Parenting Is Personal

Economist, author, and host of the Econtalker podcast (running since 2006!), Russ Roberts is one of my favorite public personalities. He is wise in the holistic sense of the word. He brings a wide perspective to every topic and guest, including those he disagrees with.

As he promotes his new book Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us which addresses the important decisions in our lives for which data is not a helpful guide (like marriage, where to live, etc), the microphone is being turned back on him — he was recently on Tim Ferriss’ show. The episode is great but I want to talk about a topic that comes right at the beginning — parenting.

Tim quotes from Russ’ eulogy to his father:

“I sometimes think that my dad really could have been a minor American poet or a more renowned storywriter if he had spent less time with his children and grandchildren. The tradeoff was easy for him…He chose us.

“He had many talents. Being a father was the talent he chose to cultivate.”

“All of us who survive him, his good wife, his children and his grandchildren, are so lucky that we had him for so long.

“So If you want to honor my father’s memory, spend more time with your children. Or your parents. Or those you love. For Dad, quality time demanded quantity time. It’s harder than it seems. So many things, more tangible, more alluring, with more immediate returns, call for our attention and distract us.”

He expands during the conversation with Tim (emphasis mine):

I think parenting, but more than parenting, life requires paying attention. And I would say my dad was one of the least meditative people who was born in 1930. There weren’t that many of them, to be honest. It’s a more recent phenomenon, but my dad had zero — I went on three silent meditation retreats while he was alive. And he found that utterly bewildering. So he was not a meditator, but he understood somehow that principle about paying attention to what’s important. And what was important to him was us, his children and his wife and his family. As I said, he used to complain. He said, “It’s terrible. God gave me such a big soul and so little talent. I have so much to say, and I can’t say it.”

He wanted to be a poet. He wrote lots of poems, many of them pretty good. He liked a few of them. And his joke really was — you read the line, but the joke was, he’d like to be a minor American poet. Didn’t want to be Robert Frost or Edna St. Vincent Millay. He would have been happy to be a quieter person with a couple good poems. And he might have achieved that if he had devoted himself to that craft, but he instead devoted himself to us. One of my favorite things about my dad, when we had our kids and I’d say, “Dad, you want to read a story? You want to read a book to one of my kids?” He was so disdainful of that. The idea of reading a book that someone else had written was so cheating to him. All of his stories were made up. He told us hundreds of stories, my children hundreds of stories that he crafted, that he made up. And he could have been a great children’s writer. He could have been maybe a minor American poet, but he spent most of his time with us, his free time.

These excerpts grabbed my attention because, while beautiful, they are not the only way. The larger question for any parental approach is — Are you doing this for kids? Or for you?

A dad I was speaking to recently had his first child. He had been reading me for a while and presumed that my decision to stay home was calculated as the best thing for my kids.

I stopped him right there to share a bit of wisdom that has stayed with me from another friend and his wife. I’ll share it here as well. A little background first. Both members of this couple are elite talents (mentally and physically — genetic mutants kinda). They ultimately split duties explicitly. Where one pursued career, the other managed the family life. But to get to that point there was tremendous introspection about priorities. There was even an off-the-grid type arrangement on the table. They were thinking intentionally, skeptical of the comfort of canned life scripts. And this is despite the fact that one of them is world-class at their profession. Like Russ’ father, they were willing to table personal ambition if that’s what their hearts decided was necessary. In fact, they were torn because the pull to be present with their children was powerful. These pulls, in a spreadsheet sense, were especially expensive given their opportunity costs.

(On an episode of FoundersI learned that David Ogilvy was blown away by an employee who’d consistently leave the office at 5pm. He wondered how this individual could have such discipline! Ogilvy reveals something people often don’t admit — your martyrdom about work can be the opposite — it’s often selfish. High performers are ambitious. They would rather work than go home. Your family’s holistic needs extend well beyond money. Are the boundaries you draw for them…or you? And what stories do you tell yourself about where you draw them?)

I asked them how they eventually decided to have one parent go all-in on their professional career and they harkened back to their own parents. One of them had a father who was like the dad of the neighborhood. He was an active local sports coach too (he himself an Olympic-level athlete) but he was just that guy that the whole town knew. A super-involved community member, all the kids called him coach. His posture is reminiscent of Russ’ description of his own father.

The other member of the couple had a father who was always working. But here’s the thing — both members of the couple felt the same. A deep sense that their fathers loved them. The fathers were as different as their approaches. The introvert and neighborhood “dad”. But their children all felt open lines of communication to their fathers.

And then it dawned on me. Your approach is not about your kids. It’s about you. You can rationalize any specific life plan as “for your kids” but as long as they feel loved, you’ve done your job. My mother was the work-all-the-time archetype. She had to be. She didn’t finish college, got married too early, and often worked 2 jobs. My sis and I were classic 80s latchkey kids. But my mom has always been a best friend. I could talk to her about anything. I was a very insecure kid, always trying to fit in, and increasingly difficult as I got older. But she is a great listener. She never judged me. And while she always challenged me, it was clear — her love was unconditional. All of this was an open invitation to confide in her1. Even if she was at work all the time, there was always an open ear for me.

Russ’ sentiments are profound personal expressions of love and gratitude. But they are not prescriptive. They are simply “my dad lived like X, and we are thankful”. They are opinions reflecting Russ’ own values. Optimizing for kids to reflect back on you the way Russ reflects on his own dad might not work. You are not Russ’ dad. And your kids might not have Russ’ needs.

My own view is staying home with your kids is about what you want. My mom has openly regret that she wasn’t around more, not for us, but for her. She wished she “enjoyed” us more when we were children. But as kids we relished the freedom. Playing with mom wasn’t important to us. She’s not fun like that. And that’s ok.

Your parenting approach is a personal mold to fit within the contours of your strengths and weaknesses. You can find inspiration in others but not a recipe. Don’t let the pressures to be [insert type of parent] come from anyone else. The internet will gladly serve you as much FOMO as you’ll take.

Every time I see this ad I want to swing copywriters right into the sun. GFY.

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