Secrets of superfamilies: Very few rules

Time magazine asks the question: What is it about families that have a bunch of super-successful children? And the answer is fascinating.

First of all the author, Charlotte Alter, defines success in an interesting and effective way: Leadership, service, achievement. I like that definition. I have said that we each have our own definition of success, but I’m thinking that maybe we all can share this definition of success.

Alter concludes that a commonality among all families is that the parents left the kids alone. They expected the kids to live a successful life, and they expected those kids to use their freedom to make good choices for themselves. (Of course, the first thing I noticed was that no kid was a cello prodigy.) These families all had bigger goals than focusing on the success of one kid. These families had goals of their own, as immigrants, or activists, or survivors of an early childhood death. Each family put the family unit ahead of individual accomplishment.

Childhood arguments were regular, and often bloody. And family dinnertime discussions were animate and often argumentative. And, maybe most notably, no parents were divorced.

I can’t help thinking, after the article, that I’m probably not these parents. I’m divorced, and I’m putting too much emphasis on one child. I’m too involved in my kids’ lives to qualify as one of these parents of super families. But I like the concept. And the fact that these parents were much more lax with their kids than most parents gives me more confidence to let my kids do what they like and skip what bores them.

Ian Bogost is the king of video game philosophizing, and his newest book, Play Anything, is about how we can make any mundane task a game and thus make it more joyful. At the same time, we become more mindful and disciplined even in everyday activities. Play gives meaning.

Bogost’s premise makes sense to me. Parents who leave kids alone to do what they want end up having kids who turn everything into a game. How much? How far? How big? Kids create challenges for themselves and each other, in the form of games, and the scenarios play out in the form of joy.

Another common theme among successful families is parents who are confident about their own vision for family. I can do that. It’s not too late for me to stop doubting myself. I want to model for the kids that having faith in one’s instinct for choosing a life is a rational and good thing, and I’m doing it. Starting today, maybe.


23 replies
  1. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I really enjoyed reading the Time article. The ending summed it up really well and has been a constant theme I have seen personally, read or heard about over the past ten years.

    “But none of the parents in this story set out to raise successful children. Instead, the six commonalities of our nine families combined to create drive, grit and social consciousness that propelled all the siblings on their own chosen paths.

    “You cannot reach anybody’s goal. You’ve got to reach your own goal,” says Gino Rodriguez. “You cannot reach a goal unless you set that goal for yourself.” That’s why I can and I will are five words without an object, a push without direction. Look how far it took them.”

    • MBL
      MBL says:

      I liked the article but didn’t/don’t really know what to make of it. The “six commonalities” quote seemed really cobbled together to wrap the thing up.

      I love, love, love Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) but her father whispering in their ears as the slept is a bit creepy. And the no dating until they were 18 rule seemed kind of harsh.

      Regarding some of the other families, the level of negligence is disturbing.
      “Few of the siblings in this story had parents who closely monitored their movements, and many said they were raised with significantly more freedom than their friends. By the standards of today’s helicopter parents, they ran wild. The Dungey sisters rode all over Sacramento on their bikes alone … Six-year-old Zeke Emanuel regularly escorted 4-year-old Rahm home from nursery school on a Chicago city bus.

      “She was a supporter of us, but she didn’t tell us what to do, and she allowed us to play and develop our own ideas,” says Zeke of his mother. “She didn’t even worry too much whether they were safe or not.”

      Esther Wojcicki taught her daughters to swim as soon as they could walk, specifically so that she wouldn’t have to watch them when they played near the backyard pool. “I empowered them early, because I wanted to make sure they could take care of themselves,” she says. “They could read early, so they could read signs. They could do math early, so they could handle money.”

      Even by the comparatively lax stan­dards of the 1970s, the Wojcicki girls had more freedom than most. Five-year-old Susan was often left to babysit 4-year-old Janet and infant Anne, and local mothers raised their eyebrows when the girls rode their bikes alone to the dime store a mile away.

      But Esther has a theory. “The more you do for your kids, the less they do for themselves, and the less empowered they feel,” she says.”

      Apparently “empowered” and “freedom” are synonyms for “neglect.”

      I agree that the running theme seemed to be that the kids could choose their own paths, but with some it seemed like the “it must be extraordinary” was a given.

