David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]

Promises, Promises

What promises—expressed and implied—have you made to your children?

Have you suggested that as adults they will live in a house bigger than the one in which they currently reside? Have you communicated that they will eventually earn more money than you? Did you tell them that they would go to the same college that you attended? Have you implied that they will matriculate at a “better” college?

For years, a fundamental part of the American dream has been that each generation would be a little more comfortable, a little less concerned about economic security. Are those days gone? Should we celebrate their demise? Is the expectation of more money, more happiness–not that moolah and contentment are equivalent–no longer realistic for many families?

Regression to the mean is a statistical concept that can be simplified as follows: if you win the Super Bowl this year, your team is unlikely to do better next season. 

I have written over the years about my father and his widowed mother. When my dad was not quite six years old, his father was murdered. My grandmother had no job, no skills, no education, no possibilities. She and her two young children moved into an already crowded third floor walkup in Philadelphia, 11 people in three rooms, bathroom down the hall. I have no way of knowing, but I suspect the landlord was not over generous with the heat.

There was nothing out of the ordinary about the extraordinary deprivation. Many families in the 1930s had it worse. But as a result of sharing a bed as a kid, my dad was thrilled to live in a modest three bedroom, two bath home where he could comfortably pay the mortgage. He had come a long way and was content. I remember him coming home from work every day at five o’clock. He saw no reason, had no interest, in working horrific hours or committing to raising his family in a larger home.

I am hardly recommending murder, loss, and sadness. (My father grieved the loss of his dad for the next 90 years). Nor am I advocating that you advise your kids not to strive. But there is something to be said for enough being enough, for acknowledging and accepting contentment. My parents packed the family in the car for vacations a few hours away. It never occurred to them that we should all fly first class to Monaco. My parents were married 63 years; I don’t think they ever ordered room service.

Could there be a relationship between my dad’s acceptance and satisfaction and the fact that no blows were softened for depression babies like him. No promises were made. It was clear to my father that if he wanted to make anything for himself, he could pretty much go out and get it. And that having a job, owning a home, having healthy kids was the big win. Game over. His house was big enough; his kids were smart enough; his meals were hot enough. He worked as hard as he needed to.

Whereas some people say that we are raising a generation of hot house flowers who are neither content nor able to overcome adversity—their protestations about the trauma of losing the student council election notwithstanding. And parents are attending the job interviews of their adult children? What is up with that?

Finding $100 in the street is a pleasant surprise. Unless you had reason to believe that there was $500 waiting for you on the pavement. Why do we communicate to our children that anything less than matriculating at Stanford, Duke, or Princeton is the baseline? Shouldn’t we suggest to the contrary that being able to afford college at all is an extraordinary gift, top-of-the-line, the best we could hope for. Being smart and motivated enough to succeed at a top college is the big win, the top prize. Actually getting admitted is the cherry on top of an already perfect sundae.

I’ll always protect you, I’ll always be there for you, nothing bad can ever happen to you. These words may give more comfort to the speaker than to the child. Kids know that these statements are unlikely to be fulfilled. We do our best to protect our beloved children. But disappointments are as inevitable as the summer rain. In the fullness of time, our kids will mourn our deaths. Telling them everything is going to be okay suggests that we are at best, naïve, at worst prevaricators.

Most importantly, we cannot feel the feelings for them. It has to be okay if they’re sad sometimes. Suggesting that our kids will always be picked first for games, win every contest, be admitted to their “top” college is ill advised. 

As parents, we need to under promise and overdeliver. And we need to let our kids know that their best is good enough.

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David Altshuler 2

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