Why helicopter parenting can set up kids for a crash
The beginning of the school year always coincides with media reports about how to help your kids succeed. The reports put increasing pressure on parents, who are now expected to ensure their kids excel in every pursuit they tackle. It’s all part of helping them on their life’s journey, right? Well, maybe not.
The January newspaper headlines about private school fees, which seem to rise implausibly by about 7 per cent a year, are just one of the things that cause parents stress. This is because not all families with kids in private schools are wealthy. Many carry heavy debt burdens and work multiple jobs to provide their kids with what they believe is the best opportunity to succeed.
But many go further…much further.
As an aside, and before we begin, I must say I will never forget my conversation, sitting around a campfire with a NSW kindergarten teacher. Highlighting the pressure of expectation foisted on kids these days, she noted that of her intake of 25 students, all had applied for the Gifted & Talented program! Evidently they were all geniuses.
From St Ives to Sutherland, Rose Bay to Richmond, and Bellevue Hill to Bradbury, young kids are literally being ripped out of their dreams to swim at 5am, trombone at six and then play soccer, rugby and tennis four nights a week for their school and their local club with no weekends free to simply climb a tree.
And of course, little Jacob, Sam, Nathaniel, Jack, Harry and Peter are all Mensa geniuses too, pushed by their parents to excel, to achieve, to better themselves, and most importantly, be the person their parents did not become.
I came across two stories that together offered an opportunity for highly strung parents to relax (never! I hear them scream). But relax you must, for even if all your efforts ‘pay off’ and your son or daughter reaches the summit and captains Australia in a pursuit worthy of an entry in our nation’s history books, they may still, when the fanfare has died away afterwards, find themselves standing in front of a camera, recording an ad for a vitamin supplement.
Like a generational wave, the pendulum swings and it will swing back. Your kids will not want to be the parents theirs were!
The first article, entitled Sports Stars Win With The Luck Of The Genes, went to the heart of the Sports Tiger Parent’s goal to see their child become the next Don Bradman, Ronaldo or Roger Federer.
Ed Smith writes that the idea your son or daughter can, with ‘hard yards’ and ‘tireless effort’, work their way to the top of their favoured sport, is misguided at best and possibly downright dangerous.
Citing the book, The Sports Gene, by David Epstein, Ed Smith writes:
“A plethora of self-help books has tried to eliminate the idea of talent altogether, replacing it with the speculative theory that greatness follows simply from 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. Talent, in this analysis, is an old wives’ tale designed to keep you in your place, a cruel hoax that crushes dreams and thwarts ambition.
“The war on talent uses this language of humane optimism, promising to decode and commodify a blueprint that can turn everyone and anyone into Lionel Messi or, if you prefer, Richard Wagner. The idea conveniently dovetails with the ‘tiger mother’ school of parenting (founded by the Chinese-American law professor Amy Chua), in which children are merely clay models that can be contorted into their parents’ preferred shape.
“The chief beneficiaries of the war on talent will be not tomorrow’s athletes but tomorrow’s psychotherapists, who can look forward to a generation of future clients struggling to understand how, by some cruel quirk of mischance, they did not become Roger Federer, despite putting in the full 10,000 hours.”
In 2007, Donald Thomas, a basketball player from the Bahamas, became the world champion in high jump. Only eight months before, however, he was boasting about his slam-dunking prowess to fellow university students on the track team. They challenged him to jump six feet and six inches at the high jump. Without any technique, Thomas cleared seven feet. The previously unamused athletes rushed Thomas over to the athletics office. The following year and after only eight months of training, Thomas was crowned world champion. According to Ed Smith, “If he’d possessed even a rudimentary grasp of technique, he would have shattered the world record. Ten thousand hours? There wasn’t time. No, the key was Thomas’s remarkable Achilles tendons, 10 and a quarter inches long and unusually stiff – a little like a kangaroo’s.”
He goes on to suggest that “professionalism, with its homogenisation of training principles, [would] one day lead to a situation in which it is almost impossible to gain an advantage through practice (an advantage that was clearly possible in the early decades of professional sport, when some teams were slow to embrace proper commitment). However, when everyone trains optimally, just as when no one trains at all, sport will be dominated by the most naturally talented.”
By itself none of this will make a lick of difference to you. Most parents don’t have the resources, and the science isn’t at the point yet where we can pick the most naturally gifted 3 year olds who will respond best to training and for which the foregoing of all other academic study is sensible. So in the absence of the genetic test, millions of parents around the world will get their kids up at 3am to hike across town and throw them in a cold pool only to find out at the age of 15 that some other kid grew bigger hands and wider feet, and at six foot four, is clearly going to swim faster with less effort.
Perhaps this is where a little maths might help, and it’s also the point where the world’s smartest and arguably most successful gambler, MONA founder and Tasmanian, David Walsh, should step in.
You see, David Walsh uses probability as well as a little sport to argue that most parents are acting sub optimally by forcing their kids to do more sport at the expense of other studies.
My fellow finance show panellist, Christopher Joye, had the opportunity to interview David Walsh, and what came out of it was some of the most beautifully articulated argument for taking the wide, if mundane, road I have ever read. Here, I’ll quote from his article.
Asked what his advice is to any young Australian seeking to emulate his efforts, Walsh bluntly responds: “The pursuit of excellent is a load of shit.”
He believes many of us get deluded by a phenomenon known as survivorship bias, where we only see the winners … and do not properly observe the losers.
This skews our expectations around the likelihood of success.
“If you ask Rafael Nadal whether tennis is a good modality to explore in life, he would probably respond ‘yes, it’s fantastic and has served me well’.
“Yet at any given time there are hundreds of millions of kids trying to be tennis players. Luck and ability, and the nuanced interaction of nature and nurture, all play a part and result in maybe 100 to 200 making a living.”
“The average living across tennis players is very low and most are doing things that perturb significantly their chances of succeeding in other domains.”
Walsh contrasts tennis’s ‘high variance’ outcomes, which he equates to his own improbable path, to the prospects in accountancy.
“Everyone can do a half decent job. Everyone can make a living. And the average income is greater than the mean income for tennis players and, importantly, it is a low variance, or higher probability, result.
His advice to aspirational Australians is, in short, “not to live like I did”.
Tiger parents may not like the message that emerges from the thoughts of David Walsh, who suggests that becoming an accountant is an option with a better aggregate outcome. Nor will they be pleased with David Epstein who might be right about the detrimental psychological impact on your child from someone else’s raw talent. But whether you like it or not, the numbers suggest far fewer will make a living from cricket or high jump (or being barred from the world’s casinos) and many more will make their living as accountants, lawyers and national park rangers.
So our advice for parenting in 2017 and repeated from 2013, is… relax. Let your kids be kids, let them dream of becoming Roger Federer but then let them turn their attention to climbing trees, collecting skinks or stamps, playing in the mud and even watching a little TV, because, according to the numbers, they’ll be catching the train to a hot desk at Deloitte before you know it.