Are We Living Up To The “E-Word?”

For the last twenty years or so, the word “empowerment” has been on everyone’s lips – from teachers to managers, to commanding officers.   I recall running strategy workshops for various military organizations twenty years ago and more and, as they were developing their visions (they already had missions) we then asked them to work on values.   “Gotta have the E-word” was a common theme, followed by a groan – not because they didn’t believe it, but because no one really knew what it meant.

Last evening, we had dinner with friends, one of whom is a clinical psychotherapist.  She is very interested in empowering young women, and she belongs to an organization that is dedicated to doing that.  It provides scholarships for education, especially STEM education, and it works to close the “gender gap” in pay and status.  Is that empowerment?   Title IX has enabled women to break barriers, shatter records and win titles across a multitude of sports.  Is that empowerment?  My answer to those good initiatives is Yes, to some degree, but mainly No, as those initiatives are defensive ones, and it is never possible to win by being defensive.  Winning requires a mentality of success.

It seems to me that real empowerment comes from within. It’s a state of being that combines head and heart – will and passion.  It can be facilitated by external interventions such as laws and scholarships, but the real drive comes from the individual herself (or himself) with a passion to succeed.  So are we doing what we can to empower our children and young people?  NO!  We are creating more and more dependence by our concerns about safety, security and protection, and by programs that are supposed to assist them.

“Times have changed” – people say.   In a slower, less complex world, life was easier and safer.  People were kinder, we knew our neighbors, and there were few temptations such as alcohol and drugs.  The concepts of sexual harassment and predators were unknown.

On the one hand we see the prosecution of “free-range” parents who let their children roam relatively freely, doing their own things and learning life’s lessons for themselves; on the other hand, while we speak disparagingly about “helicopter” parents who hover over their kids, doing their homework for them, yelling at them about what to do on the sports field, we praise their constant attention on their kids.  Yet many of those kids become fearful, afraid of life and of change – on a course to become victims.  So, which parents are doing a better job at empowering their kids?

I was a free-range kid, although that term was not in anyone’s vocabulary back in those days.  From ages 4-11 I walked to school and back on my own; after that, I had to take two different buses to get to school.  I also didn’t need much sleep.  So, especially during summer, I was out from dawn until dusk.  My parents wanted to know with whom I was playing and where we were going – local parks, bicycle trails and, later, whether we were going to take a bus to get to the nearby city.  My parents gave me a few rules – don’t go further afield without letting us know; don’t go anywhere with strangers; don’t accept anything to eat from strangers.

“Times have changed” – people say.   In a slower, less complex world, life was easier and safer.  People were kinder, we knew our neighbors, and there were few temptations such as alcohol and drugs.  The concepts of sexual harassment and predators were unknown.

The lesson that I learned from all this was that I had power over my own life.  I could come and go as I chose within limits.  I wasn’t a goody-two-shoes by any stretch of the imagination – far from it – but if I didn’t get too far out of line, or wasn’t caught, then I didn’t get in trouble.  My parents trusted me.  I grew up with a lot of self-confidence, a belief that the world was my oyster, and a desire to succeed.

I liked Len Bernat’s recent comments about crossing the street when he was a kid in his article “I am so confused.”  And it looked as though he and I had many similar experiences.  We were given a fairly small set of rules, and even those were not enforced particularly strictly.   We were expected to take responsibility for ourselves, stand up for ourselves, and not go whining to parents or teachers when we got hurt physically or verbally by our peers.  That was a very good and useful lesson.  Today’s kids are deprived of those kinds of lessons by well-meaning parents, teachers, and politicians who want to protect them from everything “bad.”

Blame-games, victimhood and what we used to call “ain’t it awful” games are destructive.  They create a world/society in which there is no real sense of personal responsibility.  More importantly, they detract from empowerment.  If we don’t take responsibility for the bad things we do – and own up to them – then neither can we take responsibility for the good things that we do or that happen to us.  That deprives us of the joy of success and achievement, of being empowered, and creates a mediocre world.

Recent news has carried many articles about the increase in the number of suicides in this country.  I am not a psychologist, but I wonder whether the increase has been exacerbated by people who have “learned” to be powerless, no matter how smart they have been.

It also encourages an attitude of submissiveness especially, I suspect, in girls whose natural propensities are softer and more compliant than those of boys.   Sandy Chernoff has written a good article on the nature of Assertiveness, which is a critical part of empowerment. Her remarks are about adults, but what can we do to teach kids and young adults, especially young women, about assertiveness and provide them with experiences that empower them, teach them responsibility and develop self-confidence?

