Sometimes, as a parent, you need to recognize something difficult: You don’t actually know everything about how to help your child succeed.
That’s according to parenting expert Margot Machol Bisnow, who interviewed the parents of 70 highly accomplished adults for her 2022 book, “Raising an Entrepreneur: How to Help Your Children Achieve Their Dreams.”
In those interviews, Bisnow discovered a common thread: Those parents gave their kids the freedom to pursue passions, sometimes to seemingly extreme degrees, like leaving home at a young age or dropping out of college, she tells CNBC Make It.
“Every single one of these ‘extreme’ things the parents are doing is they’re listening to their child. And, they’re taking what their child says seriously, as opposed to saying, ‘I’m the parent, I know best,'” says Bisnow.
Pressure to follow a singular, narrow path can result in anxious, unhappy kids. In contrast, the parents Bisnow interviewed displayed enough open-mindedness and trust to help their children develop independence, confidence and skills that proved useful for their future careers, she says.
“What’s sort of sad to me is, this shouldn’t be extreme parenting,” says Bisnow. “This should be normal parenting.”
Here are three examples of “extreme” parenting decisions that actually worked, according to Bisnow and the parents she interviewed.
Supporting your kids’ passions, despite misgivings
Growing up in the San Francisco area, where his father ran a popular restaurant, filmmaker John M. Chu’s immigrant parents initially were perplexed by his interest in the creative arts. They both “wanted him to become something more traditional,” Bisnow says.
Chu’s mother gave him a camera to capture home movies of family vacations, and his passion grew over time, according to Bisnow: When he was in high school, his mother admonished him for working on a movie late at night, telling him to focus on school and “stop wasting your time.”
“He burst into tears and said, ‘You can’t stop me. This is what I love,'” Bisnow says. The next day, Chu’s mother gave him a stack of books on filmmaking and told him: “If you want to do it, learn all about it and be the best.”
People who stop encouraging their kids’ passions because they might not make enough money as an adult, or be seen as conventionally successful, send the wrong message, says Bisnow.
Not everyone makes a career out of their passion — but showing that you trust your children can give them the confidence they’ll need to succeed as adults, no matter the path they end up following, she adds.
Letting their kids leave home at a young age
Multiple of Bisnow’s interviewees gave their children a long leash and a lot of independence from a young age, she says.
Take the parents of Simon Isaacs, the CEO of digital marketing firm TaskForce and co-founder of digital platform Fatherly, for example. Their story has little to do with entrepreneurship: When Isaacs was in high school, they allowed him to leave home to spend two years in Colorado training as a skier.
Isaacs later skied competitively for Middlebury College, and hoped to make the U.S. Olympic team one day. That never panned out — but the experience directly informed his entrepreneurial success, says Bisnow.
“Having that degree of passion about something taught him grit and focus and hard work and determination and all the things it takes to succeed in life,” she says. “I know it was hard for his family to let him go. But they did.”
Matt Mullenweg’s mom was certainly wary, says Bisnow: Her son didn’t even have a company ready to launch in 2004, when he said he wanted to leave the University of Houston after two years.
Mullenweg was developing a web content management system in his dorm room, and tech media website CNET wanted to start paying him for his work. His mom initially struggled with the decision, and was won over by Mullenweg’s passion and commitment, Bisnow says — ultimately driving him to San Francisco to help him find an apartment.
“He was literally working on this non-stop and she knew how important it was to him and let him go,” says Bisnow.
After a year, Mullenweg left CNET to turn his creation into a standalone business: WordPress. He couldn’t “imagine myself doing anything else,” he wrote in a blog post at the time.
Today, he’s the CEO of WordPress.com’s parent company Automattic, which has more than 2,000 employees and was reportedly valued at $7.5 billion in 2021.
“A lot of parents, their kids want to drop out and they’re just apoplectic,” Bisnow says. “They’re like, ‘No, you can’t do it. You won’t be able to be successful in life … Clearly, [for Mullenweg], it was the right decision.”
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