Jeff Bezos was recently interviewed by his younger brother, Mark, at the Summit ideas conference in Los Angeles. The nearly hour-long discussion included a loving portrait of their childhood as well as the Amazon founder’s theories on childrearing. For those of us who believe in the importance of greater independence for our children and have too often found that other parents, not to mention government at every level, react badly to such beliefs, Bezos’ endorsement of kids’ self-reliance is worth highlighting.
The brothers’ discussion of the time they spent with their grandfather on his Texas ranch set the tone as both men explained the model of independence and strong self-reliance their grandfather embodied. Both Bezos brothers explained how their “pop” bought a house kit that the boys put together themselves, and how he would fashion his own needles to suture wounded cattle (when asked to confirm that their grandfather’s amateur veterinary surgeries were successful, they joked that they could not). They showed a picture of their grandfather in front of a Caterpillar bulldozer that had been purchased at an enormous bargain because the gears and hydraulics didn’t work. New gears were ordered but when they arrived, they were so heavy that a crane was needed to move them. “So the first thing my grandfather did,” Jeff Bezos explains, “was to build a crane to move the gears.” They felt lucky to have experienced such “self-reliance and resourcefulness” firsthand.
Failure, Jeff Bezos explained to the audience, is an inherent part of life, and he offered several examples from Amazon to illustrate how you have to be resourceful to solve problems, to figure out how to move forward, and to get your business ideas to work.
He then extended the discussion of resourcefulness to his family life, explaining that his wife was owed the credit for their childrearing mantra: “I would much rather a kid with nine fingers than a resourceless kid.” He added that as parents they had allowed their four kids to handle sharp knives when they were as young as age four and permitted their eight-year-old children to handle certain power tools. Bezos concluded by saying that his wife’s formulation was “a fantastic attitude about life.”
And he’s not the only one to suggest that these issues are central to the problems plaguing many college students today. In their cover story for the December issue of Reason magazine, Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt lay out the flip side of Bezos’ argument. They explain why young people who are too-fragile, too over-protected and not independent or resourceful enough to function are the reason free speech and ideological conformity have become such an issue on college campuses and why ultimately what they dub the “fragile generation” is bad for society.
Of course, it is a bit too easy to listen to Jeff Bezos describe the independence and risk-taking that he allowed his kids without also maintaining a healthy skepticism about the difference between his kids and most of the rest of America’s youngsters. The biggest difference, of course, is that if one of Bezos’ kids were to lose a finger while using a sharp knife, the consequences for his or her future would be mitigated by their wealth and access to medical specialists. Such protections are not as readily available to lower-income kids whose best option for future success is to train at technical and vocational schools where their resulting daily bread is likely to be earned at jobs that are more dangerous than the careers Bezos’ children would be expected to pursue.
Bezos children, by the way, are equally advantaged in that their parents are married to each other and raising them as a “team” in Bezos’ word. Resourcefulness and self-reliance coupled with the benefits of being raised in a married home provide some of the best predictors of future success. But regardless of the limits of Bezos advice on childrearing, it is music to the ears of this mother of four to hear a public figure with as prominent a platform as Amazon argue that allowing kids to take risks at home is a good way to learn basic life skills – and raise good kids.
Image: By Steve Jurvetson (Flickr: Bezos’ Iconic Laugh) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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