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The three things that make a difference

So I was talking with my boss’ boss’ boss one day last week about parenting. He was talking about sending his kids to Montessori school and what an advantage it was, but how much it cost, and, well, I agree. Two years of Montessori school had me reading at a third grade level before I started first grade, and my math skills were pretty advanced too, even though I already didn’t like math. Then he paused and said, somewhat whimsically, that it doesn’t make much of a difference.

There are only three things a parent can or can’t do that make a big difference in how their kids turn out, he said.He said he heard it in a Freakonomics podcast a few weeks ago. Finding a random sample was hard, but eventually researchers stumbled upon a first-come, first-serve, no choices orphanage. That served as sufficient randomization, and from that population sample, they were able to isolate these three things that make a difference:

1. Don’t smoke and drink around your kids.

2. Don’t abuse your kids. Obviously.

3. Love. Love makes a noticeable difference until age 70 or 80, if not longer.

And that’s it. Do those three things and your kids will be successful. And it drives overachievers like us nuts, he said, because we put so much effort into trying to squeeze out an advantage of one percent.

But I saw it a little bit differently. Isn’t it a relief, I asked, that there are only three things we need to get right, and we know which three? I can go three for three on that.

Yes, he said. Most of us can.

And it made me think of some people I know. Some had every opportunity in the world and still ended up completely messed up. Although I don’t know all the details, it’s entirely possible their parents got none of those three things right. And I know some people who had almost nothing going for them growing up, but they turned out pretty well. Their parents managed to get two of them right. And from the stories I hear from the people who do more than pretty well, yeah, it sounds like their parents–or at least one of their parents–got all three right.

I guess one reason I felt relieved was because I already get those three things right. I’ve smoked three cigars in my life, I was hacked off at the same person each of those three times, and the last one was in 1996. I haven’t seen that person since 1997, so, no problem. I haven’t had a drink since 2003. I don’t remember if it was June or October, but it’s been more than 10 years now.

There’s a story behind that. In 2002-2003 I was dating a girl, and things seemed really promising, but she went out drinking every Friday or Saturday night, or both. I don’t think she drank any other night of the week, but that seemed to be her excuse to drink herself into a stupor on the weekends, and she had no interest in giving that up, for any reason. I asked if being a mother would make that change, and she said she didn’t think so. That was a dealbreaker. I was probably a month or so away from breaking it off when she beat me to it. So I did some thinking at that point. The ideal would be someone who didn’t drink at all, right? Well, it wouldn’t be fair to want that without being that myself, right? Four months later, guess who I met?

From time to time I mutter to myself at work that it’s days like this that make me wonder why I don’t drink, but I think most of us have more willpower than we realize.

So that takes care of smoking and drinking.

Abuse? There’s no excuse for that. Neglect either. If it comes down to wanting to take a swing, walk away. Just walk away, and stay away until you’re cooled down.

And love? That’s not so hard. Find things you enjoy doing together and do them. It’s funny what my kids do and don’t remember at their young age. But they remember things we never thought they would.

So. Three things. Go for the bonus fourth if you want, but not at the expense of the first three.

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