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What Every Parent Can Do to Keep Their Kids From Drowning in College Debt

March 13, 2017, 6:49 PM UTC
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UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 19: Dana Radojevic, front right, and other guests attend a watch party for the last presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at Capitol Lounge on Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, October 19, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
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I have a message for parents: the world has changed. And this has profound implications for how we should raise our kids today.

We’re still preparing them for careers the way we used to: Get good grades in all their subjects; show they’re well rounded with several extracurricular activities; hire an SAT tutor; get into a good college; get good grades; graduate; find jobs at good companies; and settle in for a good life.

That still works for some kids, which is fantastic. But for most kids today, that path is broken. They’ve done everything that’s been asked of them. They spent thousands of hours studying subjects they hate, got decent grades, did extracurricular activities, and went to good colleges. They’re graduating with lots of debt: 44 million now make an average monthly student loan payment of $351. They’re being offered jobs as baristas. They have no idea what they want to do.

But there’s good news. In fact, great news: their kids don’t have to take that path. There’s another way. Today, there are new career opportunities that can make their hearts sing, and make their dreams come true.

For the first time in history, kids can create a job out of thin air. They can turn a passion into a project and create a career out of doing what they love. They don’t need to be well rounded with an impressive resume. They don’t even need a college degree.

I wrote a book on this: Raising an Entrepreneur: 10 Rules for Nurturing Risk Takers, Problem Solvers, and Change Makers. It’s based on interviewing 60 successful entrepreneurs and their parents about how they were brought up.

I define an entrepreneur as anyone who starts something. So my book is not about turning your child into a business tycoon (although that could happen). It’s about creating an entrepreneurial mindset: making them curious, creative, bold, problem solvers. Making them trailblazers in business, nonprofits, or the arts, where they create their own jobs and life work that they love. Making them unafraid to follow their dreams and, maybe, even to change the world.

I didn’t start out with such a big mission. All I wanted to know is how entrepreneurs came to be willing to put everything on the line for an idea, risk so much, and work so hard. I wanted to know how self-starters got started.

I had come to know hundreds of young entrepreneurs because my older son Elliott started Summit Series, conferences for young entrepreneurs from around the world. Most of them are millennials; thousands have participated.

So I started asking some of them how they were raised. They were from every kind of socio-economic and ethnic background and every kind of family. Half men, half women, different races and religions. And a good number either immigrants or first generation Americans.

Their answers surprised me. In fact, shocked me. For one, contrary to popular belief, birth order and family size aren’t as relevant as many think (first borns aren’t always the most successful ones). What’s more, they weren’t all natural leaders from an early age; some took a long time to get their footing and didn’t blossom until much later.

So the book morphed into something bigger.

Eventually, through my interviews, including with their parents, I identified 10 things the parents did in common to raise creative, fearless, and resilient kids who are now leading fulfilled and happy lives in all sorts of endeavors.

There was one rule that every parent followed. It may seem obvious, but it’s not. The most important rule is that all the successful entrepreneurs I talked to had a parent (usually—but not always—their mom) who believed in them.

You may say, “That’s not so unusual; every parent believes in their child!” No. That’s not true. Every parent loves their child; every parent wants their child to be successful. But most parents believe that if their children do what they love, they can’t make a living.

For example, most parents with a child like my younger son Austin, who loves music, say, “Of course you can take music lessons in high school. But in college, you have to major in something useful. Or major in business and minor in music. Or at least get a teaching certificate, so you have something to fall back on (when you fail).”

None of the parents in my book did that. They all said, “Really? That’s what you want to do?” And sometimes there was a big gulp. And then they said, “That’s great. We know you’ll be successful. And we’re here for you.” And they said that, regardless of whether they were rich or poor. Whether they were well educated or not. Whether they were black or white. Whether they had a son or a daughter. Whether they had one child or seven.

It happened with:

  • Benny Blanco, whose working mom was called by the school to say Benny wouldn’t sit in the reading circle — and whose mom said “So?” and who found a music mentor for him. Today’s, he’s one of America’s leading songwriters, with 21 #1 records.
  • Michael Chasen, who played computer games so much, his parents’ friends told them he wouldn’t amount to anything. But they supported his passion, and watched as he created Blackboard, a software company he sold in his 30’s for $1.5 billion.
  • Paige Mycoskie, who loved art as a child and dreamed of designing clothes. In her twenties, when her grandparents each gave her $100 for her birthday, she bought a used sewing machine and moved back home and started sewing. Today, Aviator Nation has five stores.
  • Jon Chu, whose immigrant parents were at first disappointed when he told them he wanted to go into film. But who decided that if that’s what he loved, they’d support him. He’s become one of Hollywood’s star directors, recently tapped by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda to direct the movie version of his musical hit, In the Heights.

And on and on.

I believe every child is born with a passion, but that somewhere along the way, it often gets snuffed out by well-intentioned parents who are trying to be practical. I don’t think “practical” works as it used to. There aren’t enough of those jobs to go around. And kids don’t want a lot of the jobs that exist. But thankfully, there is something we can do about it.

This is my goal: parents, let’s start a conversation to change the way we think about raising our kids.

Relax. Watch them. See what makes their heart sing. Then support them as they pursue their passion. Instead of forcing them to do what worked when you grew up, help them identify what they love, embolden them to follow their dreams, and support them as they create a career out of their passions. They might start a company, but they can also start non-profits, or become musicians, writers, actors, painters, or activists.

They will be happier. And, ironically, even more likely to be successful in our brave new world.

Margot Machol Bisnow is the author of the recently published book, Raising an Entrepreneur: 10 Rules for Nurturing Risk Takers, Problem Solvers, and Change Makers.