Raising Kids — the Empathetic Basics — The First Rule – Pay Attention

Brother Chasing Brother

My wife, a trauma psychologist, and I are collaborating on a new project — a set of short pieces on raising children, that she can translate into Mandarin for both the Taiwanese and Chinese markets. The hook is around raising a child to be an entrepreneur. My own son is one — he’s 21, and didn’t want to go to college. So, after a short stint working for in programming a UAV autopilot, and a brief attendance at L’Ecole 42, he and a buddy punched out and founded what is now Unstoppabledomains.com. They relatively recently closed their Series A round, so they’re on their way. 

His brother, two years younger, is a little more typical, but even he has no problem standing up a small business. I never taught them any of the business stuff — so trust me when I tell you it’s not that.

Will they be successful? They’re doing great! Statistics say 25% of all companies making it this far survive, so we’re still pretty far from a successful exit. But he’s on the journey, and there are numerous things he and his brother did learn along the way that I’ll write about. 

Point of order — I’ll repeat this header for all these pieces. And yes — they are much simpler than most of the typical material on this blog!

The First Rule – Pay Attention

Starting Age – 3

Lifetime Practice

In order for children to be successful in life, let alone entrepreneurism, they must be aware of their surroundings.

But in order for your child to be aware of their surroundings, YOU have to first be aware of your surroundings.  You have to practice.  

How do we practice? Everyday life. The best element to practice on, though, are other people.  And they are available everywhere.  In shopping malls.  On sidewalks. Places where children play. Recognize other people.  Learn, and say their names.  Children will pick up on the notion that you can recognize other people in venues other than just the home.

Give yourself a test – how far do you look around when you sit down in a restaurant?  Practice keeping an awareness distance of 2 meters. Don’t obsess – just look around before you sit down. Play a game.  Ask the child if they saw the person two tables away was wearing a red scarf, or other noticeable item.  Expand the distance as they get older.

With your child, a great place to start learning to pay attention is in the grocery store.  Have your child help you find items you wish to buy. If they make a wrong choice, do not scold the child – instead, take the item, and communicate to the child while you evaluate it.  Take their input, and play-act perhaps a little, that you’re considering their judgment before returning it to the shelf.  Creating them as an agent, and extension of your awareness will feed their desire to look outward.

Learning how to ride a bike is a great opportunity for the child to learn how to self-regulate while under stress and paying attention.  Find a bike path that is uncrowded, and ride at a pace in front of the child not so far that the child feels unsafe, but must look around.  I used to take my two boys chasing me at carefully selected times on city streets, when they were deserted (but the boys didn’t know.)  It was high adventure following their father in a place they had become accustomed to seeing danger, and knowing they were partially responsible for themselves. Chasing a parent in a safe-in-reality, but differential environment for a child teaches coordination with others, as well as situational awareness.  Runs through forests and trees make the child aware of their need to keep up, as well as how they must adapt to changing circumstances. After they follow for a while, make them lead.

Regardless of who comes to your house, if your child is in the vicinity of that purpose, they should greet that person, even if they only immediately exit back to their playtime activities.  The older the child, the more formal and appropriate the greeting.  This is something I notice that we have lost from our protocols. 

Part of paying attention is realizing that there are consequences for not doing so.  One of the rules I implemented early on in my parenting strategies was called ‘Talk the talk – walk the walk.’  One of the ways young boys especially get hurt later in life is playing games of ‘dare’ with other young males.  There is a tree that really shouldn’t be climbed, or a jump into the water that is not safe.  Responding to peer pressure, the young male takes a chance to prove himself to his peers, in an uncontrolled environment, and ends up severely injured or dead.

I realized that the reason this happened to kids was poor emotional self-separation with others in a peer group, as well as no training in evaluating risk.  I was especially concerned with diving, as I had escaped serious injury or possibly death in a diving accident myself when I was 16.  

How did I do this with my boys?  First was understanding the need to interrupt the positive feedback cycle of people daring more and more dangerous things.  The way one does this is actually counterintuitive.  You make a rule where, in a given situation where risk is involved, if the child swears they will do something, you force them to follow through.

This is AFTER, of course, you’ve decided the activity is safe in the first place.  If the child expresses a desire, ask them to evaluate the situation for safety.  “Pay attention” is the first phrase out of my mouth.  If the child then commits, you do not allow them to back out.

If this practice is started when they are very young (I started doing this with my sons at age 5) the jumps are small.  But they will build assessment into their thought process, so when you are NOT there, they will end up in an emotional, ratcheting spiral that could end  in tragedy.

