Is this the hill you want to die on?

Today’s the day I tell the story.

It’s not, originally, my story. It was My Sweetie’s; he brought it home from work one day. It would’ve been perhaps as early as the year before A was born, because it happened in the waning days of this one particular glorious challenge of a project.

These were the waning days. The company was financially struggling; the pride-and-joy project (not the one My Sweetie was on) was insanely behind schedule. Senior-senior management had gotten antsy about how slowly the chip My Sweetie was on was taking to ‘get market traction.’ Folk had long ago been stored two-to-a-cubicle; now we were moving to threes. (I worked there, back then.) Having been around the chip-design block several times, My Sweetie and his friends suspected that the company was about to put an end to their product, the very first sound-card-on-a-chip.

It was time for the quarterly divisional meeting anyway.

Hundreds piled into the auditorium. The division’s vice president—firm, consistent, warm, and well-respected—delivered the information one usually hears at quarterly meetings: how the company as a whole was doing financially, logistically, and project-wise; how one’s division was doing along those same lines; whatever other messages of organizational unity or change were needed. And then Bob invited his division’s folk to ask questions, which he would answer—if there were any answers to share.

One in particular stood out.

A young staffer—My Sweetie called him a ‘fresh-out,’ for ‘fresh out of school’—took the microphone. He complained bitterly about his office arrangements, how hard it was to focus with so many people in his space, and how this wasn’t right, or effective. (The youngest are always the first to get squeezed.) My Sweetie and his friends looked at each other in disbelief. This was the kid’s concern? When they might all be shopping for a project—or a new employer—in a month? Deck chairs on the Titanic, kiddo: be glad to have a desk and a workstation!

Bob listened thoughtfully. Probably nodded. And then said:

Let me make sure I understand your concern: <rephrased>. Do I have it right? <The speaker nodded.> Okay.
I’ll tell you something. I have a certain amount of political capital. I have enough to push and make things happen, but there’s only enough to do it once. One big thing. Once I use my capital, it’s gone, and I won’t have it for anything else. I am willing to do this… if you think it’s important. But I don’t want to begin and then find out you’ve changed your mind. Once I start, I can’t go back. So before I begin, I want to make really sure:

Is this the hill you want to die on?

Because if it is, I will take it. We will do this. But if it’s not, let’s stop here. Is this the hill you want to die on?

The speaker miserably shook his head, said “Thank you,” and sat down.

 

Bob’s phrasing struck me. Well, in part it was his respect for the young person that caught me; he was (is?) an executive who consistently gave full measures of respect to folk regardless of their status. My Sweetie and his buddies would have scolded that speaker, like the older siblings they functionally were. But Bob honored his concern as the important thing it was to him.

So I think that gave the phrase added weight to me. This was not flip, or sarcastic. This was a serious signal of what the request would cost, and of Bob’s commitment to the folk who worked in his organization. If we do this, we do it to the end, whatever that result might be.

 

In my life in my parents’ household, I’d watched them set boundaries. I knew their persistence, their (apparently) long and flawless memories… particularly my mother’s. If I asked for something and she said “maybe,” I could ask again perhaps twice—at which point she would tartly say, “Ask me again and the answer is no.” I learned quickly that those “noes” were certain, and permanent. As were her yesses!

Not only was her word reliable for me, it was for my sister. Like a hummingbird, but larger and louder, my baby sister could wear anyone down. But not my parents. What they said stayed true. No matter how loud or long the tantrum, how dark and crackly the sulk. (Those would be mine.)

I observed that part of how this steadiness (relentlessness?) worked was that they made relatively few pronouncements. There weren’t a lot of noes, or intricacy to remember. And my mother was blunt about how the negative repercussions I was angry about were no pleasure for her either—”When you’re grounded, I have to stay home too. And I had things I wanted to get done!”

So I learned that what one says to one’s children becomes promises. To have children who respect boundaries, the bounds must be steady and relied-upon. To do this might not be simple, or easy, and almost certainly won’t be fun. Therefore, unless one is prepared to hold a boundary, don’t set it. (My parents, for example, only required that my teen clothing thoroughly cover my essentials. Hair wasn’t discussed… even when it was a crew-cut, or blue.)

When as a parent I saw a boundary I thought would be wise for my girls, I therefore asked myself:
Is this a hill I want to die on?

My girls have always been persistent people, even as infants. I was glad to already have the discipline, because even their preschool challenges were like being hit with a power-washer, water under force looking for a crack to split open. Interestingly, many of the things I thought I might feel strongly about — or things where other parents asked, “Why don’t [you | they ]…?” — didn’t hold up to the question. Me picking out A’s clothes? Not gonna take that hill. (“MY do it MYself!”) Eating breakfast? Ye-e-s… but there’s an array of edible possibles in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. Wearing a coat on a cold day? “You may choose, but if I hear a complaint you lose your choice.”

In A’s teen years, the pressure mounted even higher—she was almost as large as I, strong, and angry. There were plenty of times that words failed both of us. I believe the only thing that caused me to prevail as steadily as I did was that I knew, going in, that having set a boundary it would be a hill I might have to die on to hold. I could not lose; the stakes were too high—if I lost once, our whole structure of life might rip completely apart and we lose her.

I still have a couple of visible scars from those battles.

But now that we’ve all survived, and made it to the other side of their teens, I’m glad to know we’ve built a hard-packed, sturdy foundation. We held the hill.

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