reading a book called Setting the Table by Danny Meyer, a successful restaurateur in New York City. It’s a fascinating read about his philosophies of how and why he runs his restaurants. I highly recommend it for anyone in business, but again, the principles apply to more than just the business world. One in particular struck me the other night as perfect for parenting.

He talks about learning to lead his staff and instill his own drive for excellence in them. When they didn’t live up to his high standards – for setting the table exactly the right way, for treating guests with his standard of hospitality, etc. – he kept getting frustrated and upset, until a mentor in the restaurant business gave him an  illustration:


“First” he said, “I want you to take everything off that table except for the saltshaker  … leave the saltshaker by itself in the middle.” I moved it … to what looked to be smack-dab in the center. As soon as I removed my hand, he pushed the saltshaker three inches off center.
“Now put it back where you want it,” he said. I returned it to dead center. This time he moved the saltshaker another six inches off center, again asking, “Now where do you want it?”

I slid it back. Then he explained his point. “Listen. Your staff and your guests are always moving your saltshaker off center. That’s their job. Is is the job of life. It’s the law of entropy! Until you understand that, you’re going to get mad every time someone moves the saltshaker off center. It is not your job to get upset. You just need to understand: that’s what they do. Your job is just to move the shaker back each time and let them know exactly what you stand for. Let them know what excellence looks like to you. And if you’re ever willing to let them decide where the center is, then I want you to give them the keys to the store. Just give away the restaurant.”


That’s exactly like parenting. I’ve been frustrated lately because my kids don’t seem to be getting it. They
don’t obey right away, their table manners are atrocious, they pee in the yard, for crying out loud (and I’m not just talking about the boys). Two seconds after I tell them not to talk in that crazy voice, they’re doing it again. Five minutes after I ask them to clean up the garage, it’s still a royal mess.

Yes, some of it is simple discipline. But that doesn’t fix my attitude. I find myself getting frustrated and mad awfully quickly: Just do it the right way! I already told you! Why aren’t you listening to me?!?!?!?!

You know what? It’s not my job to get upset. I should expect things to not go well. They’re kids. They’re sinners. They’re going to disobey. They’re going to have accidents. They’re not going to listen.

Instead of getting upset (again), I need to move the salt shaker back to the middle.

It’s good to have high standards. God calls us to have expectations. But our kids are  not going to reach those standards the first time or the fifth time or even the tenth time. Meyer uses a technique he calls constant, gentle pressure to impart his standards for excellence, and I think it works for parenting too.

Constant, gentle pressure. Constant, because you can never give up – explain the standard every time. Gentle, because you don’t want to break them – don’t react from anger. Pressure, because you want them to reach the standards – excellence is obtainable.

Our kids are going to fail. So are we. (That’s why there’s a little thing called grace.) So next time, instead of getting mad, take a deep breath and move the saltshaker back to the center.

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