I Write a Parenting Advice Column (or How I Became Famous in My Neighborhood)

None of my neighbors subscribe to my Substack newsletter, as far as I can tell. That’s fine with me. I don’t talk much about my vocation around here. We’ve lived in this house for many years (although we will be moving in a few days), and during that whole period I’ve never spoken to anyone on our street about my writing. From their perspective, I’m just another family man who works from home.

I take after my Dad, who always said that notoriety in the neighborhood is a bad thing. “The last thing I’d ever want is to be famous,” he told me when I was a child—much to my amazement. “That can’t be true, Dad!” I responded. To my mind, at that young age, what could be more exciting than life as a celebrity? How could any sane person scorn fame?

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Dad had led a life in the shadows of fame. But very, very deeply in the shadows. He never went to college and, for much of his career, worked as a servant—starting as a taxi driver in Los Angeles, and then moving up in the world to the position of chauffeur, finally setting up his own retail shop in his 40s. I later learned that he drove for some famous people, but I picked up those details only from passing comments in random conversations.

For example, around the time of my 10th birthday, actress Jayne Mansfield died in a car crash, and Dad, reading about it in the newspaper, looked up and said: “Glad that didn’t happen when I was driving her.” Or the family would go to an event at the Mark Taper Forum in the Los Angeles Music Center, and Dad would drop some comment about what Mark Taper’s home looked like. Why would Dad visit millionaire Mark Taper’s house?—he must have been driving the limo. Or we would be discussing Vietnam, and Dad, who rarely had opinions on foreign matters, would pipe in: “The worst thing was when they assassinated Ngo Dinh Diem [who was President of Vietnam from 1955 to 1963]—of all the politicians I chauffeured, he was the hardest-working. Just a good guy, who had no interest in partying—unlike the others.”

I now wonder who the others were. But I never asked. Like many of his generation, Dad wouldn’t talk much about his past unprompted. Sad to say, I rarely thought to prompt.

I now understand that Dad had good reasons for looking askance at fame. Many of the famous people he met in his line of work died young because of their celebrity. But he also thought it would be a royal pain to have people staring at you wherever you went, scrutinizing everything you did, walking up to you just to gawk and talk. Much better, he thought, to have a low-key time with your family, enjoying the simple pleasures of American life.

That’s my way of thinking too, nowadays. Fathers sometimes do know best.

But despite my best efforts, I have now achieved notoriety in my neighborhood. For a good reason (as you’ll see), but it unsettles me nonetheless. For example, when I got my hair cut last week, the stylist said:

“Hey, I know you, don’t I?”

“What? How’s that?”

“You’re the guy who has two sons at Harvard.”

“Yeah, that’s me.”

The same thing happens at the dentist, or in coffee houses, and in other local settings. News travels fast through the suburban grapevine, and I’m the Dad whose kids all go to Harvard. I live in a neighborhood of ambitious parents—many of them doctors, engineers, and techies of various sorts—and they don’t care in the least that I’ve written a bunch of books, or publish in fancy periodicals. It’s my two children who give me my local renown.

But along with this comes a responsibility.

That’s because acknowledgement of my tiny dose of fame is always followed by: “How do you do it?” What’s the secret to getting into the Ivy League?” ‘How did you raise those boys?”

That’s the expertise they value here. No, they don’t want my tips on cool new albums. They don’t care about my observations on the future of streaming platforms. They won’t even stop and listen as I opine about mid-period Miles Davis. That’s useless information, from their perspective.

What they want is parenting advice. When I talk about raising kids, it’s like I’m E.F. Hutton. They stop and listen.

But what do I tell them?

Alas, I fear that much of what I say either disappoints or shocks them. But I realize that they’re sincere in their desire to learn about our family’s approach to parenting. So I tell it to them straight. And maybe you’re interested too. So I’ve decided to put it down on (virtual) paper for all of you as well. After all, if you subscribe to my Substack, you deserve my most sought-after advice.