      Since it seems like one of the greatest causes of “first world” human suffering/depression is the feeling that one “isn’t enough,” I’m not sure I want to pass that on to my daughter.

      I am heavy into Carol Black’s work these days and her “Schooling the World” (brilliantly edited) reveals that we are exporting the “not enough” mindset through our “good works.” I find it disturbing to say the least.

      Currently free Everything on her blog is worth the time to read. A longtime unschooler with a surprisingly low profile for her level of eloquence and knowledge. Hopefully since was reprinted on the washington post site in its entirety that will be rectified.

      Regarding Penelope’s conclusion: “Another common theme among successful families is parents who are confident about their own vision for family. I can do that.” It seems like the only way to do that is to stop comparing one’s own life/family to that of others. It is very hard to do while reading the Time article. The closest I could get to one of the families is the one that lost a daughter to cancer (thank god that hasn’t happened to us) but even then the driving force for the other two siblings was “memento mori.” While motivating for sure, what a horrible way to live. For me, the takeaway from that family’s story was “don’t sweat the small stuff.” But feeling like “every moment must be maximized” kind of cancels that out.

      Again, pretty conflicted about the takeaway from the post and link, but wonderful food for thought!!

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        I didn’t know what to make of it either, the summary I liked because I agree with it based on my own observations. But, I don’t think the article really showed any of those things. It talked about the parenting for the most part.

        I grew up in Sacramento, and biked around quite a bit. Was allowed to bike to the nearby store with friends, but not alone. My husband had the same experience growing up that many of these kids in the story had. Had to walk places, ride the bus, ride his bike at a very young age. Had to babysit his sister at 5. I don’t know that I see anything particularly negligent. It just seems like a different approach. The kids seemed capable of these things. Based on what I have read, kids in NYC learn to navigate the subway system at a very young age and often do so without adult supervision.

        What I would be interested in knowing, is if Rahm Emmanuel took the same approach with his own kids, or if he is doing things differently? Because when I listen to interviews of successful people who are now parents, I hear them say they do things differently. They are a little more strict. Don’t allow the same freedom. Are more protective. So it is something I think should be explored.

        • MBL
          MBL says:

          Can you imagine A babysitting an infant in a year?!?!? I think that sounds CPS worthy to me!

          We walked home from school when I was 6 and my sister was 8. There was one stretch that scared the crap out of me. After we moved there were sidewalks and I was older so that was fine. And we rode bikes in groups to the store. I remember when I was 9 being stopped by teens demanding money. And when I was 5 (with my 7 y/o sister) a guy offering candy in a VW van. Cliche, I know!

          I am just not okay with these things! Hey, what is that whirring noise?

        • jessica
          jessica says:

          I let my son walk the block to run errands, but I don’t allow him to take the subway alone- yet. He does ask all the time why the kids are on their own and I explain that each family has their own way of taking care of things, rules, and expectations. We see kids as young as probably 6 walking and riding the bus and subway. Most of the time they are with friends, sometimes they are alone. I didn’t find the behavior negligent, but that’s probably due to our city living.

          I, too, kind of want to know more about the kids’ kids. Are they involved or are they working all the time- their advantage was involved parents which means their parents didn’t necessarily have the high-powered time consuming careers the offspring now have.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            What is interesting in what I have either read about or heard during interviews is precisely that. The kids in these stories who are now successful adults have these high powered careers, and in fact are parenting differently.

            For instance, Mark Zuckerburg’s parents worked from home while he was growing up. Many other successful people had parents who did not have the same careers that their kids currently have and therefore could be more involved. I wonder if parenting is cyclical. One generation gives all this freedom, and the next is more strict and it keeps shifting back and forth. It is an interesting topic to discuss.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            jessica, that was a fun article, and one that showed how involved their mother was in their lives. Quite a contrast to the Times article. Thanks for the link!

        • MBL
          MBL says:

          I found a number of articles about the Emanuel family that leave me feeling okie dokie about having a different parenting style.

