Like Jazz- from breastfeeding to parenting, what we can learn from Jazz


photo credit Vox Efx’s

I’m not one for labels, I categorically refuse to be categorized.  For every possible label I can find a reason it does and doesn’t apply.  Parenting style is no exception  Attachment parent, mainstream…

But recently I may have found a term that may fit: jazz.

Talk to any IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) and they’ll tell you how important it is in the early days to follow your baby’s lead, feed on demand.  Like the harmonious relationship of jazz musicians in a band, breastfeeding dyads play back and forth following each other’s cues to work together in this relationship.  A relationship that can be life and death.  The babe roots, the mother offers her breast, the babe suckles, the mother’s body releases oxytocin and she experiences a surge of bonding love and her colostrum or full milk lets down, the babe strengthens their suck, the mother’s uterus contracts helping heal the wound inside her where the placenta was, the babe settles into a sucking rhythm, the mom relaxes and her milk flows, filling her baby’s tummy and strengthening their bond.  Give and take, the pair responds to the notes the other plays and together they make beautiful music that becomes a part of their relationship onward.  Breastfeeding like jazz.

Breastfeeding like jazz

When The Piano Man and I joined the organization we work for we were (and are still) excited about participating in work that is making a difference in the world by focusing on bringing people together to help the oppressed.  With our coworkers, we are working to end slavery, stand against abuse, fight hunger, and share hope.  Getting involved would change us, we knew, but we thought we knew what that change would likely look like and where it would affect us.

But we were surprised with how it has helped us grow outside those expected areas and our boss has directly impacted our parenting.  Never saw that coming.  The president of the organization, Scott Olson, approaches leadership in a way that is different from what we’ve experienced before and frees everyone involved to function according to their own unique strengths and with this we have flourished.  He calls it “leading like jazz”:

There are times when we as leaders need to take a classical approach. Highly detailed projects require careful attention to detail. We need to play every note on the page. I don’t want my dentist playing “jazz” in my mouth during a root canal. I want accuracy. I want rules followed. I want exact science applied. Many leaders are process people and have personalities that tend to make them focus on details, accuracy, and good process. But there are certain situations that call for a different approach. There are times when we encounter obstacles and ambiguity, times where a little “jazz” is just what it takes to lead on another level.

Without a doubt, to play jazz well it helps to know the structure and music theory, to be comfortable with the blues scale and to have a repertoire of rhythm, but it’s in knowing how to freely interact within that structure that keeps jazz interesting and easily adaptable.

It’s scary, this leading like jazz.  Sometimes it seems like a giant experiment where everything could go wrong and it will all fall apart.  That’s when Scott will tell me that as long as we “fall forward” we’re making progress and learning along the way.  The amazing thing?  Though we do have mishaps and mistakes, there’s actually not as much falling as one might expect.  Instead, we see our team members try new and daring things, integrating community change in ways that have never been done before and, quite frankly, changing the world.  We’ve seen schools started  in the poorest areas of the world and staffed by nationals, successful businesses started amongst the lowest of a society, the most ignorable voices recognized and heard, young women able to start new lives free of the sex trade they were forced into, and so much more.  Bold steps taken that others would have told us were impossible or too dangerous but allowed to play out “like jazz.”  And it has been beautiful.

Over the last 16 months we’ve become more comfortable with Scott’s jazz leadership and have seen how much of that same philosophy already fits in with our parenting.  Instead of controlling and specific accuracy expected of our children, a more jazz-like approach releases notes of surprising heights and innovative opportunities.  By trusting that our children are unique individuals that can be trusted and relaxing our desire to script every step of their growth, we have discovered just how incredible they are and what amazing things they are capable of.  From 1-14 years old, our children are such free flowing confident individuals that as we relax more and trust the journey, they are showing us that from letting go of control we all work together better.  And it’s a lot more fun trusting that they are already bringing their unique strengths and notes to the music of our family.

Kid playing saxophone

photo credit Jospeh Cote

In part 1 of his Lead Like Jazz series, Scott goes on to lay out 5 points to leading like jazz.

1. Risk: The drummer tried something different (took a risk and felt the freedom to do so). Sometimes our leadership style can be so controlling that it stifles the creativity of others. If we hope to work together in a way that produces fresh ideas and creative results, our team members need to feel free to improvise.

2. Listening: The bass player heard what the drummer was doing and changed the notes and rhythm. Listening to what’s happening around you (what others are saying or how they’re reacting) can take you in a new and more creative direction.

3. Collaboration: Because there’s no sheet music and no conductor in jazz, the success of the song is dependent on everyone’s contribution. Everyone must be actively engaged and doing their part. This results in spontaneous and beautiful teamwork.

4. Awareness: Eye contact and body language are keys to great jazz performance. Jazz musicians watch each other, smile, nod, and sometimes use hand gestures. Nobody ever taught them these signals, they just picked them up. Why? How else would you create something beautiful without sheet music and a conductor? All you have is each other, so you have to be watching, listening, and observing.

5. Sensitivity: Have you ever wondered how jazz groups bring a song to an end? After all, there’s no sheet music or conductor to signal the final note. But they just do. They know when the song is over. They feel it and sense that they’ve done all they can do, and have enjoyed every moment. No one yells out over the music, “We are going to end the song now!” There’s no need. They’ve been on an experiential journey. They’ve been literally in tune with each other, and they just intuitively know when it’s time to move on to the next song.

(You can read the other two parts of this series here and here if you are interested.) 

Applied to parenting and the different aspects of parenting, from birth and breastfeeding to guiding an older child as they pursue career aspirations, these 5 points of leading like jazz can help parents with their own leadership responsibilities.  With the freedom to take risks (i.e. breastfeed even though you can’t measure out exactly what baby’s going to eat!) families can discover how they work together producing fresh ideas and creative results with the flexibility to improvise as needs arise.  By listening, parents can adjust to meet the needs of the child according to their developmental stage rather than parental expectations as to what the child “should” be doing opening up opportunities to go in a new and more creative direction and freeing each member from oppressive expectations.  Everyone matters when we approach family as a collaboration, instead of being bound by roles defined by others, each member in the family from young to old can work together to contribute by actively engaging according to capabilities, needs, and strengths for a spontaneous and beautiful example of real life teamwork.  Awareness requires each member to communicate and pay attention to each other in a mutual understanding that all we have is each other so we have to be paying attention and developing the skills of watching, listening, and observing.  And when it’s time to move on the atmosphere cultivated by this community of teamwork will foster a natural sensitivity from being secure that each personality and family member is valued.  There won’t be a need to yell over the music, the confidence we have in each other means that even subtle communication will be received and working together we’ll each find our way in the group.

parenting like jazz

Like those early days of breastfeeding where mom and baby play off each other within a basic framework of needs, communication, response, and awareness, parenting can continue along the same path where parents “lead like jazz.”  Together, we can make some beautiful music together.


What about you?  Do you think you parent with a more structured approach like classical music?  Or more like jazz?  Or some other style entirely?

Did the breastfeeding journey start out for you like a strict set of notes on the page or a more fluid relationship with risk, listening, collaboration, awareness, and sensitivity?  How has breastfeeding influenced your parenting onward?  What jazz notes have surprised you as you’ve learned to work with and adapt to the uniqueness of those in your family?



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