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The parent trap of raising kids

Some parents control their kid's development. My family favors a looser approach.

Quite a few of my neighbors are becoming first-time parents. I remember the feeling. And there's one question that many of them are pondering right now: What path will this child follow in years to come?

American parents wrestle with this question more than their foreign counterparts do because the United States was founded on the idea that every citizen begins life with a wide-open playing field.

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It's great that we all have a shot at becoming president, running a corporate empire, becoming a movie star, or piloting a spaceship to Mars. The down side of such aspirational freedom is, of course, the load of responsibility that comes with it. That burden can often lead to doubt and confusion about whether we're fulfilling our individual potential.

Such doubts have been a boon to the publishing industry during the past 60 years. If there's a limit to the number of self-help books the market can endure, we haven't reached it yet. There seems to be a vast audience for positive thinking, habits of highly effective people, things we should learn in kindergarten, Life 101, and, most recently, the suggestions for personal success offered in "The Secret."

Is there a secret for new parents that will ensure their child grows up to be brilliant, successful, and happy? I wish I had the answer. How we become who we are depends on a wide range of factors and much of it still mystifies me. I know some kids who loved sports at an early age and they're now world-class achievers. Others didn't make it that far. My daughter tried several sports, didn't care for any of them, and I didn't push the issue. Today, she's an accomplished painter.

I've known parents who wanted to control the development process from the get-go. In some cases it works. My family traditions favor a looser approach. Timing can be tricky. Some kids find a groove during high school or college. It could be music, computer programming, or life in the military.

Since I believe everyone is unique, my philosophy is that parents must be ready for their children to have interests and talents in surprising areas.

Is there any method for discovering those talents? Here are three suggestions: (1) Encourage your child's curiosity about the world. (2) If your child asks a question like "Where does water come from?" find an answer. Don't just say, "How should I know?" (3) Be prepared for the moment when you're trying to solve a problem around the house and your child comes up with a better solution than yours. That's not a bad thing. Someday my daughter may write a book entitled, "How I Got Smarter Than My Dad." I think it'll be a bestseller.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.