A risk-free childhood is a bad start to life


First published in the Financial Times on 22nd April 2014.

Fathers can endow their children with far more valuable assets than trust funds

I am pretty confident about starting and buying companies; but when it comes to being a successful dad, I am much less sure of myself.

Perhaps it is true of my whole generation. After all, the job description has changed. We are expected to be very different fathers from our own: much more engaged with our children’s upbringing, far more emotionally involved than was the norm in the 1960s and 1970s. But who knows if the outcomes will be better?

One lesson I hope I impart to my children is to be adventurous. Life is all too short and there are so many places to visit, people to meet, activities to try.

Too many fall into the trap of living in an obvious place and having a predictable career – and even being unimaginative when it comes to marriage. That is a recipe for a sterile existence.

I suspect one’s attitude towards taking risks starts young. A terrific article by Hanna Rosin recently published in The Atlantic magazine, entitled The Overprotected Kid , suggests parents today obsess too much about children’s safety. Forty years ago we walked to school on our own, played in the street and hardly saw our parents during the holidays. Now such behaviour would attract opprobrium from most parents.

The consequence of an over- protective approach will be a generation of young people who are slow to acquire a proper sense of discovery and exploration, who fail to take responsibility for their own actions, and who are missing out on key elements of a healthy development.

Children need to learn about being independent, how to socialise with their own age group and how to find their own sense of creativity, without the omnipresence of helicopter parents.

Meanwhile, a concise new book by social historian Charles Murray, called The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead , is full of thoughtful advice to younger people about making wise decisions. Recommendation number 20 is to “Leave Home”.

I’m sure a failure to do this is partly why unemployment is so high and birth rates are so low in countries such as Italy: in my opinion, no one grows up until they have flown the nest. Of course, such a step is rarely easy, financially or emotionally, but it is the only way to become an adult.

Murray’s suggestion number 23 is “Confronting Your Inner Hothouse Flower” – or the importance of acquiring resilience. This guidance echoes the new emphasis among educationalists on grit – the trait of perseverance of effort.

How Children Succeed , an influential book by Paul Tough published last year, argues that character – in the form of qualities such as grit and curiosity – is the most powerful determinant of success among children.

Acquiring tenacity is especially vital for entrepreneurs: it is a far bigger contributor to their likely achievements than any amount of academic qualifications. I would be pleased if I helped to teach my children the art of not giving up. Murray writes that joining the armed forces or the Peace Corps for a few years is a sound way to toughen up a naive graduate. I did neither (unlike the men of my dad’s generation, who faced conscription). Doubtless I would have benefited from the experience.

One terrible mistake a parent can make is to spoil their children. Anyone who has accumulated wealth faces this hazard in spades. One can see the effect in action among all too many pupils at smart schools in my part of London. A damaging sense of entitlement can emerge frighteningly early among the privileged offspring of the elite.

John Roberts, the entrepreneur worth £500m after the flotation of his business AO.com, thinks that inheritance can ruin children. He recently created a stir when he stated: “The kids are getting nothing.”

While his views may be harsh, I believe fathers can endow their children with far more valuable assets than trust funds. For example, I strongly suspect I copied my ambition and work ethic from my dad, who is still industriously writing books at 85.

Those sorts of habits will always outlast any pecuniary legacy. I hope I can pass something similar on to my children.