Education, flourishing, and why parents (and schools) fail their children

We were invited to a birthday party this weekend, which meant that I spent three hours watching young children play in a country club pool. I was surprised to see some children as young as seven or eight immediately split off into cliques. These pint-sized Kardashians resisted interacting with each other with ample servings of drama.

But more surprising was watching girls in one of the cliques playing house. The “mother” in the group pretended to wake her daughters up in the morning. She rushed into their imaginary room and shouted, “Get out of bed! You need to get ready for school so you can find a rich boyfriend!” I was aghast. I would not have believed she actually uttered those words, except she proceeded to repeat them several times. I looked over at their real mothers, who seemed unfazed. This was their normal.

After her imaginary daughters were dressed, the girl pretended to inspect their outfits like a general in the military. “Go back to your room and change! A rich man would never be interested in someone who looks like you!” The girls then dreamily discussed what their ideal mates would possess – a house made of gold, with “a pool even larger than this one.”

It was like listening to the comically tedious mother from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. “Girls, girls, I heard Darcy has ten thousand a year!” But it was presented without Austen’s biting sarcasm.

I say all the time that childhood is about developing an aesthetic. To persuade your child that they do not want to spend their one precious life engaging in activities that are beneath them. To model for them a sense of what a life well-lived would be like. This is the difference between having a child that spends their evenings on social media and the child that combs the Internet looking for a marine biology camp. Between the kid that is “addicted” to first-person shooter video games and the kid that wants to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and that’s true for parenthood too. If you don’t sell your child on an idea of happiness, society will supply that content for them. All bad behavior is a form of communication about what people need but are not getting. You don’t want your child developing a sense of purpose from the nihilists on CNN or Facebook. They will teach your children to rage and rot their minds.

Conversely, I’ve also met a lot of women (in particular) who think they are going to micromanage their children into having a good character. “You get only two hours of screen time a day!” Character is not built on the elimination of free will. The key is to raise a kid that genuinely wants to participate in better things. They aren’t spending their days hammering away on their smartphones because they are genuinely curious about something more important. Your rules aren’t going to change that.


I offer this story because I have been reading Ronald F. Ferguson and Tatsha Robertson’s book The Formula: Unlocking the Secrets to Highly Successful Children. This is an excellent book on parenthood and a persuasive appeal to an Aristotelian worldview in general (which I very much subscribe to).

The book is the outcome of the How I Was Parented Project at Harvard, which examined the biographical details and parenting experiences of hundreds of diverse but highly successful individuals. The goal of the study was to identify what these individuals had in common, to see if there was a “formula” for success.

The authors conclude that there is, in fact, a formula for raising successful children, and that formula transcends socioeconomic backgrounds. Affluent people can raise kids to be successful or sabotage their ability to flourish in the world (much like the children I observed at the party). Disadvantaged parents can raise kids to be successful or sabotage them. There are common paths to social mobility. There are common paths to failure. It is terrible to spoil children. It is also terrible to train children to fetishize their own perceived suffering or lack of opportunities.

One of the best chapters in the book is the life story of a homeless mother who raised her son up so he was eventually accepted into Harvard. She was determined for him to escape poverty, and she invested all her time into teaching him. She was creative in how she found access to resources for him. In one case, she was transferred to another shelter so he could attend a higher quality school in the suburbs.

Success versus sabotage

.The authors define success in Aristotelian terms – Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, which is often translated from the Greek as “flourishing.” Flourishing is a grand combination of being happy in disposition, being materially secure, being a good citizen, having a household and friendships that contribute to spiritual well-being, progressing toward wisdom (which then carries on the project of helping future generations achieve the same).

The thesis of the book, of course, is that there is a formula for raising highly successful kids. That formula is expressed as:

Purpose + Agency + Smarts = A Fully Realized Individual

For the authors, a successful person is not motivated exclusively by material wealth or an unqualified desire to please authority figures. They develop a lofty goal or objective that will animate and bring continuity to their life decisions. (I would describe this as developing a sense of honor.) They possess agency, or a “let’s do this” attitude in life. (That is to say, they are not raised as cynics. They aren’t blind idealists, either, but they do actively search for ways to fulfill their purpose instead of shrugging their ambitions off in the face of challenges.) They are conventionally intelligent, not just because they possess innate gifts, but because they were raised to be curious and genuinely love learning new things.

