Neil McNerney

In this column, I will focus on some general assumptions and mistakes we make about our kids. If we think a bit differently, we might be able to make a bigger impact on our kids. Here is a mistake many of us make: “Since I am pretty smart and have achieved a lot, my kids should also be high achieving.”

It sounds logical at first glance. What we know about intelligence is that many parts of it are inheritable. Generally, smart parents will have smart kids. So, the likelihood of success is much better for kids born of smart parents. But there are lots of other factors working here. We aren’t just talking about intelligence; we are also talking about achievement, which is a completely different story.

The likelihood that a high achieving parent is also going to have a high achieving child is statistically and genetically improbable. There are some traits that will transfer, especially intelligence, but the drive that has gotten you where you are in life probably has less to do with genetics than it has to do with circumstances. I hear from many successful people that the reason they are so driven to succeed is because they came from a family that was not successful. They were driven to be better than their parents.

My childhood is a case in point, but maybe not the way you would expect. My parents were born in the late twenties and survived a childhood during the depression, both in very poor parts of Pittsburgh. I was blessed in several ways by having them as parents, including the fact that they were both very smart. In addition, they were both determined to do whatever it took to be successful. My mother rose in the executive ranks at the Ritz-Carlton by her late twenties. My father returned from World War II and took advantage of the G.I. Bill to get three college degrees. They both continued to be successful, both in status and in finances. My mother was a very creative thinker. In fact, she invented the “wreath hanger,” that piece of sheet metal that goes over doors so you don’t need to use a nail on metal doors.

I am thankful that I inherited their intelligence, but I did not inherit their drive and ambition. By the time I was in 7th grade, I was the classic underachiever, getting the minimum grades necessary so that privileges weren’t taken away. I would search for the sweet spot where I could do as little work as possible without being punished. It wasn’t necessary for me to be “driven” as I was under the naive assumption that the comfortable life was easy to get. I learned the hard way the truth about life, but I learned it on my own. No amount of lecturing from my parents convinced me that it was hard out there in the real world.

Today’s kids are the same way. Many of us have given our children innumerable opportunities. I think it’s a mistake to think they will just pick up those opportunities and run with them.

The main tool you can use to help with this is to watch how you think about your kids and then ask yourself: “Are my thoughts about my kids helping the situation?” For example: “I have given so much to my kids. They should understand and appreciate these sacrifices and work harder.”

This type of thought just produces anger in us. It might be true but focusing on how much we give to our kids and the lack of gratitude just makes us feel worse—and it doesn’t help our kids.

Instead, try: “I’m concerned about my kid’s lack of initiative. What can I do to increase it?” Do you hear the difference? The first one is focused on our sacrifices and their poor intentions. The second one focuses only on their behavior. 

By focusing only on their behavior, we can then be much clearer about possible responses. Calm, clear thinking produces much better solutions than worried, muddled thinking.

Remember: Passion and determination might not be hereditary.

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out! and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at

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