7th July 2006. London. Summer. Early evening. The sort of evening created barbecues and good company. Warm, sunny and perfectly delightful. It was also the evening of the day my eldest son was born. As I cradled him in my arms in the sterile coolness of the delivery suite, I was overcome by a mixture of pure joy and overwhelming responsibility. Questions swirled through my mind. The sorts of questions that I suspect all new parents ask themselves. Will I be a good father? How should I raise my son? How do I teach him to be a good person?
When it comes to raising children, there seem to be two competing ‘traditions’, the authoritarian and the liberal position. One of the issues dividing these two camps is that of rules. While (mostly) everyone agrees there have to be some rules, the major point of debate is how restrictive these rules are and how aggressively they should be enforced.
Another major difference is the issue of freedom of thought and expression. To what extent should we allow children to think critically and come to their own judgements? To what extent should we allow children to make their own minds up and to disagree and to publicly express that disagreement? The philosopher, Stephen Law, in his book The War for Children’s Minds, carefully makes the distinction here between the ‘Authoritarian’ approach, with an uncritical deference to Authority and the ‘Liberal’ one, where greater emphasis is placed on independent critical thought. Note the capital letters.
So one can be both Authoritarian with a big ‘A’ and liberal, small ‘l’, in one’s approach to parenting. A father like this might tolerate all sorts of behaviour from his children. He allows them to go to bed late, cares little whether they do their homework, and allows them to be rude to the maid, yet smacks them hard if they question their religious faith.
Conversely, a Liberal authoritarian parent might behave like this mother. She has a strict set of rules. Her children must go to bed at 8 o’clock, brush their teeth, do their household chores, and say their prayers. But she also encourages them to think for themselves, and to question her. Her children may not agree with all her methods but they are allowed to say so and to have a discussion. She doesn’t tell her kids what to think. She allows them to make their own minds up. In his book, Stephen Law eviscerates the two main arguments against this Liberal, capital ‘L’, approach. The first is that it will somehow lead to a ‘moral vacuum’, that if we do not insist on children thinking a certain way they will grow up with no moral guidance. This is nonsense. No one is advocating not teaching children morals. What is being advocated is allowing them to be able to think critically about their intellectual and moral education.
The second criticism is that it is antireligious. Again, not at all. The Liberal approach simply insists on the child actively participating in their education by being allowed to ask questions and not being treated as unthinking intellectual, moral, and religious sheep.
So what does all this have to do with my son being the next Richard Branson, I hear you ask? Because independent thinking is the key characteristic of an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs have other qualities in common too, of course. For the most part, they are ambitious. They are risktakers. They have a desire to stand on their own two feet. They are persistent, have a strong work ethic and are adaptable and self-reliant. But most of all, most crucially, they are able to think and do things for themselves.
Of course there are sceptics to the idea that entrepreneurs can be nurtured or taught. Some people believe one is born an entrepreneur, that being the next Steve Jobs is something hardwired. Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank, who also teaches at the Haas School of Business in Berkeley, California, does not think so. He was quoted in the Financial Times recently as saying, “It is not whether we can teach entrepreneurship – of course you can do that. It is who you can teach it to.” He’s absolutely correct.
We, parents, teachers, and society at large, have to lay the groundwork in our children from the very beginning. What chance of our children becoming entrepreneurs if what they are brought up to believe is to always do what others tell them, to not question conventional wisdom, and to not speak up or speak out? We have to demonstrate to our children that it is not just always ok to ask questions, but absolutely vital. We need to encourage them to not blindly accept what their peers or even their seniors tell them but to explore and question everything, and in so doing gain greater understanding and appreciation for what they are learning.
We need to encourage independent learning and thinking. We cannot spoon-feed our children information and then expect them as adults to be adept at seeking it out for themselves. More important than teaching our children what to think is teaching them HOW to think, and then allowing them to think it and do it. Fostering a culture of entrepreneurship in Brunei is not just about reducing government bureaucracy and having start-up incubators. It’s about changing the way we teach our children right from the start. Can this teaching take place in our schools? Yes, of course it can and it should. But it MUST happen in our homes. It has to happen in our culture. Let’s build these foundations. Let’s build them now. Let’s build them strong and watch the next generation of entrepreneurs take flight.
Dr John Friis is a Consultant Anaesthetist at RIPAS Hospital. Having trained in Nottingham, London and Cambridge and having worked as a Consultant in London, he also served as a doctor at the 2012 Olympics, the 2014 Commonwealth Games and for Queens Park Rangers football club between 2007 – 2014. He has interests in critical care medicine, pre-hospital care and medical ethics. Follow him on Twitter @johnfriis