Parental Authority

I was eating lunch in a park today, and happened to sit near enough to overhear the conversation of two men nearby. One was apparently about to enter the military (probably the US Army) and was asking the other about his experiences. The other was happy to oblige, and spent some time on how leadership works in a platoon. He particularly noted how if the platoon leader is too weak or too strong, it interferes with the ability of people above and below to lead as well. (This is good general leadership advice.)

However, he described one of his previous platoon leaders in an interesting way:

His mistake was that early on he tried to be friends with his soldiers, and from then on he never really had control. I ended up having to be the one to step in and say “no, that’s not okay”. The platoon really needed a mother—you know, someone who could lay down the law—and he was trying to be the father, the cool one who gives you gifts and stuff.

(…paraphrased, of course. I wasn’t going to take notes and I certainly wasn’t going to try to record the conversation.)

This threw me for a loop when I (over)heard it. Normally when someone is said to be a mother figure for a group, it’s about being nurturing, or making sure everyone is accounted for, or maybe cleaning up after the group. The “father” side isn’t quite as surprising, but still in a stereotypical family dynamic (e.g. all the kids’ books I read that were written in the 50s) I expect the father to be the one “laying down the law”. So for this man—presumably no younger than me, given his military service history, though I didn’t actually check—to be using “mother” and “father” to evoke nearly opposite stereotypes from mine…

I don’t have a great conclusion here. I always enjoy gender stereotypes getting broken, but this isn’t exactly that—they’re both drawn from the stay-at-home mother and the working father. But it was an interesting moment nonetheless.