If parenting and college prep tips are not your thing, you can skip the rest of this. I’ll soon send out some music writing to compensate. But for the rest of you read on—at your own risk.

That’s because we did everything the exact opposite of what parents are supposed to do nowadays. We never made intense demands on our two children. We didn’t push and prod, nag and badger. We didn’t send them to elite private high schools or home school them, but instead kept both children in the local public school system from kindergarten through high school. And we ignored almost every other prevailing rule for success—for example, the view (shared by every other parent we met, it seemed, except ourselves) that their children’s education absolutely must prioritize STEM, namely “science, technology, engineering, and math.”

Even now, when people ask what my son is studying at Harvard, they are dismayed when I say philosophy. They don’t know much about philosophers, but they do know nobody is hiring them. My oldest son followed a similarly uncharacteristic path, majoring in history as an undergraduate, before entering Harvard Law School (while he is concurrently pursuing a PhD in history at Columbia).

I approve of their choices in both cases. But the key thing is: My approval is irrelevant. I don’t give my sons unsolicited advice on courses, majors, or careers. I’ve encouraged them to think for themselves and construct their own life plan. “Every career decision has pros and cons,” I tell them. “You have to live with the consequences, so the responsibility for the decision needs to rest on your own shoulders.”

I’ve seen all around us the negative results of parents giving their children too much advice and heavy-handed guidance. Many of youngsters in our neighborhood, even very talented ones, are burnt out long before they go off to college. Even worse, they feel only half-hearted commitment to their education and future vocation, because they never get to make these choices. You always work harder in pursuing your own agenda, not someone else’s. (By the way, that’s why democracies almost always defeat tyrannies in war—you fight harder when your own freedom is at stake, not just the glory of the dictator.) If your own parents deprive you of agency and self-determination when you’re making key life decisions, you might never recover.

I recently read a fascinating article entitled “How to Work Hard” by Paul Graham. I highly recommend it. Yet I’m not even sure why I read it—because, after all, what could be simpler than the rules for working hard? You put your nose to the grindstone, your feet to the fire, or whatever metaphor you prefer, and just get things done. But Graham makes a brilliant point in this essay.

Looking back on his own life, he states:

Strangely enough, the biggest obstacle to getting serious about work was probably school, which made work (what they called work) seem boring and pointless. I had to learn what real work was before I could wholeheartedly desire to do it. That took a while, because even in college a lot of the work is pointless.

Graham believes (rightly, in my opinion) that most successful people decide around age 13 that they need to work hard to achieve things that are important to them, not to their teachers or parents. If they never make that leap of the imagination, they will always retain negative associations with work—and this will undermine their enjoyment of their vocation, their success in it, and even their sense of self worth.

In other words, parents need to let go. In our neighborhood, filled with ambitious tiger moms and dads, that’s not easy to do. Many of them make the further mistake of demanding that their children achieve the parent’s own unfulfilled ambitions. Many prod their kids to pursue the exact same career they did, but aiming for higher levels of success. Or they push them into the career they wish they had chosen.

You can see this as early as the youth sports leagues, where the parents are totally over-the-top in their intensity—as if NFL scouts were already sitting in the bleachers, with contracts in hand. And the blight gets worse in high school. The parents don’t say it aloud, but their actions constantly reinforce the same message: My kids will do what I never got to do myself.

My wife and I could easily have gone down that path. We both experienced disappointments in our careers. I wanted to be a jazz pianist—I was obsessed with that goal in my late teens and twenties—but the onset of arthritis in my early thirties forced me to shift to writing about music, not performing it. My wife had a similar experience, coming very close to reaching the top rung in her vocation as a dancer and choreographer in New York before we were married. But at a critical moment she made it to the last round of auditions, within inches of entering one of the most famous dance companies in the world, but lost out in the final cut.

