On Leadership: How to Ruin a Great Child’s Future

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Wherever I happen to be in the world I try to listen and learn.

While in Washington, D.C. last week I heard something that truly left me speechless.  A wealthy couple from New York was dropping their son off for college at Georgetown University, as a first year undergraduate student. Dropping him off mind you, at his new $1.5M townhouse.

The father was a successful investment banker in New York and didn’t want his son to want for anything. And the mother just didn’t want him to want, period.

So the family decision was to replicate their home environment, by purchasing their 19 year old son his very own million dollar townhouse. Specifically, a 5-bedroom, 4.5 bath residence complete with butler service.  This was a really bad move.

There will be no need for this kid to go to Target, Wal-Mart, or Ikea even to outfit the place. Four shipping crates we’re already on their way with everything he possibly needed.

My message to this family is respectful but straight forward. You have just ruined a perfectly good kid. 

The best thing my parents did for me was to outfit me with love, confidence and self esteem.

The second best thing they did for me was to allow me to try, fail, flounder, and find my way to get back up again. On my own.

They also taught me how to work, and the value of a dollar.

I remember every car payment I made, on every modest-to-almost-nice car I owned growing up. Because I made those payments with my own earned income.

“There is a difference between being broke and being poor. Being broke is a temporary economic condition, but being poor is a disabling frame of mind, and a depressed condition of your spirit, and you must vow to never, ever be poor again.” – John Hope Bryant

This poor kid (and I do mean poor, as real poverty has nothing to do with money) will never learn how to truly operate in the real world.

He will never learn how to manage through pain, or how to deal with and work himself out of difficult situations.

He has been robbed of the need (or even the relevancy) to hustle for anything in life.

He will have little to no ‘natural creativity’ in problem solving on his own.

He will think (actually, he has already been taught to think) that the way to solve his problem is with a checkbook. His parent’s checkbook.

And here’s the saddest part — all of this was skillfully accomplished with the active support of his loving parents. We are not talking about parents who are checked out. We are talking about parents who are too checked in!

There will be no struggle here. No hard fought for character building. But worse of all, he will have absolutely no clue about — or even interest in — a $10 an hour job. My first $7 an hour job literally made me who I am today.

I remember 20 years ago, a friend of mine had built a business from nothing to being worth millions, and then he sold it. A former modest CPA that made good. This was the all American story. Good for him. And then he lost his mind.

This friend of mine then went home and promptly ruined his only child.

He gave his already confused 18 year old son a stock brokerage account worth $150,000, to ‘play around with,’ he told me.

$150,000 is big money today, but 20 years ago it was like giving someone close to $1 million today. He also bought his son a brand new BMW automobile.

Of course, the son promptly thrashed the BMW to death and back, and ran through the stock account like a chicken sliding down the back side of Mount Everest in winter. But worse of all, this otherwise redeemable young man was ruined. At 18 years old.  By his dad.

This young man of course had just about zero interest in an hourly job after this, or most any other kind or regular work. And his father — my friend — had totally blown the second rule of rational parenting.

The first rule of parenting — tell your children you love them every single day. It will work wonders. It did for me.

The second rule of parenting — role model real success before your children.  Watch how you live your life. It may be the only bible that anyone else reads.

The third rule is you can’t buy the first rule, and you can’t screw up the second one, simply because you are screwed up or confused.

So the investment banker got to where he was because he worked hard, and built a business up from nothing. It took more than two decades to build his business. But he opted to casually ‘give success’ to his son. Hope that works out for them, but I doubt it will. And my middle name is hope.

My CPA friend worked hard, scrapped and built a successful business from nothing, and then ‘gives’ his son yet another reason not do anything on his own.

Two different examples. Same outcome.

Young men in this case, both destined to end up somewhere ‘less than what they could be.’ Or worse, absolute spoiled rotten, disconnected brats who do not positively contribute to society.

So what should they have done differently you ask? Simple.

They should have passed down to their children the same legacy of hard work, integrity gained from work and sacrifice, and the inner strength gained through struggle, hustle and loss.  They should have passed along the full range of the other values that they gained growing up. That’s what.

“You cannot grow in life without legitimate suffering.”

But here’s the really odd question here — because there are countless well-to-do families all around the world that do the same exact thing with their sons and daughters — why wouldn’t you give your children precisely the tools that you used to succeed coming up? After all, it worked for you.

And this does not even have to be about wealthy parents making terrible decisions with their children. I have friends today who struggled coming up in life, and in some cases are still struggling today to fulfill their dreams — who are seriously wrestling with whether they should purchase a brand new Mercedes Benz as the first car for their child. The answer once again, is no. Just no. No.

Whatever the motivation by the parents, and no matter how noble and well meaning, spoiling a kid before work, worth or context in life, is going to be very hard to work out well.

They are setting their child up for massive personal, professional, financial or worse — a self esteem failure in the future.

In business today, I run circles around super smart people who got too much, too early, way too often. I’m so glad I had to hustle growing up.

What’s that old saying, ‘the first generation makes it, the second generation spends it, and the third generation loses it.’ More times than not, this saying becomes prophecy.

We have an entire generation today, both here and around the world, that too often has confused ‘building wealth’ with ‘being rich.’ And believe me, there is a big, big difference.

We speak of entitlement in this country, and reactively we point in the direction of the financially poor family we saw on television. But the reality is, entitlement is a global problem that effects the rich, the wealthy, and the financially poor and left behind alike. 

We have an entire generation of young people in college and graduating from college who mistakenly believe that a BMW is a birth right. A business card with vice president printed on it, a ‘nice place to start.’

I love the concept of wealth and the opportunities that flow from it. I love the concept of sharing that wealth. Even being comfortable, so you are able to focus.

I love having options, and I love being able to do nice things for my family and those that I love. I love all of that, and hopefully you do too.

But what I won’t do is to carry someone who can walk on their own, or 100% pre-pay a child’s future promise, thereby oddly robbing them of the priceless experience of actually living and creating a real life for themselves.  Being able to create something — on their own.

And this one thing is sure, when they do it on their own — they will know that they did it on their own. And that my friends, is real wealth.

This nurtures an inner confidence, and  a real self-esteem, that no one can take from them. Because no one else gave it to them in the first place.

Give your children and those you love what they need, and not just what they want. Tell them that you love them, and model real success as you know it.

They will appreciate it, and you more later.

Okay, let’s go…

John Hope Bryant is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Ventures, a Thinker-In-Residence 800-CEO-READ, and an Inc. Magazine/800-CEO-READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based WorldHis newest bestselling book is How The Poor Can Save Capitalism: Rebuilding the Path to the Middle Class.

On Leadership: How to Ruin a Great Child’s Future