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Connecticut Parents Need to Defer Their Own Gratification

The wealth of Connecticut families often lowers teen motivation.

Despite our tepid recovery from The Great Recession, many Connecticut teens are growing up in an environment of material abundance. They have little idea that your investments have been flat and that you are struggling to save enough for college. They remain rich in their world of video game systems, big screen TVs, and smart phones.

When I first moved to Connecticut from Washington, DC, I moved to Guilford CT.  Since my wife worked at The Women and Famiy Life Center in Guilford and since it was populated by many in the Sachem’s Head neighborhood, I was able to meet many families with generational wealth.  In fact, my first tutoring students – while I was still an attorney – came from Sachem’s Head and similar Guilford neighborhoods.  The families were nice.  The children were well-mannered.  But compared to my ethnic upbringing, I noticed that they usually lacked the inner drive that first and second generation typs tend to have.

Much of your children’s “stuff” seemed to magically appear. The best toys and gadgets arrived on birthdays, holidays, and sometimes for no reason at all. Their work to get these new goods consisted of ripping through wrapping paper.

You gave because you are happy when your children are happy. I know, as a father of three, that giving gifts is the quickest route to seeing smiling children.

But, your motivation to give is part of what has undermined the work ethic of many teens. They missed seeing the connection between work and reward. They missed the struggle.

In my work on the Connecticut shoreline, I have observed an interesting dichotomy between those with first and multi-generational affluence.

First generation American children observe their parents working extremely hard to create the American Dream. They do not have generational money. Even when they get fancy stuff, they have an experiential understanding of the link between their parents’ work ethic and their shiny new things. Even better, many of the children had to earn the gift through work or as a reward for their scholastic efforts.

As for those children who have benefited from multiple generations of compounding interest, they rarely fit the caricature of spoiled patricians. Most have been well raised in the conventional sense. They seem universally well mannered, gracious, and modest. But, only a few have the fire inside to work to their potential.

Motivation is particularly challenging for those from generational wealth. These children notice that their parents’ second home in the Hamptons and vacation to Aspen magically appeared, just like their stuff.

There are also plenty of those with new money who create the same problem. Here’s a crazy example from someone who should know better. Sean John Holmes was born in the public housing projects of Harlem. He worked hard in school and gained admission to Howard University. He then commuted, almost daily, between Washington, DC and New York in order to serve as an intern at Uptown Records. He became Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, and now Diddy. Say what you want about him but he certainly worked extremely hard when he started. He’s now worth $340 million. His success largely stemmed from his gift for working hard to gain success. But, he gave a different gift for his son’s 16th birthday, a $360,000 Maybach Zeppelin.

Those who are self-motivated are firmly rooted in the concept of deferred gratification. They learn the lesson that they must work beyond what is the comfortable now in order to get something special latter. They know that stuff doesn’t just magically appear.

It is ironic that many parents whose success can be firmly attributed to living this principle, inadvertently, teach the exact opposite lesson to their children.

When our company works with students to shift their academic success, we know that teaching math and writing is secondary. We need to shift their motivation first. We often tell our students about the famed marshmallow experiment, involving a group of children, presumably of the normal sugar-craving variety. A researcher places a marshmallow in front of each child, tells the child that he is leaving the room, and that he’ll give the children who wait two marshmallows if they don’t eat the marshmallow in front of them until he returns. Those who wait display the trait of “deferred gratification”. In longitudinal studies, these students demonstrate greater success in school at statistically significant levels compared to their impatient peers.  Described in my book Motivate Your Son.

It may be surprising but most of the Connecticut students we work with fully understand the message and tell us they remember the story at times when they choose to forego Facebook in order to continue studying. The next time you feel the need to get your quick fix of smiling children by giving the new I-whatever, you should do the same.