Paul on October 22nd, 2014

Our world is full of “tiger” moms and “helicopter” parents all trying to orchestrate their view of success for their children.  Much of that effort is more about themselves and their somewhat twisted quest to appear as successful parents than it is about their kids but let’s try to ignore that for now.  The “Wrubel Guide” to success is overly simple and sidesteps even more important issues of character but it may be helpful to parents who really care about their kids’ future and the quality of their lives.  As I see it, there are four general possibilities going from low success to high success.

Low – No Job and Poor Education or Few Job-Relevant Skills:  This is the worst of all possibilities because there is only a very remote likelihood of ever rising above this status.  The son or daughter is simply caught in a no-way-out trap caused by the lack of tools and training to land or create a meaningful job or the refined intellectual capacity to enjoy life beyond basic bodily functions and needs, an existence that is just an incremental step or two above of some of our more gifted primates like apes and chimpanzees.

Modest – Job and Limited Education:  The son or daughter has a job that can provide some material benefits and a higher standard of living.  But it may be a job that is one of necessity and not engagement.  Because of limited education, there are two drawbacks.  First, the person is not likely to change jobs or careers because they have only a narrow range of vocational skills and they lack the intellectual tools to take advantage of other employment opportunities including starting their own business.  But most important is the quality-of-life dimension most affected by a limited education.  The less one knows the greater potential there is to live a life as a spectator watching other people do things.  And the less you know the more limited your list of spectator options are likely to be.  At the risk of offending some readers, I can understand why a person would devote a life to actually racing cars and to being a part of the team that supports that high-risk, competitive activity.  But for the life of me, I don’t get why people would spend serious dollars to watch someone else drive around in circles for a few hundred miles.  Is it the danger, the possibility of death or injury that makes people watch?  If it is, here in California, you can probably see more of that sort of action for free by enjoying a picnic overlooking any number of freeways throughout the state.  Just out of curiosity, it would be interesting to know the education level and other demographics of NASCAR spectators.

Closer to Success – Job and Solid Education:  A great education (not necessarily formal schooling) increases the probability of landing a job, any job.   It may not be the kind of employment that is the most satisfying but it does create some income while buying time to sort out a more perfect career trajectory.  The work, no matter what it is, will add some important experience that is likely to provide a better chance for later career nirvana.  It will surely beat hanging out at home (probably yours) and watching TV or feeling sorry for one’s self.  In many ways, the education will enrich one’s life during the career path enhancement period not the least of which is getting out there and interacting with others of varying backgrounds and interests.  This expansion of contacts, interesting in their own right, often leads to career opportunities that may not have even been on the young person’s radar.  There’s no downside to more education unless, of course, it leads to vastly more student loan debt.

True Success – Great Job and a Solid, Broad-based Education:  This is what most parents should really want for their kids.  By great job I mean a job that creates passion, one that unleashes creativity and a sense of accomplishment in the individual.  It may have nothing whatsoever to do with money but more to do with providing meaning and purpose to the life of a human being.

Is it possible to lead a rewarding life without a job or with a poor education?  Of course it is but this simple taxonomy is about parents’ sense of fulfillment, not their kids.

My father gave me lots of advice but the best of all was this.  He said, “Son, remember that raising kids is about 90% luck so don’t take it personally.”  It was perhaps the smartest and most liberating counsel I have ever received.  It provided me with the space I needed to really enjoy watching our daughters grow up.  They weren’t always perfect.  Like normal kids, they made mistakes along the way but it allowed me to participate without the burden of two of what I believe to be destructive factors, unwarranted pride and needless, imagined guilt.  As masters of their own fate, when they did something wonderful, it was their doing, not mine; when they made mistakes, they were the responsible party not me.  There was no vanity-driven pride in the former and no sense of failure-related guilt in the latter.  I was just a very interested observer and guide who was a willing and joyful companion on their road through life.  I have loved being a parent.

It troubles me when I see “tiger/helicopter” parents doing everything they can to steer a child to what the parent believes is the model of success.  A parental career choice for their kids is not far removed from an arranged marriage.  It is frequently self-serving and often a source of life-long regret as the young person becomes forever immersed in a hollow, passion-free existence.

I recall the last Academy Awards presentation and I can imagine the parents of those creative, dream-driven people when they first broke the news of their career path to their parents.  “You want to do what?  Sweet Jesus, take me now!”  “Your father and I have spent thousands of dollars to give you the best education beginning with pre-school and this is the way you repay us?  Oy!”  “But what happened to our plan for law school?  I thought we had all agreed to that.”  “You’re just going to turn your back on the wonderful opportunity to take over your father’s bathroom fixtures business?  How could you do this to us?”  But as usual, things work out.  The creative electricity in the crowd at the awards ceremony was palpable.  The once doubting parents had probably made their adjustment and like the rest of us they too celebrated the extraordinary vision, craftsmanship and imagination of those who were honored.

Think of what you miss if your face is always buried in a map rather than absorbing the endlessly enriching sights and sounds of those people and places you encounter when you are occasionally lost.  Give your kids whatever advantages you can but grant them the space to use those gifts as they choose and let them chart the eventual course.  It is their lives, not an extension of your own.  Before you try to make your child grow up in your image, take a moment to look at yourself.  Look at your own life, the depth of your relationships, the things you think are important, the often petty things that upset you and maybe include an inventory of the contents of your medicine cabinet.  Then consider Russell Baker’s cautionary advice, “Don’t try to make children grow up like you, or they may do it.”

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