Can Entrepreneurs Be Good Parents?

When it comes to the twin challenges of starting a business and raising children, many entrepreneurs seem to believe they could “have it all” if only they could find the exact right combination of “work/life balance.” I’m not so sure.

Beyond the problem of time management, I’ve noticed that some entrepreneurs have beliefs about parenting that run contrary to both centuries of standard practice and the latest neuroscience research.

Here’s why I’m coming to believe that many if not most entrepreneurs are struggling so hard to be good parents:

1. Entrepreneurs tend to outsource child-rearing.

Some entrepreneurs probably have spouses who don’t work outside the home (although I note that entrepreneurs tend to marry within the faith), in which case the children are getting plenty of parental attention. One could argue, though, that children need two parents.

If they’re already wealthy, entrepreneurs can hire housekeepers, cooks and nannies to carry the burden of parenthood but–and I say this with all sincerity–what is the point of having children if other people are raising them for you?

More important, what message does it give to your kids when you value “changing the world” over parenting? From a child’s perspective, a parent who works all the time is pretty much the same as a parent who’s skipped town. Maybe worse, because the child of workaholics can’t create a comforting fiction to explain the absence.

While you may try to convince your kids (and yourself) that the 100 hour weeks were necessary (due to competition) and ultimately for the good of the family, your children will eventually figure out that they simply weren’t your priority. Being an entrepreneur was more important to you than being a parent.

That’s not the end of the world, but it’s probably not great parenting.

2. Entrepreneurs are often technological hypocrites.

According to a recent Business Insider article, many parents in the entrepreneurial mecca of Silicon Valley severely restrict or outright ban their children from using computers, tablets and phones and, of course, watching television.

I can totally see where such entrepreneurs are coming from. I rue the day I let my kids convince me to give them their own electronics. They both used to read books; now they don’t, except as required for school. Many is the time I’ve considered eliminating or sharply reducing their screen time.

However, I’m also deeply aware that no parenting concept is less effective and counterproductive than “do as I say, not as I do.” Children replicate the behavior of their parents, even when (especially when!) their parents insist they do the opposite.

While most of my own screen time is spent doing creative things, both my children (they’re 12 and 14) have seen me spend literally hundreds of hours playing computer games. They also see me pretty much glued to my phone. I would have to be a real hypocrite to insist they avoid consumer electronics.

Children are perceptive and see patterns pretty easily. They know that parents who are hypocrites in one area of their lives are probably hypocrites in other areas, too. “Do as I say, not as I do” teaches kids their parents can’t be trusted. And that’s definitely bad parenting.

To make matters worse, in the case of Silicon Valley, many entrepreneurs have businesses whose revenue depends upon making even more people even more screen-addicted. This sends mixed message to their children, to say the least.

3. Entrepreneurs tend to overvalue STEM.

In addition to being a cultural archetype, Elon Musk is the father of five children for whom he created Ad Astra, which according to its web page is “a laboratory school that embraces advancements in the fields of science, technology, and education.”

While Ad Astra’s curriculum (based around problem solving) certainly sounds intriguing, it lacks three subject areas that most educators believe are crucial to creating a well-rounded individual sports, music and language.

I’m not sure about the justification for no and music, but the lack of language training is supposedly due to Musk’s belief that computer-assisted language translation will make the multilingualism obsolete.

However, the educational benefit to learning another language isn’t just the ability to communicate with people who don’t speak your native language. It also creates parallel neural pathways that allow you to think in new and different ways. Being multilingual, in other words, fosters innovation.

The same thing is true of learning a musical instrument, which according to numerous studies greatly increases both reading and math skills. And, as with learning another language, music increases a student’s understanding of other cultures and periods of history.

Sports, too. “A sound mind in a sound body” has been an educational principle for centuries because physical activity is tightly tied to mental acuity. Indeed, many children (I was one of them) need frequent intermittent physical activity in order to concentrate on academic subjects. I loved STEM but would have nuts without sports and recess.

Entrepreneurs who overemphasize STEM (as Musk seems to have done) may be doing their children a disservice by artificially limiting their brain development.

While one could argue that these subjects, particular sports, could be extracurricular, that’s only going to happen if the parents are willing to expend significant amounts of their time parenting. As every “soccer mom” (or dad) knows, youth sports are a huge time commitment that’s unlikely to be met when parents are working 100 hour weeks.

There’s a saying (variously attributed) in self-help that “you can do anything but you can’t do everything.” Entrepreneurs who want to be good parents, rather than mere parents, may have to prioritize their time and energy to value parenting over entrepreneurism.

It’s really that simple.

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