We don’t dwell on these matters much. My wife is happy teaching dance nowadays. I’m fortunate that my arthritis symptoms eventually subsided, and I’ve been pain free for many years now—even so, I won’t risk a recurrence by pushing myself too much at the piano. I could easily channel my frustrations into my children’s lives, prodding them to make their names as jazz musicians. But I never had the slightest interest in that agenda. Honestly, I prefer that they do something different than I did, something they discover on their own. Of course, I’d never prevent them from pursuing a musician’s life, if they felt it was their calling, but I certainly wouldn’t encourage it.

That said both my wife and I did focus on creative and artistic activities for our children during their formative years. But these activities always had to be fun. We made music together as a family, relying heavily on the magical items contained in a large box of instruments (mainly percussion) that we kept near the piano. We’d play funk songs with a kind of uninhibited spirit that probably drove our neighbors crazy—jams on “Cantaloupe Island” or “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” or “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” Even before that stage, when our children were tiny, I would sing jazz songs to them at bedtime (they both now prefer classical music—so that tells you about the lasting impact of those toddler lullabies, or maybe just about the deterrent effect of my vocals).

Later when they got involved in school music ensembles, and went off to competitions or auditions, my words of encouragement were always the same: “The goal isn’t perfection—the idea is to make music.” (I realized only later how congruent that advice was with the aesthetic views outlined in my first book on music, entitled The Imperfect Art.) When school orchestra got too intense, I encouraged my son to drop out of it—a rare instance in which I gave specific advice—even though he had just made the all region orchestra. Local “experts” told me this was a mistake, and would hurt his prospects when applying for college. But I feared that the intense focus on perfection and competitions was destroying his love of music.

He’s now evolved into quite a formidable pianist, but motivated solely by his love of playing the instrument—and without any plans for a music career. I applaud that, and note that many of his friends in that school orchestra (which won all-state) have given up on playing, burnt out by a system that turned music-making into a gladiatorial do-or-die struggle.

The goal isn’t perfection—the idea is to make music. That’s a healthy attitude. And not just for musicians.

Back in those days, we would also engage in family contests that were also learning opportunities. Almost anything can be turned into a game: identifying famous paintings, naming composers from hearing extracts of symphonies, picking stocks that will outperform Wall Street experts, etc.

Above all, I read to my children. I did it every night without fail, except when I had to travel. This is the single most important thing I did for their intellectual development. I enjoyed reading these stories, and they enjoyed hearing them—and everyone in the family came to accept the idea that books were fun.

I read all of the Harry Potter books to my children. All of the Narnia books. All of the Lemony Snicket books. And a bunch of other writers, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Robert Louis Stevenson to Roald Dahl. I even wrote a children’s novel (unpublished) which I read aloud to them with great satisfaction (at least for the author). With the passing years, we raised the level of difficulty of the books, but always focusing on the intrinsic enjoyment of storytelling.  

At a certain juncture, I handed off responsibility for the reading to them. A key turning point took place shortly after my youngest son Thomas finished sixth grade. Over the course of a summer, we worked together on what we called our “humanities enrichment project.” It was a very elaborate program with enormous impact on his development—not just his learning, but also his character. But I knew it wouldn’t work unless he was excited about it.

How did I handle that? I told him that we would read some very difficult books—but he should view it as a kind of game or experiment, just to see how much he could extract from them. I said that we would sit down and discuss each work, after he had read it—but he needed to be forewarned: we were entering dangerous and daunting areas of learning that few could handle. He should think of it like leveling up in a video game. Could he survive this next level?

Tommy thought that was cool. He had his game face on, and was ready to roll. We started with Jane Austen and ended up with David Foster Wallace. (What fool would ask a 12-year-old to read David Foster Wallace? Yes, I am that fool.) At one juncture we made a detour into Plato, focusing on the late dialogues about Socrates’s trial and death—a kind of adventure story really, and full of useful life lessons. But then we shifted gears and jumped into Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, as strange and fanciful as science fiction ever gets. We also did lots of poems, some comparatively easy (nature poems by Wordsworth), others ridiculously difficult (T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens).

