Comparing this generation’s upbringing to ours is becoming a bit tiresome. The same old theme applies now that applied when we were kids: our parents and grandparents lamented how ‘things have changed’ and now we’re doing it. Today’s kids are too this, and not enough that. Ultimately, regardless of what’s happening with child-rearing and society as a whole, there are always a handful of kids that end up achieving greatness in life. So what’s the cross-generational common denominator?
I’d like to present a theory – a formula for success that appears to transcend the generational culture shifts: highly successful individuals were mostly likely exposed to a [slightly] verbally abusive parent and/or some good old-fashioned neglect [a.k.a. personal responsibility] in the household. That’s it. Plain and simple.
Now, before you go all 21st century parent on me, at least listen to my logic and allow me to explain.
Picture a spectrum. At the far side of one end is the mamby pamby, overly involved helicopter parent. This parent is the subject (ummm…target) of most of my posts and represents the greatest threat to the success of future generations since the advent of the video game console. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the absentee parent, too wrapped up in their own lives and priorities to tend to the important and all-consuming job of parenting. This individual has no business making babies (well, frankly neither does the helicopter parent), and their kids are suffering for it. Your goal? Just to the right of center.
You see, kids should not constantly be told how special they are. This is poisoning them and distorting their self-image. Ultimately they’ll end up in a situation – be it in college or the workforce – where this ‘absolute truth’, instilled in them since birth, is disproved. This will not end well for the helicopter parented child. He/she will crumble under the weight of having to actually contribute something besides his/her presence or – worse still – he/she will deny it and sink deeper into delusion, spending his/her future as a flight attendant, taking personal pride in every passenger he/she ‘catches’ using their cell phone after pushing back from the gate. Oh, the power!
Even a slight lean to the left of center is potentially detrimental. Frankly, aside from love, guidance, food, clothing and shelter, we should not be doing anything for our kids. They should make their beds, keep track of their football gear and know their schedules well enough that they’re not missing important school deadlines and events. If we do all of this for them, when do we stop? What is the age at which we turn over the reins to our kids and ask them to be responsible for themselves? Some parents continue this safety net parenting strategy well into college. It’s unhealthy for the kid and it’s unhealthy for the parent. Responsibility and accountability taught early and often – even if it’s sometimes harsh – is critical and we have to stick with it even if sometimes that involves sitting back and watching the occasional train wreck brought on by their mistake or bad decision. We have the life experience to see it coming. Our instinct is to jump in front of the train. Don’t. We learned through our own series of train wrecks. We owe it to our kids to let them learn similarly.
Back to my theory. The green shaded area in my diagram represents the target zone of effective parenting. It leans toward the absentee parent in the most benign and constructive manner. It presupposes that you as a parent have the grit to treat your kids like people, not possessions. It assumes you want to raise responsible, principled adults that can make a go of it on their own. So, you’re in? Great! Next, how to put it into practice.
The best way to illustrate my theory is to give you some real world examples. Let’s take Howard Stern. I realize he’s controversial, and butt bongo is not exactly an intellectual pursuit, but the guy is doing what he loves (radio) and getting paid an enormous amount of money to do it. That to me represents success in life (not the money, necessarily, but the passion). If you’ve ever tuned in to Howard you know that his dad was incredibly verbally abusive and critical of young Howard. It wasn’t until adulthood, success on radio, a blockbuster movie and several books that Howard’s dad finally acknowledged his success (see amazing video of Howard on Piers Morgan here (sorry in advance for the commercial), but not before such childhood admonishments such as “stupid” and “you’re an idiot” in response to Howard sharing his dream of being on the radio. Howard grew up knowing that his dad was his harshest critic. I believe that this sharpened his wit and gave him a drive he probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. Striving for his dad’s approval was the undercurrent of his motivation. Yet to hear Howard describe his parents today, he loves them and is confident in their love for him, and grateful for his dad’s demeanor. He never doubted that his dad had his best interests at heart. Pretty powerful stuff.
Next, let’s take Justin Halpern, author of Sh*t My Dad Says (click here to buy it on Amazon – I promise you will laugh harder than you ever have). Literally one of the funniest books I have ever read. I can’t bring myself to repeat some of what his dad said to him throughout his childhood, but the book chronicles some of the life lessons Justin learned simply by being around his cynical realist dad. “I didn’t say you were ugly. I said your girlfriend is better looking than you, and standing next to her, you look ugly” and “A parent’s only as good as their dumbest kid. If one wins a Nobel Prize but the other gets robbed by a hooker, you failed” is just a sample of his parental wisdom.
Nowadays we talk to our 13 year-olds like they’re still in preschool. We are careful not to allow cynicism or harshness into our tone, thus potentially harming their psyches. This is a mistake. If you think it, say it. The kids can handle it. I promise. They want authentic parents that aren’t afraid to show some cracks in the perfect parent armor. We become better examples for them if we’re not perfect. They appreciate the freedom to let it all hang out. They will talk more openly if they don’t sense a programmed response coming back at them. Also, their friends think it’s funny. I have cracked up carloads of girls on the way to theater rehearsals simply by saying what’s on my mind. I didn’t mean to, it just came out. They feel privileged to be included in adult conversation – as if I trust them with a mature thought or observation. It’s like listening in at their parents’ bedroom door without the sneaking around part. This is not a license to teach your kids’ friends dirty limericks, mind you, but more a nod to slightly more engaging and thoughtful conversation than the dumbed-down, G-rated drivel we usually throw out. Platitudes are so preschool.
So let’s hear it for the dad who accidentally let a four letter word slip out when he got cut off on the freeway – with a carload of kids in earshot; Kudos to you, mom, for telling your kid it was stupid to forget her math book (and no, you’re not driving her back to school to get it). Gold star to the coach that loudly admonishes, then benches, his star player in the final minute of a close game for copping a superior attitude. You guys are appropriately verbally abusive and neglectful…you’re in the green zone.