          The closest I have found to how the brothers are raising their children is

          “They were unabashedly compared and contrasted: the grades of the most academic of the three hung on the fridge as a message to the two who weren’t quite as much so.”
          (The youngest was dyslexic and, per, “the pressure exerted by their demanding parents was especially hard on the youngest brother, who had a hard time at school.” “Eventually he began to fear that his inability to read was caused by a character defect or a basic lack of intelligence,” Ezekiel writes. “He did not share these feelings openly. In fact, he buried them so deeply that they came out only in bursts of aggression or anger.” It also states “Ezekiel describes incidents that might be called child neglect today.”)
          Per the HuffPo article “Yes, his mother and father’s mix of high expectations and low micromanaging put the sons in situations that would trigger a visit from Child Protective Services nowadays, Zeke admitted when we spoke. (His description of himself as a first grader bringing a 4-year-old Rahm home from school on the Chicago public bus system comes to mind.) But it also gave them “a lot of freedom,” he said. “We had freedom to be creative. Freedom to say what we think. We travelled as a family and were exposed to different cultures. My father was physically affectionate, freed from what was the norm back then.”
          And concludes with
          “What about the next generation, his children and nieces and nephews? Every child is the student of his own parents and we tend to do things exactly the way they did — or exactly the opposite. Either way, they are our model.

          But when your parents are credited with somehow raising a “triumverate,” what message do you pass onto your own kids? Many a child, after all, has stumbled in the shadow of successful parents.

          “All three of us brothers take parenting extremely seriously,” Zeke, who has three daughters, said. “I have been careful to make it clear to my kids that they have to succeed —- and they have to do so on their own. They don’t use parental or uncle family ties.”

          “I also make it clear,” he continued, “that none of us are some ideal of perfection. I am far from a flawless character. I make lots of mistakes and I make sure they hear about them.” Zeke’s girls all know about, and some also have inherited, the family tendency toward dyslexia and ADHD. They know that Zeke flunked multivariable calculus during his first semester at Amherst, but managed to make it to Harvard Medical School anyway.

          There is a family tree at the end of “Brothers Emanuel” that ends with symbols for the next generation (each brother has three children) but does not include their names. There are no photos of his now-grown daughters in the book, and they will not be giving interviews during Zeke’s book tour.

          “Their story is theirs, not mine,” he says, in what is, ultimately the message of his book. “Parents give you a start, but you do the rest yourself.””

          Another article by a guy who went to their pediatrician father recalled the 5/6 years older than he incidents with the older brothers “…at every given opportunity, they threw me to the ground. Hard. Really hard. I’ve blocked out the specifics of the attacks. The only things I know for certain were that a) they were unprovoked, and b) they hurt. I don’t know if their pushes were planned or spontaneous — although I suspect there might have been some forethought on that memorable afternoon when they shoved me back and forth and back and forth.”

          Oh man, there is so much more out there on this family!

          • MBL
            MBL says:

   From 1997 is really interesting. It talks about their adopted sister and mentions that ” Marsha Emanuel, their mother,…is now a psychiatric social worker.”
            “Today, the brothers argue just as passionately about the role that environment and genetics played in the life of their sister, who in recent years has been on and off the welfare rolls that Rahm worked so hard to cut. Benjamin Emanuel met his daughter when he gave her a well-baby checkup and discovered that she had suffered a brain hemorrhage at delivery. The baby’s future was unclear; Shoshana’s birth mother, a young woman of Polish Catholic background, asked Dr. Emanuel if he knew someone who wanted her child. ”But I couldn’t find placement,” Benjamin Emanuel says. After a week of debate between both parents and sons – Marsha Emanuel had always wanted a girl – the Emanuels themselves took Shoshana in. ”What are you going to do?” Benjamin Emanuel says philosophically.

            Intellectually, Shoshana developed normally – like her brothers, she graduated from New Trier, one of the most competitive high schools in the country – but she needed four operations and years of physical therapy to give her 85 percent use of her left side. She had a difficult adolescence, and today Marsha Emanuel, at the age of 63, is raising Shoshana’s two illegitimate children. (None of the Emanuels will talk about Shoshana in detail, and she declined to be interviewed for this article.)