High achievers versus prodigies

The book involves an interesting digression on the difference between what the authors label as “high achievers” versus prodigies. I’ve always been somewhat amused by our culture’s obsession with prodigies and their inevitable meltdowns as they transition from gifted children into adults that cannot function in the world. Amadeus. Good Will Hunting. A Beautiful Mind. Etc. etc. These movies, for example, get made primarily because Hollywood fetishizes suffering, not because they admire the people behind the stories. (Heck, Amadeus isn’t even marginally a factually accurate representation of Mozart’s life. I mean, they got his name right, and that’s about it.)

The authors suggest that these burnouts among prodigies are not an accident. High achievers are purposeful in choosing new projects; prodigies live lives in response to what other people – some with good intentions, some without – think about their talents and what can be gained from them. High achievers can learn to collaborate with other people; prodigies tend to perform for other people. High achievers can become polymaths and Renaissance women and men; prodigies are slaves to a specific talent, whether they enjoy it or not.

The main difference between prodigies and high achievers is that high achievers can be nurtured. Prodigies start their lives expecting success and notoriety to come without effort, and that dooms their future. Adults are their fans due to the novelty of a child functioning on an adult level. Then the prodigies grow up and their talents are no longer quaint or impressive. Adults cease to be promoters and now view them as competitors. That’s when the prodigy melts down instead of flourishes.

The eight roles of the master parent

The brilliance of this book is that it is less about what a successful child looks like, however, and more about what master parents look like.

They describe eight roles that master parents will fill in their child’s life:

(1) The early learning partner: The first role a master parent must fill starts before the child is even born. They amass materials and strategies to engage their children in brain-building literacy (and I’d add numeracy and logic) games. By the time their children are school age, the kids are at ease around language and numbers. This is not a force that is brought into their lives by people external to their household.

(2) The flight engineer: The master parent will intervene in their child’s behavior to keep them on course. They take disciplinary issues seriously. They track their child’s work and seek feedback.

I was interested in the discussion on the “flight engineer” role, because it predictably ended up covering some rants I have made here and elsewhere a lot. The authors don’t use the word “unschooling,” but they describe a similar philosophy of natural development. Intriguingly, the authors associate the education philosophy of “just let your child do what they are pulled to do” with lower income households. I would love to introduce them to some relatively affluent granola homeschoolers / private schools who nurse the exact same convictions as parents who feel economically defeated in providing their children with a serious education. The latter think their children will magically discover passions and talents if left alone, and that making them suffer through such atrocities as schedules or textbooks would annihilate their curiosity forever. Both are a rejection of fundamental responsibilities.

(3) The fixer: The fixer teaches their children practical skills to survive in a sometimes hostile environment. To locate mentors who will represent their interests to their own peers. To find allies who can teach them what is necessary, for example, to get into a tough school.

(4) The revealer: The revealer introduces their child to new ideas, places, and interesting people. They take their kid to symphonies. They travel. They learn about Korean food. They let them tag along at work or attend professional meetings. Master parents will help their child develop the signposts of culture that are necessary to win over other people. They help them communicate about their goals in a real way. If your child wants to be a stockbroker, you will have them hang around stockbrokers to acquire the language of a stockbroker, to know what the job actually entails.

(5) The philosopher: This comes back to the idea of having a purpose. The master parent will talk to their kids about what a life well-lived would involve. What they value and why.

(6) The model: The master parent behaves the way they want their children to behave one day.

(7) The negotiator: The master parent has to prepare their children to be effective advocates for what they want in the world. This means allowing children to have a role in determining how their household operates. It does not mean allowing children to do whatever they want, failing to discipline poor behavior, or rejecting objectively bad life decisions. Children need to have space to test their skills in argumentation and persuasion, and the best way to do that is to have real things at stake in succeeding or failing.

(8) The GPS: The master parent has to help their child build a sense of direction that is consistent with their sense of purpose. There’s no advantage in having a sense of agency if the child cannot see where they can manipulate their own circumstances to advance their own philosophy of what living a good life involves.

I have very much enjoyed reading this book and would highly recommend it to new parents.