No more Paris Hiltons

Written by Jeff Dennis

We all want to provide more for our children than we had growing up. So while you walked five miles uphill to school and spent the summer selling encyclopedias door to door, your kids ride to class in a Lexus SUV and pass their summers at a camp you could mistake for a five-star resort.

Which presents a problem. How do you share all the trappings of your success — from executive home to exotic vacations — while infusing your children with a sense of social and financial responsibility and a good work ethic, if not the entrepreneurial spirit that made you a success? Figure this out, or you risk creating another Paris Hilton.

I recently saw a documentary called Born Rich, in which Jamie Johnson, a 23-year-old heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, chronicles the lifestyles of twentysomethings in line to inherit the Trump, Vanderbilt and Bloomberg fortunes. These young adults have a perverse perspective on life. I was aghast at Stephanie Ercklentz, the daughter of New York socialites, who quit her investment banking job because it got in the way of her jet-set social life. Caught on camera shopping, Ercklentz says, “I love purses. They are so easy to buy. I have shelves and shelves of them … I couldn’t have a husband who would freak out if I bought a $600 Gucci purse.”

Although these kids are out of our league, the children of all successful entrepreneurs face the same challenges. It’s just a question of scale.

I come to this issue with some experience. I was a rich kid, scion of a well-known Canadian real estate family, who enjoyed European vacations and fancy cars. After being wiped out by the crash of the early 1990s, I had to become a self-made entrepreneur. Now I’m trying to instill proper values in my 14-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son.

Despite my parents’ wealth, they created in me a desire to succeed and become self-sufficient. First and foremost, they preached that “with privilege comes responsibility.” Our perks were tied to excelling in school, fulfilling our community responsibilities, being respectful of our elders and teachers, and making a financial contribution to our educations (albeit in a token way). We were also taught that success comes from hard work. I understood from an early age that my great-grandparents came to Canada from Eastern Europe with nothing. One of my grandfathers put himself through medical school and became a highly respected pediatrician; the other built one of Canada’s pre-eminent real estate empires of the ’60s and ’70s. I was often reminded of the adversity they had faced. I learned that if I wanted to be successful, I, too, would have to earn it.

More important, my upbringing was hands-on. From an early age, we discussed finance, marketing and employees at the dinner table. I remember brainstorming names for a restaurant my father was considering. My father took me to work to see him in action, while my mother ran a tight ship at home and took leadership roles in many philanthropic settings. Despite their busy schedules, I can’t remember either of them missing any of my activities, whether it was a parent-teacher meeting or a sporting event. My parents didn’t just talk about their values; they lived their values and encouraged me to watch. This transparency made the links among work, success and social responsibility even more obvious.

We also had an anti-nepotism rule. My father had worked in the same business as his domineering father and wanted to spare his children the same experience. We were encouraged to find our own careers. I earned a law degree, practised for five years and then started the predecessor of my current business with a law-school classmate, who is still a partner today. Being in the real world and hearing people talk about all the advantages that I grew up with only served to motivate me to prove that I could do it on my own. It probably caused me to work harder in law school and in private practice. It certainly was one of the motivations for starting my own business.

Now my wife and I are facing the entrepreneur’s parenting challenge. We’ve adopted many of my parents’ tactics. I often remind my kids of my riches-to-rags-to-riches ride so that they understand that wealth can be fleeting and is not a right.

We also are role models for our kids. I continue to build businesses, and my wife runs a home-based business while pursuing a master’s degree. We are both active in the community. I co-founded the Toronto chapter of the Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization (YEO) and have held YEO leadership roles at both the local and international levels. I am also involved in organizing and coaching youth sports. There’s an anti-nepotism rule in our family as well. To prepare for life away from the nest, our son has held a part-time job for the past three years, and he organized a school fundraiser last year. Our daughter knows her time will come to step up, too.

Having been a rich kid and survived the loss of a business, I am particularly aware of the importance of raising kids who understand the responsibilities that come with privilege. I only hope we prepare our kids as well as I was prepared for the uncertainties that life can bring. So far, so good.

© 2004 Jeff Dennis

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