Tuesday, October 02, 2007

It’s not in the genes

Family traditions are not passed on genetically. Some kinds of motor skills and information processing are affected by biology, but whether and how a child develops them and learns to apply them are very much affected by the factors of upbringing. Too often families with successful elders limit the development of the children by assuming that they will follow the “family path” and that the children will have both the necessary skills and the necessary interest to do so successfully.

Nature does not always respond as we might hope to our assumptions. Therefore, the long-term success of any family enterprise is better served if each child is allowed to – perhaps even required to – discover his or her own skills and interests. Each can then get the training and the experience needed to develop those skills. The child can then work at the family’s business if and when qualified, or be provided assistance in finding productive ways to use other skills and interests.

This proposal is importantly two sided: If a child is interested in the business in which the family is involved, the family must set an early expectation that the development of those skills necessary to be successful in the business is the investment the child must make before getting help into the business. If the child does not have an interest in the business, there must be a similarly clear expectation that the child is required to identify other interests and will be supported in developing skills relevant to competently pursuing those interests.

The kinds of help and support parents may provide a child who wants to pursue a new path are likely to be different from the help they can offer a child who follows the family traditions. Nevertheless, this help and support can be crucial if the child is to pursue new interests seriously. They should also carry the same requirement of investment from the child as does help with an enterprise the family knows.

The children of successful parents who share their parents’ interests and skills have ready role models for their pursuits, and a strong mentor relationship may even develop between the generations. However, children of successful and often busy parents who do not share the parents’ interests and skills may have neither role models nor the bases for commanding the parents’ attention.

It is, therefore, the parents’ active participation in helping the child whose interest differ from family traditions that allows such a child to value those talents and develop them successfully. All too often a child who is not thus encouraged by family elders will try to build a life on imitating whatever parental characteristics are most visible to him or her – even when they are stepping stones to self-destruction.

In our experience, it is as big a mistake not to attend closely to the development of a child who is not suited to following the family path as it is to demand that such a child pursue the family’s traditional ventures. We have seen as many family disasters arise from the underdevelopment of children not actively involved in the family enterprise as we have seen business disasters from the involvement of insufficiently trained children in the business – and family disasters are ultimately as bad for business as business disasters are for the welfare of the family.

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