Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Entrepreneurship and Opinion and Notions

HETRICK: To teach your children well, put away the parachutes

September 12, 2009

And you, of tender years,Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by,And so please help them with your youth,They seek the truth before they can die.

– Graham Nash, “Teach Your Children”

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My son Zach—a 21-year-old college junior/commercial photographer—sent me an e-mail a few weeks ago. I knew something was up, because he prefers to text.

In his e-mail, Zach said he wanted to talk. He wanted to talk about his booming photography business, his prospects to do even more if he had the time and whether college is the best training for what he loves to do. He said he wanted to get together to discuss it in person.

Over dinner the next day, Zach shared with my wife and me his healthy earnings from last year, what’s already on the books for the weeks and months ahead, and the potential assignments he’s been turning down because of his class schedule.

He also outlined his proposed housing arrangements; had his health, auto, property and liability insurance lined up; had mapped out a budget; and had already decided on a compromise: becoming a full-time shooter/part-time student instead of the other way around.

I suppose I could have thrown the stay-in-school, you’ll-never-go-back-once-you-leave hissy fit. I suppose I could have preached the “without-a-degree, you-can’t-succeed” sermon. I suppose I could have raised red flags about all the starving-for-business photographers who send samples my way.

But Zach knows all that. He’d thought this through. This is, after all, a young man who’s had his own custom-designed business cards since the 10th grade, who has four years of professional internships under his belt and who’s developed several steady clients to form the foundation of his business.

He’s also the kind of entrepreneurial spirit who sits on my couch for hours and hours on a Labor Day holiday, searching the Web and building a list of potential customers.

What’s wrong with this picture? Not a darned thing.

Even though it’s not what I envisioned for my sons, nor what was right for me 30 years ago.

President Obama talked to the nation’s students Sept. 8 about responsibility—including the responsibility to figure out what they’re really good at, to set goals toward that end and pursue them relentlessly.

But as they do so, those of us who are raising those students have a responsibility, too—to let them go, to let them find and pursue their own vision (not ours), and mostly to let them face their own barriers and fight their own battles.

A few years ago, I saw a news segment about the “millennial generation”—the one to which my sons belong. It said that this is the most scheduled and programmed generation our nation has ever produced.

We’ve enrolled our little ones, day after day, evening after evening, in day care or Montessori, gymnastics or ballet, T-ball or soccer, football or Little League, the Y or the Boys and Girls Club, chess club or cheerleading.

The other distinguishing feature of this generation, the news report said, is that we’ve rewarded our little angels relentlessly. No such thing as winners and losers here. Everyone gets a participation trophy.

Programming and positive reinforcement may be good for schoolchildren. But it can spell trouble when Johnny and Suzie arrive at college or the workplace and (a) have to shape their own schedules, (b) discover that there’s no applause for merely showing up and (c) learn that sometimes you lose, even if it’s not your fault.

Of late, I’ve witnessed a consequence I didn’t anticipate from such culture shock. The kids deal with life’s curveballs pretty well. But all too often, their parents can’t handle it. The term used to describe these folks is “helicopter parents” or “parachute parents.” These are child-raisers who can’t step out of protecting, pampering, controlling mode even with high school and college students, recent graduates and young professionals.

Thus, I’ve seen a daddy lobbying with a school principal to secure an extra-curricular leadership role for his son.

I’ve talked with professors who’ve been berated by parents because they deemed a paper unworthy of an “A.”

I’ve seen parents who belong to fraternities or sororities throw a public fit because their daughter or son wasn’t chosen for membership in the same organization.

I’ve seen parents threaten lawsuits because a private campus organization decided to close up shop.

I’ve seen alumni erupt because their offspring weren’t admitted to their beloved alma maters.

And sadly, I’ve even heard of parents complaining to their college graduate’s employer because their little boy or girl experienced on-the-job stress and pressure.

It’s back-to-school time. Mom and dad, by all means, urge your kids to take responsibility. And kids, tell your parents that as part of that responsibility, they should ground their parachutes and helicopters. You can’t soar if someone’s holding your wings.•

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Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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