How to Raise Kids to Achieve

The holidays are book times in our home.  I’ve promised to review two new books, Alexandra Levit’s intriguing book, New Job, New You, and a different take on change by Jean Latting and Jean Ramsey, entitled Reframing Change.  I also picked up Atul Gwande’s just published, Checklist Manifest: How to Get Things Right, an exploration of the nature of complexity in our lives.My eldest sent me Ted Kennedy’s autobiography, True Compass, a revelation of the Kennedy family.  I’ve  read 75 of the 500 pages thus far, but what’s most fascinating is a major subtext: how the parents, Joseph and Rose, set out and succeeded in raising kids to achieve. Whatever your perspective on the Kennedy family, and they have plenty of detractors, there are a few timeless lessons for all of us.  Boston, these Irish Catholics decided, with its old Yankee stock would never completely accept the Kennedys.   The family move to Hyannis Port was an attempt to circumvent some of those prejudices.  Geographical change can become a necessity. But it’s the family values that Ted Kennedy surfaces that drive the kids’ achievement.  Since there’s no question that we’ve identified with some of the same values, I want to do a personal sidebar of disclosure on our own values first.  On a few occasions I’ve commented that I was a Christian minister for elven years in the college towns of Boulder, Colorado (a glorious experience), and Flagstaff, Arizona (not nearly as interesting).  After those experiences, and with graduate degrees in tow, I taught in a theological seminary of the Scandinavian piety, here in Minnesota.  Many of you know that parts of the Twin Cities are heavily Lutheran and that St. Paul area has been heavily infused with the Catholic piety.  There isn’t a Scandinavian bone in my body.  So that culture with its strong piety was,initially, a strange bird to us.  We love the emphasis on education, the arts, cleanliness and order.  But, the central place of conflict between the Scandinavian piety and myself is the hierarchy of values that determine a person’s spiritual worth.  Growing up in a family from the Mid-South, with English and Scotch-Irish in background, the Scandinavian emphasis on humility was utterly foreign to us.  We imbibed truth-telling from our ethnicity, and humility was far down the ladder.  In all my years of Detroit schooling and regular church attendance, I remember absolutely nothing about humility.  When we first moved here, it took me just a few months to learn that an open mouth is not to be rewarded.  Better to be quiet, put on no intellectual airs, and be humble.  People who speak up will not be rewarded.  A few weeks ago, I had a brief conversation with a former colleague who told me that in old age he had a developed a strong sense of humility about life.  I could see that he was visibly shaken by my response:  “That’s a category that never crosses my mind.” Of course, my cultural response to all the piety of humility was, “nonsense.”  There is such a thing as genuine humility, but personal humility in my mind doesn’t look like you Scandinavians want it to look.  Crassly, our style is much more like that of Penelope Trunk, the well known blogger.  She, of course, would have been tarred and feathered and run out of the church and society in this culture.  So, as you can imagine, I ran up against plenty of barriers, especially with certain faculty and church-goers, in the early years of our Twin Cities experience.  But after awhile, I was able to look on the good side, celebrate the education and the arts, and go on about my business.  I’ve learned how to navigate the humble shibboleths, enjoy myself, build a good business and raise our three daughters.  I’ve also developed a few Scandinavian friends who can laugh with me about their piety and about mine as well.From the birth of our first daughter, my wife and I both strategized about their lives.  We intended for them to achieve in school and in a profession, have a few significant friends, tell the truth most of the time, and develop a quality of street smarts that will enable them to achieve and have a meaningful existence in most any geographical setting.  Thus, in spite of the fact that I was a nationally known Christian minister, raising good kids who were “religious” was simply not an agenda of significance.  I believe that the Judeo-Christian ethos is the best support system for achievement in the modern world.  But in my ministry, I found that too many “good kids” were really boring nonachievers.Now comes Ted Kennedy and his reminiscences about his father.  Kennedy writes that his father was never abusive, never wounding toward any of his children, but he let them know his expectations.  When he was 13 or 14, his father brought him in for a chat although the behavior that precipated the conversation was not recalled.  Here’s what Joe Kennedy said: You can have a serious life or a nonserious life, Teddy.  I’ll still love you whichever choice you make.  But if you decide to have a nonserious life, I won’t have much time for you.  You make up your mind.  There are too many children here who are doing things that are interesting for me to do much with you.   Obviously, it took Ted little time to make up his mind.Two other values from Joe Kennedy take the form of simple proverbs:  There is to be no crying in this house.   It’s very similar to a comment that one of my Scotch-Irish colleagues, Bill Bellinger, used to make occasionally to students who were complaining or dithering:  Just get on with it.  The “it” could be a paper, a project, or most anything else that needed completion.    The other value is one that I made religiously acceptable by labeling it, “sanctified nonchalance.”  Joe Kennedy would say, After you have done your best, then the hell with it. These few values go a long way toward raising achieving kids.  As the father of three successful professional daughters, I’m all for them. 
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