Once again, I must be a strange parent if I’m trying to get an adolescent to understand Wallace Steven’s “Sunday Morning.” I can hardly understand it myself. But Tommy and I worked through it line by line. And we discovered something amazing: namely, that a piece of writing that seems absolutely impenetrable at first reading actually will yield up its meaning if you take it slowly and carefully.

He learned that the arts are like a secret code. And you need to be a wily code-breaker to penetrate into their rich inner significance. If you’re really good at this stuff, you’re like Indiana Jones, prepared for any obstacle or adventure.

Our humanities enrichment summer also involved music, paintings and other cultural landmarks. But we both had fun with it. And here’s the most important thing of all: After that summer, nothing any teacher assigned my son would ever be as difficult as what he had just handled on his own. I believe this lesson in self-confidence was more important than the actual books we studied.

After all, the single most important thing you can learn is how to teach yourself.

I note, in passing, that this important summer took place at almost the same age that Paul Graham identified as the turning point for successful people—namely 13. (In our case, the enrichment program took place during the summer when Tommy went from 12 to 13.) Based on my experience, both firsthand and as a parent, the child turns into an adult between 6th and 10th grade. After that point, your ability to influence a youngster diminishes enormously, but during those years their character, habits, and attitudes are formed—and, for the most part, won’t change much in later life.

Youngsters at the age need role models. They want role models. If you don’t provide them, they will seek them out elsewhere.

That’s why I believe the leading colleges ought to undertake outreach programs that start around the 7th grade. If I ran Harvard or Yale or MIT or Stanford, I would set up satellite summer programs in under-served neighborhoods, and try to provide youngsters with role models and opportunities at exactly that crucial juncture in their personal development. Stanford should come to South Central LA for 2-3 weeks in the summer. Harvard ought to head off to Harlem. Give young ambitious academics a chance to roll up their sleeves and change lives. Let the hard-working students have an opportunity to shine, and get rewarded for their efforts. Focus on students who are still a year or two away from entering high school. If you wait until these kids are applying to college, you’ve waited too long.

Don’t get me wrong, we never ignored schoolwork in our household. My sons often heard me say: “You need to do two things. You must get an education, but you also should do well in school—just don’t assume that these are the same thing.” It’s great when school provides you with the education, but you can’t count on it.

And why do we work hard in school (even when it isn’t providing an education)? Not for the grades or class rank—although we understand their significance. Instead I would talk to my sons about the many draining and boring projects I had pursued in my life, some of them pointless when viewed in retrospect—and stress that I worked hard even in those instances, because taking pride in your work, and striving for quality are always good things. You enjoy the work more. It is received better by others. And you feel better about yourself.

I’d often talk about my Sicilian relatives, many of whom worked their whole lives as carpenters. They took extraordinary pride in every detail of their work—even though they would never see that piece of furniture or cabinetry again.

By taking this approach, we transformed the drudgery of schoolwork into something different. It was now done for intrinsic reasons, not extrinsic ones. We work hard, even in tiny projects, because that’s how we express our sense of caring and integrity in this world. You want the good grade, but because you’ve earned it—formal recognition is the proper response to this kind of caring. But you never rely on someone else’s evaluation for your sense of purpose and commitment.

It’s almost a Heideggerian notion. We both create and celebrate our own humanity in the small acts of caring and commitment in everyday life. That’s what being-in-the-world is all about. This might seem like a path of achievement and success, but that’s only the perspective of the outsider. The person doing it is focused on the task at hand, not the reward.

Finally, I need to stress that this entire agenda of parenting was only pursued because it seemed to match our children’s interests and abilities. We could have easily faced different challenges as a parent. There’s autism and Asperger’s on both my wife’s and my side of the family. Our extended family, like any clan, has dealt with addiction, delinquency, and all sorts of other issues. If our children had been different, we would have taken a different approach. But some things would not have changed. We would still have focused on enjoyment and empowerment. We would still celebrate the tasks at hand. We would still emphasize caring and commitment.

If I’m well known in the neighborhood, it’s for those things. Not for my books or this column. Frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.