Odds Stacked Against You? Stop Bitching and Get to Work!

November 24, 2018


Nicaragua.- NP believes that when parents hit their seventies they should start giving away their assets to their children as fast as they can.

“Making them wait till you die is manipulative,” he says.

I say “I don’t think parents should feel obliged to leave their kids anything. They should expect their kids to be able to take care of themselves.”

NP also believes that older parents should live in assisted living facilities so that they “aren’t a burden to their adult children.”

I believe adult children should feel honored to take care of their parents as they become less capable of caring for themselves. “Caring for a family member is a privilege,” I say. “And it’s morally correct. These are the people that gave you life and took care of you for umpteen years when you couldn’t care for yourself.”

We were talking about the same topic, but our views are 180 degrees apart. And yet when we talk about other things that matter – work and economics and politics – our views tend to be aligned.

Why is that?

I think I know why because I have known NP since he was a small child. His dad and I were partners for many years.

NP’s parents held family in high regard. And within the family, children came first. When it came to education, public schools were not even considered. And when it came to selecting private schools, they would sacrifice anything to make sure their kids went to the best.

They had the same idea about “things” like cars and clothes and computers and everything else.

My parents came from a culture for which family was important but the role of children within the family was very different. Children were not the focus. They were expected to help out and to respect their elders. And anything they got – which was very little – they got not because they deserved it, but because their parents were being generous.

Today, I have friends that brought up their kids as NP’s parents did. And I have friends that brought them up the way my parents did. (Which was the way K and I brought up our kids.)

I also have a few friends that had an entirely different attitude. They seemed to believe their responsibilities as parents ended at the child’s birth. They abandoned their children when they were very young and never looked back.

What’s going on here?

We are talking about culture and cultural differences.

It’s well known to historians and anthropologists that some cultures have demonstrably more successful academically than others. Some have more success in terms of wealth acquisition. Some social groups stay married more than others. Some drink more than others.  Some spend more time in jail than others. And some have demonstrably higher IQs.

We hear plenty about the effect of economics and politics on social groups, But except perhaps at the anthropological level, there’s not much intelligent discussion about culture.

The reason is an elephant in the ever-shrinking world of social discourse. Admitting that culture may be a very important factor in group success or failure is tantamount to criticism. And criticism of social groups smacks of elitism and/or racism.

So we pretend that all social groups are equal in every way. And when it is obvious that they are not equal, we must find a reason – a malevolent force that is repressing them, a set of institutional biases and preferences that make it near impossible for them to be on an equal footing.

The problem with this line of thinking is exactly what makes it attractive. It relieves the disadvantaged social group of any responsibility for its situation. If the problem is some other, they themselves don’t have to make any adjustments. All they need to do is advocate for government mandated institutional changes. And wait till they occur.

This brings me back to my disagreement with NP. If you compared his childhood to mine, you could not help but conclude that mine was greatly disadvantaged. I slept in a bedroom with two or three other siblings. I was nourished on powdered milk and peanut butter. When I got in trouble or needed a helping hand, I couldn’t look to my parents. They were busy. And anyway, it wasn’t their job.

But, of course, I don’t think I was disadvantaged. Quite the contrary. I think I was blessed to have been raised with cultural values that included the expectation that I would spend half of my Saturdays cleaning the bathrooms and repairing the roof as my proper contribution as a part of the family.

I grew up expecting nothing from anyone but myself. And that gave me a huge advantage over those that had a more “privileged” upbringing. When it was time for college, I didn’t even apply to private schools because I knew I couldn’t afford it. Instead, I worked full-time to earn the money I needed to pay the modest tuition at a local college. And that opportunity to pay my own way gave me the strength and tenacity to keep going on after college and in my career. Although I was certainly less well educated than some of those with whom I was competing, I never gave a moment’s thought to that. I knew I had to get up earlier and work harder than they did.

Please notice that I am not saying that some social groups do not face institutional obstacles on their road to success. These certainly exist. What I’m saying is that I’m glad I grew up in a culture that taught me that feeling victimized would get me nowhere fast.

“Life isn’t fair,” my mother told me a thousand times. “Stop bitching and get to work.”