There are many physically-oriented approaches that provide useful starting points: Sports teams, Sailing schools, Martial Arts, Outward-Bound, and Wilderness training. These develop trust in one’s own physical capabilities, trust in others, abilities to work in teams and more.  These are all important qualities when it comes to adult and working life.  These approaches also develop an appreciation for nature, for the larger scheme of things and for the beauty of the world around us.  Training in self-awareness can also be useful for assessing the nature of one’s physical and psychological environments, and can include self-defense and “street-wise-ness.”  People who go through these kinds of programs generally come out of them empowered – bolder, standing taller, and exuding more confidence and self-reliance.


Christine MacNulty
Christine MacNulty
CHRISTINE MacNulty has forty years’ experience as a consultant in long-term strategic -planning for concepts as well as organizations, futures studies, foresight, and technology forecasting, technology assessment and related areas, as well as socio-cultural change. For the last twenty years, most of her consultancy has been conducted for the Department of Defense and the Services, NATO ACT, NATO NEC, the British Army’s Force Development & Training Command, and the German BBK. Prior to that her work was in the commercial arena where she had Fortune Global 500 clients. During the last thirty-five years Christine MacNulty has contributed methods and models for understanding social and cultural change through people’s values. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in 1989. She is the coauthor of two books: Industrial Applications of Technology Forecasting, Wiley, 1971 and Strategy with Passion – A Leader’s Guide to Exploiting the Future, August 2016. Her paper: “Method for minimizing the negative consequences of nth order effects in strategic communication actions and inactions” was published in NATO Defence Strategic Communications Journal, p 99, Winter 2015. Two monographs “Truth, Perception & Consequences” (2007) and “Transformation: From the Outside In or the Inside Out” (2008) were published by the Army War College. Perceptions, Values & Motivations in Cyberspace appeared in the IO Journal, 3rd Quarter, 2009, and The Value of Values for IO, SC & Intel was published in the August 2010 edition of the IO Journal.

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  1. Christine – Wonderful article and words that need to be heard by every parent today. Thank you for sharing your insights and yes, we grew up with similar experiences which created the same results – two people who are comfortable with who they have grown into – two people still seeking to grow – two people empowered to see the future as a place of limitless opportunities – all because our parents allowed us to learn the lessons of life through experience, trust, and yes, by making mistakes.

    • Thank you very much, Len! Yes – seeing the future as a place of limitless opportunities, full of wonder and excitement! I find it difficult to comprehend how people find it dark and dangerous. Challenges should be seen as opportunities – at least eventually, if not in the moment. I had some wonderful teachers when I was in primary school who really inspired me, and I have been so appreciative of their encouragement.

  2. Great article, Christine. I hope some of today’s parents will read it and “back off” a bit from the protectiveness with which they surround their children. Yes, we want our kids to be safe and happy, but we also want them to ultimately be independent and if they do not make mistakes and learn to problem solve, as well as experience some measure of autonomy and independence, with boundaries and some rules, of course, they will grow up fearful and unable to deal with what life throws at them. In addition, I also agree that they have to learn accountability and own what they do. Finally, being assertive helps us to deal with issues that make us unhappy and that is why teaching all of this to young people is key to their future happiness and success. Thanks for a great article!!

    • This response is from Chris MacNulty – not sure why it came out as anonymous.
      Thank you very much, Sandy! Yes, parents do have a significant dilemma – protection or risk? Finding the right balance is not easy, especially if one has also been brought up in that same culture, which many young parents have. I don’t believe that there are any right answers. Those are personal decisions to be made by parents, but most of them and the media focus on what can go wrong, not on what the benefits of freedom and self-reliance can be. Einstein made a good comment: “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” I really believe that the universe and most people in it are benevolent. I’d like to encourage more people to believe the same thing.

    • I also agree that most people are good and I think if we are respectful of one another, the world would be a better place, and again, that starts with teaching your children to be respectful and being respectful to them. It is hard to “let your kids go”, but we must do it. I always told my kids: “if you don’t ask, you don’t get, so be sure to ask if you want to do something….you might get a surprise that I will let you. And, they did ask and sometimes were surprised that I agreed…..usually with some parameters, but as long as they abided by the rules for their safety, they were good to go.

    • Indeed- a timely and topical article from Christine here, Sandy. And as to your comments above, you speak for many and quite frankly, couldn’t have said it better!