From Mark Ford, founder, Palm Beach Research Group: My wife and I abused our children.
With Liam, our first, we shared an unspoken ambition of gracing the world with the first perfect child.
To achieve that goal, we did all that we felt might give him an edge in his pre-toddler years. We fed him the right foods, read him the best books, and kept all but the most intellectually stimulating toys from his grasp.
As he advanced toward early adolescence, we accelerated our efforts at improving him, despite some hairline cracks in the shell of his youthful perfection. Most of our free time was spent chauffeuring him to and from myriad educational, sporting, and social events.
And we didn’t simply drop him off to fend for himself. We stayed there to “support” him by shouting at him from the sidelines and sometimes offering his teachers, trainers, and coaches the benefit of our amateur opinions.
We hardly noticed that we were suffocating him with our egocentric intentions. Nor were we aware that we must have looked just as obnoxious and overbearing as all the other parents who were doing pretty much the same thing with their children.
When Patrick, our second, was born, our goals were less ambitious. We could tell almost as soon as he slid into the world that he had a different personality than his older brother and might likely turn out differently, even if our parenting was exactly the same.
We continued to give Patrick the same basic educational, physical, and social advantages, but we no longer felt compelled to insert ourselves into every activity. We had more faith that other people—his teachers, coaches, tutors… his surrogate parents—would do as well as or better than we would.
By the time Michael, our third son, was born, we had come to the conclusion that hyper-parenting had little long-term benefit. Some of it was negative.
So with Michael, we provided most of the same educational, physical, and social opportunities, but we were less insistent that he participate in all of them. And we left the coaching to the coaches.
Before “Helicopter Parenting”
This ideal of hyper-parenting was not ubiquitous in our generation. It was mostly an aspect of upwardly mobile, upper-middle-class white and Asian Americans.
Today it’s more common, particularly in the affluent urban and suburban areas where parents often spend fortunes (as much as $40,000 per year in coastal cities) to give their children early advantages.
For parents who have the money and the time, I believe it’s quite natural for them to lavish so much of it on their first- and even second-born children in the belief that it will contribute to their later success.
And given the fact that so few—less than 40%, down from 65% in the 1970s—of today’s families have three or more children, many of these parents maintain this belief more or less forever, despite the lack of any real evidence that it is true.
I don’t know for certain whether affluent parents in my generation coddled and “abused” their children with attention the way we did. But I doubt it. The great majority of them, starting families after the Vietnam War, simply couldn’t afford it. And a good percentage of the affluent had more than three children. That’s why I think the popular view of parenting back then was less about giving children every possible benefit and more about discipline and benign neglect.
My parents, for instance, expected all eight of their children to do daily and weekly chores (mine was to clean the bathrooms), walk a half-mile to school each day, and get good grades or there would be penalties to pay. On Saturday mornings, I worked with my father in the yard or fixing the house. On Sundays, after church but before we could go out, we had to memorize and recite a poem of my mother’s choosing.
In terms of sporting options, there was only Little League Baseball, which only accepted about 20% of the children who tried out. As for other sports, we had to find empty lots and open fields to play them. And we did so without parental involvement or concern.
Under the roof of our parents’ house (it wasn’t ours—the kids’—that was clear to us), we were strictly disciplined. Outside, we were largely left to fend for ourselves.
Some people today might consider this style of parenting abusive. And it’s quite possible that many of my generation felt the same way. Or at least felt that it was inadequate. How else to explain the parents we became?
How to Cure Hyper-Parenting Syndrome
There is a great deal of media support for this child-centric approach to parenting… in books, in magazine articles, and on television.
Rude, self-centered children (whose parents are forever trying to satisfy their never-ending, always escalating demands) populate practically every movie made by Steven Spielberg and his ilk.
It was refreshing, then, to run across a book that takes a different point of view.
The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap takes the position that it may be better to let your kids control more of their own time.
Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, the author, recommends limiting the number of formal activities you put your child in. “Think before you sign your child up for something,” he says. “Do the benefits outweigh the sacrifices?”
Instead of making the child the center of your universe, he suggests, make the family the center. The family starts with the parents but includes the kids. Family activities—things you do together—are good for your kids, even if they don’t think so at first.
This is the approach K and I developed. Not purposefully, but naturally over time. On week-long vacations in Nicaragua, for example, we did crossword puzzles together, took Spanish lessons (in two groups: beginner and intermediate), and played cards, horseshoes, and even charades.
After some initial whining, the kids’ complaints diminished and were gradually replaced with chatter, good-natured banter, and even laughter. As one day followed the next, the initial resistance to these low-tech ways of having fun morphed into a restrained interest and finally into unashamed enthusiasm.
Childhood is preparation, Rosenfeld reminds us, not a performance. Yes, we all want our children to be as wonderful as we know they can be—but a major part of having a good and productive life is learning how to be good and happy in a family situation. Turning off the television and banning video games is a good way to start.
That said, here are 10 antiquated rules (some from Rosenfeld and some from our own experience) for raising pretty good kids:
No more than one extracurricular activity at a time. And try not to get too involved. When you go to games or performances, don’t root more loudly for your child than you do for others. And never, ever complain to their coaches or teachers about how much playtime they are getting.
Give your children plenty of time away from you. You are not supposed to be their best friend, so don’t take up all their after-school and weekend hours. Let them make their own friends and find their own places to play. Don’t worry so much about how dangerous it is out there. It’s no more dangerous than it was when you were a kid. It’s just that you are more paranoid than your parents were.
Make them do chores. Aside from having them clean up after themselves and keep their rooms cleaned (zero-tolerance policies on these), assign them weekly family chores like washing floors or folding laundry. Teach them that family work is shared by all members of the family. The older they get, the more they can do.
Make their weekly allowances embarrassingly low. My son Michael, when he was 15, got about $3 per week. That seems insane even to me, but my wife K stuck to it and it has had a profound and beneficial effect on our children. They don’t hit us up for money.
Let them earn money. They won’t be able to buy much with their allowances, so give them a chance to work for extra cash. Paid jobs take place after the non-paid family chores are done. Wages should be generous but not excessive.
Make them save half of what they earn. Use the “Seeds of Wealth” system to ensure that your children not only understand the value of saving but actually build the beginnings of their future wealth by putting away 50 cents on every dollar they make or are given.
No television. We didn’t have a TV set while the kids were young—and that was a major blessing. But if you don’t want to give up your idiot box, at least restrict its use to an hour or two each weekend day.
No video game consoles. By now you are thinking that K and I were nuts. But we successfully banned all Game Boys, PlayStations, etc., from the house—and it worked surprisingly well. It forced the kids to focus on other things.
Not every child is capable of straight A’s—but unless your child has a learning problem, you should be able to get a solid B average out of them. When the grades fall below that, lay on the penalties. When they meet your modest (B) expectations, give them a modest reward.
Pay attention to them. Try to be involved in your kids’ lives through conversations about their chores, their schooling, and their friends. Know the players, the dramas, and the feelings associated with them. Okay, I never did do much of this. But K did. And it seems to have paid off. Doing these things developed her relationship with the kids into a connection that I’m missing. Don’t end up where you look back and think, “Would have… Should have…”
Reeves’ Note: Raising independent kids will help them grow into healthier and wealthier adults. And as Mark says, it will make your life healthier and wealthier overall, too.
Mark’s been sharing advice like this with friends and acquaintances for more than 30 years. You can learn more of his secrets to building wealth (and living a healthy lifestyle) in this free presentation…