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Self-Knowledge • Parenting • Trauma & Childhood

How to Raise a Successful Person

A question not just for parents but for anyone reflecting on the constituents of a good life and on their own path through the world must be: how can one produce that most essential of things, a motivated child? 

The immediate and most paradoxical central answer is: die. We know from overwhelming statistical evidence that the single greatest predictor of success in a child is the death of at least one parent before the age of sixteen. Any parent wondering how they might nurture the next tycoon or creative genius can cease their enquiries and – if they can bear to look at the data – should simply be kind enough to drive their car into the nearest tree.

The next best thing – once again, to follow nothing more sinister than statistics – is to go bankrupt. Few things sharpen the sinews of a child as much as growing up in privilege and then watching their advantage dissolve in humiliation and penury. Eight or so years in a large suburban mansion, followed by a stint in a rented room by the motorway, will do it.

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Wikimedia Commons

For those in search of a less personally painful strategy, the most effective alternative is to constantly imbue one’s child with the sense that they aren’t good enough: good enough to be liked, to measure up to a sibling or to be noticed. This shouldn’t – it must be immediately be said – involve nagging, for the nagged tend to feel that beneath the constant upbraiding is someone who cares enough to bother about the grades and the piano lessons. Far better simply to ignore the child entirely, to be busy all the time, probably at the office or with a new lover, and by implication, utterly indifferent to whether the offspring lives or dies. 

We collectively think we have made immense strides in parenting. We shudder at the techniques of our forebears. We trust that we have learnt so much. We give the child choices, we reward them for the most minor achievements, we hug them constantly; we give them a sense that they’ve achieved something immense just by existing.

And we are thereby at grave risk of condemning the people we most love in the world to confusion, mediocrity and drift. If we raise people who feel only comfortable, they may soon not have too much to feel comfortable about. We threaten to bring about children who have had their capacities to struggle amputated and who are left to float helplessly on the currents of parental sentimentality while their less emotionally privileged, more desperate and restless colleagues seize the available prizes.

We need, from love, to confront a painful truth: that to be a good parent must mean being able – for the sake of the long-term, at certain points, for a while at least – to impersonate many of the leading traits of a very bad one.

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