What is a parent’s role in raising smart, confident, and successful children? What matters? What doesn’t? Though author Margot Bisnow was the mother of two happy and driven entrepreneurial sons, these are questions she once never thought to ask. But then she interviewed 70 successful entrepreneurs – and their Moms – and found that many parents’ approach to ‘helping’ their children is counterproductive.
We’re all familiar with the stories behind a select few iconic entrepreneurs – like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs – but it’s hard to identify with them. How about all the others? The ones who are more like the rest of us, but who are still happy and productive and busy changing the world?
Entrepreneurs are not just founders of for-profit businesses. They are resilient, hard-working people who start something, who come up with ideas and bring them to life, and who turn passion into projects.
As she researched and wrote her book, “Raising an Entrepreneur,” Bisnow interviewed 70 parents who raised highly successful adults. Here are their four hard parenting rules that differentiate them from most others:
1. Give Kids Extreme Independence
Susan and Anne Wojcicki are two incredibly accomplished sisters. Susan, Google’s first marketing manager, became its CEO in 2014. Anne co-founded 23andMe, a genomics and biotech company.
When Bisnow talked with their mom Esther, it was clear that her girls grew up knowing she trusted them to behave responsibly. The girls were given the freedom that some parents, especially today, would balk at. “I gave my children the opportunity to be very independent early on,” Esther told her. “I had three children in four years, and no help, so I put them to work out of necessity.”
Her kids loved that sense of freedom. “I think it gave them a lot of confidence,” Esther reported. “I would put my five-year-old daughter on a plane [alone] — with a name tag around her neck — to visit her grandmother in L.A.”
Even if you’re afraid to give your kids the kind of freedom Esther gave her daughters, she said “you can still give them things to do around the house to contribute to the family, like chores to make them responsible and to develop their confidence.”
2. Actively Nurture Compassion
Children whose parents show them how it feels to help others who are struggling, whether across the world or across the kitchen table, get a head start in developing a compassionate outlook.
Scott Harrison is the founder of charity: water, a non-profit that restores and maintains wells to give people sustainable access to clean water. In only 15 years, charity: water has funded 60,000 projects in 29 developing countries, brought clean water to 12 million people, and raised almost half a billion dollars for the cause.
Before Scott’s mom Joan passed away, she told Bisnow that she credits his success to the parenting foundation she set early on, built on spiritual community, along with discipline and hard work. When he was in elementary and middle school, Joan would help him sort through his clothes, books, and toys, and they would give some away to kids who could use them.
Early awareness of other people’s problems can also encourage kids to start asking entrepreneurial questions: “Do things really have to be this way?” “How can I make them better?”
3. Welcome Failure Early and Often
Nia Batts co-founded Detroit Blows, an inclusive, non-toxic hair and beauty service. Author Bisnow met Nia about 10 years ago when she worked at Viacom.
When she asked Batts how she gathered the courage to leave her secure job and start something from scratch, she said it was because she learned the merits of failing early and often when she was young. “My mom was a trial attorney,” Nia said. “Most of the time she won, but sometimes she lost. And I remember my dad often asking me, ‘What did you fail at today?’” He asked me when I was young and he was driving me to or from school; he asked me when I was in college, and he asked me more frequently when I started to work.”
We’ve all seen so many parents try to save their kids from failing, from hard times, from struggle, and from difficult decisions. But Nia’s parents wanted to make sure they created an environment where it was okay to fail. “I think they were excited to watch the process unfold as I grew up and learned that lesson. My father taught me that in your wounds lie your gifts, and in your failures lie your opportunities.”
4. Let Go of Control and Lead by Following
Kids need time to discover their paths. Many experience periods when it’s unclear where they’re going. In this situation, some parents may see their kids as being lost. But parents of kids who grow up to become entrepreneurs are more likely to see their kids as exploring.
Here’s the tough part for a lot of parents: If you want to raise a child to be independent and successful, you need to lead by following, regardless of where your child wants to go.
Kenneth Ginsburg, author of “Building Resilience in Children and Teens,” offers this advice: “Getting out of the way is a challenge. We want to help, fix and guide kids. But we have to remind ourselves that when we let them figure things out for themselves, we communicate this: ‘I think you are competent and wise.’”
In other words, see what your kids want, what their passion is, what they are good at, and what makes them happy. Allow their gift to reveal itself. Then support it. Tell them how proud you are of them for succeeding in their chosen path. And then tell them again and again, until you’re sure they believe it.
They may not end up with a career you had in mind, but if they’re able to pursue their passion, they’ll be happy and fulfilled. And isn’t that what all parents want for their kids?