            The conversation the brothers continue to have about Shoshana is also, of course, a conversation about themselves. Were Zeke, Rahm and Ari simply successful products of Jewish middle-class parents who valued education and hammered them with expectations? How much of their drive came from their immigrant father? Certainly each Emanuel brother derives a large part of his identity that of the others. No one else, it seemed, mattered as much. ”The pressure is that you were judged by the family,” Ari says. ”Our family never cared about the kid down the block.””
            Per Zeke, “One thing that I think is very important is the fact that we’ve all failed,” he says.”

            Regarding their finances ” ”They were struggling much more when we were being raised,” he says. ”I think too much comfort is not a good thing. It doesn’t lead to certain character formation.” Zeke, however, is too well traveled in the complexities of family and the big ideas of life to do anything but mull over the unanswerable. ”I don’t think there’s a ‘the’ cause there,” he says of his sister.

            The brothers say things began to go very wrong with Shoshana when she was 15, but they think she is finally coming out of a bad time. She now has a job and talks to her father every day. ”I wish I could talk to the other kids every day,” Benjamin Emanuel says. ”But everybody’s busy.” The boys add that following in their wake must have been brutal on Shoshana. ”Growing up in my shadow was not good for my brothers, either,” says Zeke.”

            Per Marsha regarding raising Shoshana’s children “But she admits that the question of nature versus nurture is on her mind all the time. ”Day and night,” she says softly. ”Day and night.”

            Rahm, the new father, has similar questions these days. ”But I don’t know about gene pool,” he muses. ”I’m a big believer in environment. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be so worried about trying to balance this job with parenthood.” He calls his mother and father ”Uber-parents” who ”left an indeliable print that they expected nothing but the best from us, and taught us to expect it from ourselves.”

            That, he says, is the most important lesson he will pass on to his son. ”Luckily,” he adds, ”I got the crib notes from somebody.”

          • MBL
            MBL says:

            Sorry about this, but…


            “The Emanuel brotherhood formed early. The trio shared a bedroom, roamed their neighborhoods unsupervised in Chicago and Wilmette, and spent long, edgy summers together in Tel Aviv just after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. They also competed, argued, marched with their mother in protests and helped one another out when confronted with challenges from outsiders. Constant striving became the pattern of their existence, and competitive success or failure was always measured in relationship to two poles of their existence: the Emanuel brotherhood itself and the praise or scorn of their mother. “The desire for her approval was a powerful motivator,” recalled Zeke. “At the deepest level, this anxiety lies behind much of what we have achieved.”

            “Zeke Emanuel suggests the brothers’ later professional success is due to both nature and nurture. He obliquely provides us enough information to figure out the Emanuel recipe for raising children who thrive as adults: First, start with the DNA of a father who has abundant energy and a certain indefinable attractive quality of personality. Next, add a mother full of passion, but who is never quite satisfied. Simmer in a childhood filled with unsupervised freedom, ardent verbal exchanges and brotherly companionship. Put the dish aside and let marinate until the adult versions of your children become filled with an impulse for constant striving.”

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            I disagree that lack of round the clock parental supervision means neglect or qualifies for a call to CPS. CA has no laws on the books that requires a certain age limit where kids can be alone, they consider the maturity of the child to be the main factor. It has been demonstrated for a long time that young kids are certainly capable of taking care of themselves for short bursts of time, even taking care of younger siblings (I think of my grandmother and her 7 siblings) and although I have not left my children alone at 4 or 5, I am not shocked that other families have had this policy and I suspect that they have rules and expectations in place ahead of time.

            I think back to the course we took with Penelope, and the book MotherStyles by Janet Penley. I certainly would not expect an INFP (the “tuned in” mother) to adopt many of the approaches covered in the Time article (which I agree was not cohesive), I don’t believe that means that there is any disadvantage to being a tuned-in parent who has a really close relationship to their children. And there are many areas where unschooling and allowing our children the freedom to learn what they wish and how, could be viewed by people who don’t get it as “neglectful”. It’s all about perspective. Then there is the INTJ (the “individual integrity” mother) who puts more importance on independent thinking and self-sufficiency. The less I have to do for my kids, the better.

            The Time article itself explicitely stated that no neglect happened: “Some of the consistencies are fairly predictable. While none of these siblings grew up rich, they were privileged in many other ways. They had involved parents and lots of opportunities, and most saw college as achievable, even inevitable. They weren’t abused or neglected, and none grew up in abject want. They didn’t have an unfair head start, but they were spared some of the most difficult obstacles faced by less fortunate kids.”

