The current helicopter parent culture delivers immediate results such as better grades and extracurricular activities’ awards, but it may hinder the qualities most needed for entrepreneurship and more generally, for success in adulthood – adaptability, resourcefulness and creativity.
Today’s parents believe they are helping children by designing each aspect of a child’s life. They carefully select not only the school their children attend, but also the activities children participate in, the books they read, the friends they meet. Many modern mothers and fathers closely manage their children’s performance by reviewing and correcting homework, speaking to teachers daily, jumping in to resolve a disagreement children have with peers, hiring tutors and experts to help craft applications for college. As an extreme example, a distraught mother called me in the office once to ask why her son, a first year financial analyst, had not received the highest possible review grade at work.
Devoted parents have good intentions and worry that in an increasingly competitive world and a shrinking job market, their children would be left behind and thus, want to do everything in their power to position their children for professional and personal success. However, all the efforts may actually be counter-productive. It is hard to deny that the world our children are going to live in will be demanding. Technology innovation, information overload, shrinking job market, and globalization all contribute to a world that is much more hectic and uncertain than what past generations are used to.
It is not specific knowledge or skill but more intrinsic and conceptual capabilities that would position the young for success. When asked what we should do to prepare our children for adulthood, the futurist Dr. James Canton’s answer was not what most would expect. He advised that children will need ability to speak multiple languages, to live and work in different countries, and to effectively deal with change.
I could not agree more with Dr. Canton. In an increasingly ambiguous and uncertain world, success would require adaptability, ingenuity and resourcefulness, which the prevalent parenting approach of micro-management does little to encourage. Instead, parents should incorporate the lessons of the entrepreneur’s world to prepare their children for the future:
Give children goals not tasks: Successful entrepreneurs manage to a vision and a mission. To accomplish that vision, they design a bold strategy and implement a practical plan. Company founders are able to visualize both the big picture and the way to get to it. The more we as parents can help children connect what they are doing with the goal they want to accomplish, the more independently children can handle specific responsibilities. Instead of telling your son: “Put your toys away” and “complete your Physics homework,” collaborate with him to agree on what goals he as individual or you as a family want to achieve and then let him take the lead on designing the tasks to get to his goals. In the book, The Secrets of Happy Families, Bruce Feiler shares that he created a mission statement for his family.
Let children choose more of their activities: Entrepreneurs exercise choice and pursue their dreams arguably more so than any other professional. To succeed as an entrepreneur one needs to be passionate about what she chooses. Similarly, if children choose what they want to pursue they will be more likely to be passionate about it, have fun and succeed. Often I see parents who try to push children to be a better version of themselves, to study medicine or engineering, to go to the best college, to win that championship. I have to admit that I am often tempted to nudge my children to be the best I want them to be. But then I remember their unique personalities – the creative one that loves to dance and can convince anyone of anything but hates math and the stubborn one that does not ever want to get into the pool and learn swimming but loves to read books and has almost photographic memory. It is unlikely that I would make a mathematician out of the first one and an Olympic swimmer out of the other. But if I let them choose and then guide them, they are more likely to discover their natural talents and become the exceptional entrepreneurs of their own life.
Let children fail early and often: No one fails more often than entrepreneurs do. Similarly children can benefit dramatically from the lessons and strength that come from failing. Instead of resolving every problem for them, let children fail early and often. It is OK to get a less than perfect grade, lose a game, scrape a knee, and get in a disagreement with a friend. Small and frequent failures teach children the consequences of their actions, what effort they need to apply to truly succeed and build their confidence when praise and awards are truly deserved. Teaching children that it is OK to fail as long as you learn from the experience and ultimately improve makes them more resilient and ready for the unavoidable challenges of adulthood.
In financial services, I work with some of the brightest and most accomplished young people who are used to honors and success but have not experienced failure. Now these young people have to deal with not always being the best, not getting the immediate promotion they think they deserve, and even being let go. Some do not know how to handle a crisis and are crashed. The ones that are familiar with both failure and success rightfully earned quickly pick themselves-up, reinvent themselves and ultimately succeed. An academically accomplished young man who was abysmal at his first job in Operations, talked me out of firing him and convinced me to give him another chance. I admired his grit. Through perseverance, he became an effective analysts on the team. When he asked me for a recommendation for Harvard Business School, I gave him the strongest recommendation I have ever given. He had the makings of an entrepreneur and a leader.
Put children in situations where they need to adapt: Today’s parents try to provide our children with a safe and recognizable environment in an attempt to create a magical childhood – a beautiful home, a stocked with all the best-seller toys playroom, the stability of the same familiar schools and circle of friends. Are we really doing our children a favor or hindering their independence? The world our children are about to face arguably is going to be the most dynamic world experienced in the history of human civilization. Much as the industrial revolution brought an unprecedented level of social, economic and political change, the information revolution has sped up change cycles even more. According to a BCG study on innovation, the Ford Motors Model T was dominant for more than 75 years before it become displaced by competitors. However, the Blackberry was at the top of the handheld market for less than 7 years. Can you imagine the rate of change the future holds? Only the most adaptable would be able to manage and succeed in such a world.
Consciously exposing children to different situations and giving them new challenges prepares them for the future. One way to do that is to expose children to living abroad, learning foreign languages and attending new schools. If that is practically not doable, sleep-away camp, adventures in nature or experimentation with new technology can also encourage adaptability. Another way to develop adaptability is to give children room to dream and explore on their own. One of the problems over-achieving, over-scheduled young adults have today is that they get to college and into their first job completely drained of energy. The classic Study Hacks Blog, Want to Get into Harvard? Spend More Time Staring at the Clouds., describes how young adults can develop their “interstingness” and creativity through exploring more and doing less crammed extra-curricular activities.
There is no one right way to raise children and I am hardly an expert as I am learning myself. However, I cannot help but think that the lessons of effective entrepreneurs are transferable to how we teach children. Entrepreneurship teaches children not simply how to survive but how to thrive in the face of challenges: Nassim Taleb, author of Antifragile, writes: “Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire. Likewise randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.” If we give children room to experiment and learn like entrepreneurs do while being there for them to love, advise, guide, they are more likely to grow up a generation that is better prepared to live productive and fulfilled lives.