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Smart Ways to Keep Your Kids on the Right Path

Are you supporting your children, or are you just funding them and their interests? The answer could play a big role in determining the path they end up on in life. Check out these smart ways to build bridges between you and your kids that will empower them to make good choices. 

* Your time and active attention—not just your money—are vital to kids’ success.
* Do you have answers to the five “must know” questions about your children?
* Controlled environments and a “second voice” can be instrumental in helping kids make good choices.

All parents want to keep their kids on the right path in life by helping them steer clear of addiction, depression and violence. 

But if you think having wealth builds a wall around your children that protects them from these and other crippling, potentially even fatal, problems—think again. No amount of money or privilege can guarantee you end up with resilient kids who make good choices when it really counts. Indeed, research by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco discovered that suicide risks can be surprisingly high in affluent neighborhoods.2

The upshot: You’ve got to engage with your children and be present in their lives on a regular and deep basis if you want to maximize the probability of them sidestepping problems that could ruin their futures. So says Andre Norman, who knows a few things about being on both the right and wrong path in life. Norman’s early years were marked by violence, addiction, absentee parents and gangs. Eventually, he was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison, but was released after 14 years due to his stunning turnaround. Today, Norman works with families in crisis as well as corporate clients through his 180x programs (www.andrenorman.com). 

Here is some of Norman’s best advice plus a few action steps for parents as they seek to help their kids navigate the world around them.

Don’t just fund—support
The biggest overarching idea to keep in mind when helping your kids is to make sure they feel supported by you—not just financially (through paying for their lessons or camps, etc.) but also with your time and active attention. It’s all too common for busy parents to pay for programs that aim to enrich their kids—but then fail to be involved beyond sending the check.

But if you instead pay close attention to the things they’re taking part in and the people they’re doing those activities with, you will be able to get to know your children on a much deeper level—and they’ll see that you are interested in their emotional well-being, and be thankful for it (even if they don’t come right out and say it).

Five must-ask questions
Norman recommends that parents focus on five key questions that can help them engage with their children and demonstrate a deep level of support:
1.    What are your kid’s Snapchat and Instagram names?
2.    Where do your child’s three best friends want to go to college, and what do they want to study?
3.    What was the score of the last game your child attended or played in?
4.    What was the reason for your kid’s latest breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend (or a split from a best friend)?
5.    Who is your child’s favorite teacher, and why?

The reason: It’s questions like these that yield concrete answers and details that enable parents to understand their kids on a deeper level—to really know them from their perspective, in terms of what is important to them as teenagers. If your son values soccer and you’re unaware of how he or his team did in the last game, you send a loud and clear message that you’re not actually supporting your child. 

Such deep insights can allow you to build stronger relationships with your children that can help them make better choices—and can also help you see red flags and potential warning signs in your kids. 

Take the question about college. By knowing what a child’s best friends want to do with their lives, you gain insights into what that child is hearing about what the future might look like from his or her closest peers, day in and day out. 

Similarly, knowing details about a recent breakup (from a romantic partner or a friend) helps you better understand a child’s mental and emotional state. If you learn, for example, that your child recently broke up with a boyfriend and has cut several good friends out of her life—and get to the drivers behind those developments—you can better head off depression and the behaviors that can follow from it. 

Finding out the favorite teacher is also highly valuable, because you can bet your child is more open around him or her. Reach out to that teacher and have a sit-down conversation about what that teacher notices about your child (and his or her friends) and what issues the teacher sees your kid dealing with regularly. Ask what you can do to help both the teacher and your child address those issues and even how the two of you can work together to influence the child positively. 

Important: Stick only to the favorite teacher. A teacher your child doesn’t like could still give you important insights—but he or she isn’t in a position to help influence the child and change any behaviors, because your child at some level doesn’t listen to that teacher.

A creative way to get the answers—and build bridges
Finding the answers to these and similar questions can be easy—in some cases, that is. For example, your child’s phone will tell you his or her Snapchat and Instagram names. And making a plan to attend at least some of your child’s events will help you demonstrate your investment of time and attention in them. 

Important: If possible, make it to some of your child’s practices—not just the games. It’s at these less formal, more relaxed practices where you’ll get a better idea of the kids your child chooses to interact with and how they relate to each other. 

All that said, if you’re a parent or guardian, you might have noticed that kids aren’t always exactly eager to answer your questions—especially if they feel you’re grilling them about their lives. That means you’ll need to get creative.

One smart move that will cost you next to nothing: pizza night. Once every week or two, tell your child you’ll take him and five of his friends out for pizzas and sodas. If you listen and observe as a “fly on the wall” at these events, you can quickly uncover information like:
•    Who your kid’s best friends are and how they act
•    Which kids are “in” and “out” of your child’s social circle, and why
•    Your child’s favorite teacher
•    Breakups and new love interests

Your end game: Do these pizza nights regularly, and over time your kid’s friends will likely come to trust you and see you as the cool mom or cool dad. (In case you forget your own teenage years, kids are often more likely to open up to their friends’ parents than to their own.) Eventually, you can give some of your kid’s friends your phone number and assure them they can call if they need to. The people your kid will likely be with if he ends up in trouble now have your number and can reach you!

Two other savvy strategies for raising “good” kids
A few other action steps to consider taking if you want kids to make good choices and stay on “the straight and narrow” path include:
1.    Enlist a second voice—another adult to whom you are very close, and to whom your child listens. These adults—who are often cousins or other relatives but can also be coaches or teachers—often can get through to your child better than you can. The same idea that your kid rejects because it came from you could go over well when it comes from that second voice.

This approach requires you to covertly coordinate your moves with that trusted second voice. After all, you don’t want your child to catch on that your requests and ideas are being filtered through someone else to make them more palatable! So make it someone you believe will respect your wishes and communicate with you openly.

2.    Make use of controlled environments. Want to engineer the behavior you desire? Make sure your kids are signed up for teams, retreats and programs that put them in front of the ideas and people you want them in front of. The key is to find a program that your child will like and want to go to and that is attended by the types of kids you’d like to see him or her be surrounded by. That might mean, for example, a religious-oriented basketball camp. Then communicate with the coaches, counselors and other leaders there and build relationships with them.

Ideally, you can sign your child up to attend a program where you know the people in charge very well—people you already trust and communicate with regularly. If so, here’s a pro tip: Don’t advertise how well you know the people running the show! Once your child knows how tight you are with the grown-ups in charge, you can bet your child will watch what he or she says and does around those people—and you’ll lose a big opportunity to learn more about your child and find a second voice who can act as an influencer.

Moving forward
As you move forward, remember: Just as money doesn’t guarantee a happy and healthy child, neither does taking the steps outlined here. Raising kids—like investing assets—can come with significant risk of loss. But by actively involving yourself in your children’s lives in ways that demonstrate how much you care about them as people and as individuals, you may be able to set them up for success over the long term.  


VFO Inner Circle Special Report
By Russ Alan Prince and John J. Bowen Jr.
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2Mary C. Daly, Daniel J. Wilson and Norman J. Johnson, Relative Status and Well-Being: Evidence from U.S. Suicide Deaths, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, September 2012.