      • MBL
        MBL says:

        Okay, so Gino’s “18 to date” rule didn’t work. “Personally, Rodriguez said she lost her virginity pretty early. She was only 17 when she had sex with her boyfriend of one year.”

  2. Genette
    Genette says:

    Weigh constructive feedback.
    Ignore criticism.
    Play some more…
    It’s the key to achieving the most gratifying fulfilling life.

    Many parents are in the business of knocking play out of their children with the misguided intention of making them responsible and successful. As a result, many of us embrace play and its possibilities as a gateway through futility much later in life and well into adulthood. Kids would benefit from knowing that play is the best option when faced with failure.

    Another valuable lesson is learning the difference between feedback and criticism, or recognizing criticism disguised as feedback. Feedback fuels you. Criticism paralyzes you with uncertainty and is best ignored. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

  3. jessica
    jessica says:

    Really? I found the Times article entirely predictable: The kids needs were met, the parents rarely argued, the parents faced enough real adversity (not abuse or neglect) to acknowledge life’s overarching struggles and thus created a ‘protective’ environment that empowered their children, rather than foster anxiety.
    The parents led their own lives and some were highly educated.

    This article, for it’s purposes and being Time who generally do great profiles, could have been more informative and not so run-of-the-mill.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      There’s something to be said for this, Jessica. Maybe you’re right. I like hearing how people parent. Regardless of the Time editorial team’s conclusion.

      I was also thinking that the kids are middle class — I once read that professional ballerinas and professional musicians are always middle class — they need enough money to fund the endeavor but not so much money that they don’t need such a huge endeavor to succeed. And I can’t help thinking, oh, yeah, most of these kids would fall into middle class.

      Another thing I thought of is that none of the parents are divorced…


      • Cáit
        Cáit says:

        The divorce point is really accurate.
        I remember years and years ago as a student riding the T in Boston chatting with another local college student sitting next to me. He gave out to me when he found out I was at Harvard. Typical stuff about spoiled rich kids.
        I wasn’t offended but wanted to offer my observation: Harvard students came from a range of geographic and class and ethnic backgrounds. I told him the one thing that set them apart demographically was that they all had married parents, and extremely close relationships with their parents.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Nice photo. I like how you say – “These families all had bigger goals than focusing on the success of one kid.” and “I’m putting too much emphasis on one child” – and then post a photo of you and your other child. At least on this blog, it seems to me both kids are getting equal time/attention/exposure which I think is important.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Confession: sometimes I worry that the younger boy shows up too much and I consciously add photos of older boy. The younger one is always doing photogenic things. He is always taking up the attention. Maybe every family has that dynamic. My brother would say the attention hog was me.


  5. Caitlin Timothy
    Caitlin Timothy says:

    What are your thoughts on how divorce impacts kids’ success? The statistics are so high that marriage has a positive impact on kids lives, but it’s much harder to hear a good explanation for why that’s the case.

    Does your INTJ care that the younger one has the attention? Because that’s probably a really normal dynamic with an INTJ kid; they kind of like being left alone. You guys look so much alike- it’s fun to see. You two will probably be good friends in a few years, when he’s grown. :)

  6. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I too would love to read your research on how divorce impacts kids. Seems all I ever see is ” kids are better off with two happy separate parents then two unhappy but together ones”

  7. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I definitely think play has a lot to do with successfully raising children. I play with my son all the time. When we go for walks, we pretend I’m a rabbit and he’s a tortoise who always transforms into a cheetah and manages to beat me. I’d rather do that every time we go for a walk (I don’t own a car) than argue with him about hurrying up. When we wait for the bus next to our neighbourhood park he gets me to time him on my phone as he runs obstacle races around the park by himself. I see so many families at the park who overemphasize manners – forcing their children to say please or thank you every single time they open their mouths, and reinforcing the hierarchy between themselves and their children. As soon as I find myself arguing, I try and turn what we’re doing into a game. Children learn through play and so the idea of turning mundane tasks into a game really resonated with me.

Comments are closed.