Three years ago I was lecturing in a class I’d been teaching for over a decade. I had Douglas McGregor, MIT Sloan School of Management professor in the 1960’s, on the board and his Theory X/Y summarized below his grainy black and white picture. I remember pointing out the differences between the opposite ends of the spectrum–Theory X on one end and Theory Y on the other–and as I hit my hand on the projector screen emphasizing why Theory X is negative and Theory Y is positive it hit me: this is parenting and I think I’ve been doing it all wrong. 

Management is just parenting styles.

Parenting is just management in action.

All of this stuff I’ve been teaching for twelve years was parenting preparation and I didn’t see it until my kids were 7, 10, 16 and 19.

I think I’m a Theory X parent in a Theory Y world. 

Theory X/Y

McGregor posited that management has two opposing set of assumptions about xyhow workers are motivated. Theory X managers stress the importance of using strict supervisory tactics, rewards that are external and punishments or penalties.They assume workers are lazy, unmotivated, lack ambition and need structure and close oversight. I think of this as old-school authoritarian, power-driven management. Theory Y managers are concerned with internally motivated workers who assume they are self-directed, energetic and seek responsibility and new challenges. They do not need close supervision and prefer to approach tasks from a learning stance. I think of this as optimistic participatory management.

Sometimes I have students take the Theory X/Y assessment and inevitable they come out in the middle. Meaning, sometimes people need a Theory X manager. For example, when they are new or inexperienced or genuinely not motivated to work. Other times, people need a Theory Y manager when they are actually self-motivated, like their job, are experienced and/or seek responsibility. In reality, both theories are needed in different situations, but the key is knowing when to apply each.


maslowTheory X/Y dovetails nicely into other major motivational theories such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Model. (Non-business people, just stick with me.) In the 1940’s Maslow proposed that people have a hierarchy of needs that starts with the most basic and as the basic needs are fulfilled, the type of need becomes more robust and enlightened. Needs are satisfied in sequence and if a lower need is suddenly unfulfilled, people will regress to the lowest need fulfilled. For example, I may be working toward finishing a college degree at night while working full time in my day job when suddenly I lose my job and now the need I’m most concerned with is not doing well in school, but finding a job that will keep me in my house and food in my refrigerator. I may be deeply concerned about recycling and sustainable gardening–higher order needs–until my husband gets sick–health is a lower order basic need–and then suddenly saving the planet with my potato scraps isn’t so important. You dig? (pun intended)





Hersey and Blanchard proposed a model that integrates both McGregor and Maslow called the Situational Leadership Model. Briefly, management style has nothing to do with the needs of the manager, only the readiness level of the employee. The management style enacted by a leader is completely dependent on the needs of the employee and there are four basic levels: telling, selling, participating and delegating. A new employee would need to have a directed approach to management. Tell them what to do, supervise directly, etc. Selling means an employee has a little knowledge but not enough to completely takeover the task. However, they may know enough about the job to ask why whereas someone in the previous stage would not. A little more experience would move an employee into the participating stage wherein they would expect to participate in the decisions, or at least would expect to have their opinion heard even if they do not have a final decision. Finally, someone with a lot of experience and motivation would move into the delegation phase where a manager would be expected to give almost zero direction and, instead, let the employee drive the process to completion.



So, back to the parenting tie in. As I looked at the list of Theory X management assumptions I found myself likening it to teenagers. Parents assume (and not exactly incorrectly) that they are lazy, lack ambition and avoid responsibility. Therefore, we resort to punishment and crack down on their freedom, take away phones and restrict screen time. We punish for bad grades and missed curfews, fowl language and messy rooms. We don’t live in a Theory X world and I don’t want to raise Theory X kids. I want to raise kids who think critically, which means they need the freedom to express thoughts that are undeveloped and immature in a safe environment. They need to learn how to test boundaries instead of blowing right through them–that takes courage. I can’t use Theory X parenting and expect a Theory Y kid.

I can’t use Theory X parents and raise a Theory Y adult.

Because the long game is what I’m aiming for, I have to think beyond Theory X behavior in order to encourage Theory Y adults to launch from my house.

We are a blended household and with that comes unique challenges. The temptation to tell kids more than they are ready for regarding parenting schedules and child support complications or letting one’s frustration boil over inappropriately. In other words, my job as a parent is to keep my kids’ lower order Maslow needs (physiological, safety, love & belonging) stable in order for them to explore higher order needs such as self-esteem and self-actualization. Self-actualization is otherwise known as developing integrity, morality, creativity and a love for learning. I’ve known people who are forever living in scarcity, there’s never enough money, love or physical satisfaction–a lack of lower order needs–and will never experience the joy of pursuing learning and growth opportunities.

In this way, if I raise Theory X kids who consistently live at the low end of Maslow’s needs, I’ll be sending adults into the world who will have a hard time being ready to live life successfully on their own. Meaning, they will exist in the telling and selling stages of Hersey and Blanchard and may get to participation but will doubt their own contributions to the larger whole. Delegation will be difficult because it will never have been modeled on a small scale where they can fail and learn.

For example, since this revelation a few years ago I’ve aggressively changed my approach to the three remaining kids in the house. When our second son worked his way through his last two years in high school, he struggled. Instead of using the hard core punishment approach to his low grades, we tried to give him opportunities to make decisions and choose consequences accordingly. Because taking away a phone or a car because of low grades doesn’t bring up the grades. It inconveniences us because we have to play taxi to and from work and school. We cannot communicate with him if he doesn’t have a phone and does it really matter if his room is a mess if I don’t have to go down there?

Instead, we let him make decisions appropriate to his age and held him to consequences. We use this with the younger girls as well. I can delegate decisions to them and they get to practice making decisions. All kids get to participate in family decisions but we have the final say. We work from the assumption that they are motivated, ambitions and seek responsibility in the things in which they are interested (which may not match our interests–room cleaning, for example). 

I write tonight to encourage you to consider your parenting styles. If you’re like me, you had to lighten up and let your kids screw up more. Perhaps your kid goes to a technical college instead of a four-year his freshman year? Maybe your daughter has to grow out her hair because you let her make the decision to cut her own hair. And, what if you let your 10-year old daughter decide to join the volleyball team even though you knew she’d be tired and stressed out because she’s never done a sport before now?

Our kids are kids for only a few years. I encourage you to think about leading as a parent now in order to prepare kids for the decades in which they will be adults. 

Reader question: I’d love to hear your reflections on parenting. Comment below.