A story – we were floating down the Lower Salmon on a multi-day family raft trip with a close friend of mine, George, that does stand-in as the boys’ uncle.  Conor was 4, and Braden was 6.  There were a series of rapids where the adults consider it safe to swim down through the waves.  Conor had heard us talk about this, and had told us he wanted to jump off the raft and swim through the waves.  I told him that he could consider it, but first, he would have to look at the rapidand make his decision there.  

We approached the rapid. Of course, all was safe.  But the decision was his – I asked him.  “What do you think?”  He said that it looked good.  “Do you want to do it?” I asked.  He said “yes.”  I said “Talk the talk, walk the walk!”  He agreed.

We floated another 100 m downstream.  He was sitting on the edge of the raft.  “I changed my mind,” he said.  George looked at him.  “You know the rules,” he told Conor.  Conor got a long look on his face, and then immediately bailed off the back.  

And there is another deep, inner lesson.  Do not act, or NOT act, out of fear.  Act out of assessment and your rational experience, or others’ rational experience.

When Conor swam the rapids, he had a great experience.  But the lesson was learned.  Now Conor is a high-expert skier, taking big jumps and hucking 30’ cliffs at speed. But he slows down, and assesses unfamiliar terrain.  He does NOTHING on a dare.  It is a lifetime practice to master the First Rule.  But he is on the path.

Very important, as you move into this rule, is understanding children’s developmental limits.  A child below the age of 8 can see mountains, but they cannot truly process mountains – objects past a distance of 20’ are meaningless. Ask a young child about the bug on their shoe.  That is something they can understand.  

Time periods matter. Asking a young child to maintain focus for too long is also cruel.  During all your training, you must pay attention to the child as well!

Through all the practice, you are working on the child’s brain so that you stating the rule is not nagging. It is tied to the child’s larger experience, and triggers a richer set of responses than just “do what you’re told!” You must be creative yourself, though. You must think of situations where it appears that you might lead, but in reality, the child must navigate correctly.

And by doing so, you are laying in the deep foundation of entrepreneurship. You are giving the child the confidence to pay attention to their surroundings, which will be the business environment they find themselves in, and act.

2 thoughts on “Raising Kids — the Empathetic Basics — The First Rule – Pay Attention

  1. I read some ethnological studies done in Africa (‘the forest people’ i think was one of the books).. It was about how ‘nomadic forest people’ who basically hunted and gathered coexisted with ‘sendentary people’ who lived basically by agriculture. The two groups (or tribes) managed to coexist and gain mutual benefit, but there was also some conflict, and also stress from ‘cultrual conflict’ over values–the agricultural people needed some things the forest people could give them, but also viewed the forest people as sort of shiftless people with little redeeming moral or other values. (While that coexistence persisted for a long time, with colonialism and advent iof modern ‘western’ technology, the forest people basically are on the verge of extinction.)

    Apart from things like mowing lawns and selling lemonade in front of where i grew up, i had almost zero entrepeneurial interest or competence. (When i had a lemonade stand, as soon as i had a certain amount of money–say 3-5$—i’d abandon it and take a walk to the park for a hike).

    The only other entrepeneurial stuf i did was

    a) sell music and tapes of it i made–i played on the street, and sold recorded tapes made on an old cassette player. (Nowadays everything is digital, and i have a digitial recorder but donm’t know how to use it.) . There is also so many people trying to sell their digital recordings , to me the qeustion is why bother learning how to. I just play music for myself mostly. Also its ‘non-commercial music’–or unnaceptable–i do know professional musicians who took my route, but eventually got steady jobs making ‘acceptable music’ for ads or playing weddings, corporate conferences etc.) )

    b) sell a ‘magazine’ called ‘axiom of choice’ which was a mix of poetry, drawings, ficttion, excerpt from scientific books, short articles about experiences—climbing mountains, sleeping outside at -45F during a winter hike along the Yukon, all the street crime i saw, etc

    I never took many of the standard risks seen in competetive sports or other activities. Only risks i took were ones o sort of could handle—eg manage to get a plane ticket to india, with a travel budget for 3 months of 2$. for me no problem (similarily walk 100 mils in -40F weather.)

    I wrote some things on pop science for an online mag that paid in bitcoins—which i didn’t know how to deal with. i think that publication may have mostly folded. All this ‘entrepeneurial stuff’ says everyone needs their own computer domain, smart phone, car, etc.

    If you dont have these you are like the ‘forest people’ or ‘ishi’–unequipped to survive in the modern world.


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