A terse summary for the hasty and the impatient

Successful “master” parents:

  1. Have a vision. They implement this intentionally and strategically. They are not passive.
  2. Make time to learn about parenting – often by reading.
  3. Adapt to the child. They study the child closely and tailor their approach.
  4. Define a few strict rules but let the child make the remaining decisions.
  5. Perform 8 key roles for their kids.
    • The early learning partner
    • The flight engineer
    • The fixer
    • The revealer
    • The philosopher
    • The model
    • The negotiator
    • The GPS

cover art

The story behind the book

“The Formula” is a collaboration between a Boston Globe reporter and a Harvard professor. The “How I Was Parented Project” at Harvard interviewed successful Harvard graduates and their parents years later. This book summarizes the resulting patterns (the 8 key parenting roles) this duo discovered.

What it means to be a successful parent

Successful parenting is not sitting on the floor eating chocolate peanut butter ice cream every day while you plug up your ears with socks (or something) because your child says “I’m bored, I’m bored, I’m bored” over and over again. Sadly. Because I could be really good at that kind of parenting.

The authors define successful “master” parenting as raising children who become “fully realized”. A “fully realized” person has these 3 things going on:

  1. Purpose: “Something deeply meaningful that provides clear direction in life”
  2. Agency: They take action (related to their purpose) and produce results
  3. Smarts: People who “learned to generate their own questions, think through the implications of those questions, and form their own opinions, then communicate those opinions”. Also: Academic smarts, social smarts, emotional smarts, etc.

Woah, does this book take itself seriously or what? I put up with the SAT words though because, I mean, it actually sounds like an accurate way to think about happiness.

Intentional Parenting

The authors found that master parents “had a clear vision of the type of adult they wanted their child to become, and a drive to make that vision a reality—a “Burn,” which … came from their own backstories. Each also had a plan. Strategically, day by day, they nurtured in their child the qualities they thought would best serve them as an adult."

The master parent’s vision doesn’t include living their dreams through their children. Because children are not clones.

The master parent’s vision is also not a tshirt that shrank down 3 sizes too small in the dryer that cuts off circulation, restricts movement, and squeezes tight until the meat overflows like a marshmallow squeezed between two graham crackers. Mmm, delicious metaphor.

The master parent’s vision is more like scaffolding on the side of the house that the child will build and reinterpret as their own.

The Formula - The 8 roles of master parenting:

After studying their data and interviews, the authors discovered recurring patterns in the stories they were hearing. Note that all 8 roles don’t necessarily need to be played by a single parent and its unlikely that a single person would be equally good at all roles. A master parent knows their weaknesses and will work to find someone who can fill in the gaps.

1. The Early Learning Partner

The early learning partner works closely with the child during the first 5 years.

How master parents do it:

  • They ask questions that the child needs to work to answer. The child will gain confidence that they can learn.
  • They teach discipline, curiosity and love of learning while being responsive to what the child is interested in. “This is interesting to me and it might be interesting to you, too” vs “You must learn this”.
  • They teach “the basics” before age 5:
    • Maximize Love, Manage Stress
    • Talk, Sing, Point
    • Count, Group, Compare
    • Explore Through Movement And Play
    • Read And Discuss Stories

2. The Flight Engineer

Once school begins, the flight engineer “ensures all of the people and systems working on behalf of the child are functioning properly and in the child’s best interest.” If problems arise, the flight engineer will intervene or work with others to solve them.

How master parents do it:

  • They monitor the situation: Check in to be aware of whats working or not working. Especially in regards to school.
  • They assert authority and stand up for their child if necessary: Authority figures (eg teachers or coaches) are usually right, but not always. As a parent you are the expert because no one knows your child better than you.
  • They know when to step in: If there is a problem the child cannot and should not solve on their own.
  • They know when to not step in: Kids need to learn to stand up for themselves. A master parent will coach them through that and support them.

3. The Fixer

The fixer is an emergency responder who notices a major problem and takes immediate action to resolve it.

How master parents do it:

  • They are vigilante: In order to know when there is an emergency.
  • They are relentless: Nothing is more important than the child’s journey.
  • They are resourceful: If necessary they find an ally with more money or connections.

4. The Revealer

The revealer exposes the child to new ideas and shows whats possible for them.

How master parents do it:

  • They expose their child to their tribe.
  • They expose their child to new learning experiences
  • They expose their child to the world and harsh realities. They don’t shelter them. eg include them in adult conversations about adult topics.
  • They expose their child to possible careers and futures and encourage them to have a vision for what they want to become and to work towards that.
  • They help their child find a passion project and encourage that.
  • Its great if some activities are failures and don’t work out. Their child will discover what they don’t want.

5. The Philosopher

The philosopher starts early and helps the child to find meaning and purpose. The authors note that if you consider the definition of a fully realized child (purpose + agency + smarts), this role is one of the most important.

Philosophies that master parents commonly teach::

  • To seek deep understanding: To struggle with an idea, to be analytical, and to be self analytical.
  • To avoid poverty: “Don’t be poor”, “Don’t live like this”, “Don’t be dependent or trapped”, “Financial independence is security and freedom”
  • To help improve other’s lives

6. The Model

Master parents teach the qualities they want to transmit to their child by modeling those behaviors in their own lives.

How master parents do it:

  • Model the behavior
  • Talk about it
  • Influence rather than coercion
  • Extended family, ancestors, friends, neighbors, teachers can be models

7. The Negotiator

The negotiator prepares the child to self advocate and make decisions. They encourage independence, but sets guidelines.

How master parents do it:

  • They teach the child how to challenge authority
  • Parents and children spend a lot of time negotiating. These are learning moments. Master parents set the rules (eg in the house), but also listen respectfully and teach the child to how negotiate those rules. The child will learn to listen and how to defend a viewpoint.
  • They teach empathy – how to think from the other person’s frame of mind
  • They teach children to be negotiators, not push overs.

8. The GPS

Parental advice and wisdom in the child’s memory that guides them even when the parent is not there (like if I get vaporized by an asteroid). Often this navigational voice will cross generations when the child becomes a parent.

How master parents do it:

  • They encourage a growth or success mindset
  • They create high expectations by giving less praise (because success is not surprising) and more encouragement (because hard things take time).
  • They repeatedly emphasize key points and philosophy. These points act as a navigational voice in the child’s head and can used throughout life as a guidepost during difficult challenges.