Two years ago, one of my then-14 year old twin sons approached my wife with a question.
Before I tell you the question, I should explain the context. My wife and I run a children’s summer camp, so summer vacations with our own children do not exist. To address our long seeded desire to travel with our children, we embarked on an unusual adventure: we home schooled and backpacked for 6 months through Europe, Asia and New Zealand and parts of the US.
Our son, Liam, approached us after 3 or 4 weeks in Europe. We were staying in the most economical housing we could find (rented apartments in Europe, hostels in Asia), but the trip was still a massive endeavor.
“Mom, I have been thinking about my life. I never assumed I would be as passionate about my job as you and dad are. I may not be as happy. But I always thought I would earn more money than you do. But this trip must be pretty expensive and it makes me wonder—what if I do not measure up there either?”
He cornered me later asking about my life as an investment banker and of the growth of our family camp business. He asked about so many of my “successes,” but none of my struggles.
I was unnerved after these conversations and it took me awhile to discover the source of my unease: we had been sharing the wrong stories with our children.
Human beings are wired to listen to and absorb stories. We are capable of remembering huge amounts of information if framed as a story. For example, the ancient Greeks shared the story of the Iliad by memory for years before Homer wrote it down.
Not only do our brains respond to stories, but also these stories have a great influence on us. They create narratives that help us understand the world. They imply values. They help us frame the world and create filters (biases) that we then apply to what we observe.
We had inadvertently given our son two dysfunctional stories:
The first story was entirely our fault. The second is ubiquitous to our society. Let me describe each separately.
Our Lives Have Been a Long Series of Successes.
Throughout our lives and especially early in our children’s lives, we had many struggles. We lived in a very small apartment at camp with 3 children, 2 bedrooms and 1.5 bathrooms. We were burdened with typical American debt; school loans, car loans etc. We often needed financial help to visit our parents for vacations.
At the height of the Internet boom, I had the opportunity to be involved in a camp related Internet business. I invested a great deal of time, money and dreams. Like so many other Internet companies, this one went bust. At the end, we had to let our employees go and we disappointed our investors.
In high school, I struggled socially at times. My wife resisted parental authority.
We ran for offices that we lost.
We suffered heartbreaks.
Later, we initially chose careers that we did not like.
Liam did not know that I slept on an outdoor porch (in Texas) during my first summer as a camp director because there was no room in any cabin.
But these were not the tales he heard or saw. He saw a large camp that was “successful” in the conventional ways. Our house was now much larger. We took vacations.
Much of the biographical information he had came from our website, which emphasized our successes and not our struggles. We were a “19 year overnight success story”, but he only saw the last years.
As a result, he saw our lives as a wide and beautiful boulevard of triumphs and comforts. This narrative created uncertainty for him—he knew that he had struggles and the occasional “failure.” Did that mean he was inferior to his parents?
By contrast, my wife and I actually see our lives not as a beautiful boulevard, but a winding mountain road with many steep sections and potholes. Even more important, it is the potholes that developed resilience, fostered gratitude for our lives and taught us the importance of relying on each other. Some of our favorite memories spring from the “hardest” moments.
This is the story he needed to hear. This story of challenge, failure and struggle would help him frame his own difficult moments and provide evidence that that he can overcome them.
Money and Power are Evidence of Success.
We did not actively spread this story, but we did not have to. It is woven into the fabric of our culture. Our culture watches reality shows about the rich and famous. We read articles about the 100 “most powerful” or richest individuals.
Every supermarket check-out line features magazines that reinforce these messages (as well as the myth of beauty). TV shows and movies emphasize the importance of accumulating money, things and status.
This story is everywhere and it frames the minds of our children.
Sharing the Right Stories.
My wife and I saw a strong and distinct need: to surround our children with a different set of stories. We needed to share these stories intentionally and regularly. If we did not, we would be certain that our children were embracing stories that created dysfunctional narratives.
So we strive to share all our personal stories of struggle and failure. We share similar stories from the lives of others, be they Abraham Lincoln’s failed election efforts or Anne Frank’s life. We are committed to create a context where “failure” means growth, not defeat.
We are also striving to craft a “mythology of meaning” to combat the stories of wealth and power. Camp makes this easier because we can point to beloved co-workers who have chosen a life of compassion rather than compensation. We share stories about their grandparents that emphasize selflessness and commitment.
When our travels took us to Nepal, Laos and other “poorer” nations, we spent time understanding the people. We pointed out that these cultures have substantially lower levels of depression than the “successful” Western countries and we asked them why this might be so. Our children started to notice that contentment seemed disconnected from income. They are formulating alternative hypotheses about life, meaning, success and family.
The stories our children believe are far too important to leave to chance. We must help select them, share them and embrace them. Otherwise, we risk hinging their happiness on a narrative we do not believe.