Time To Lessen The Pressure On Our Kids And Help Them Find Peace Of Mind–A Father’s Day Reflection, Part 5

17 Jun

“Now if you’re feelin’ kind of low ‘bout the dues you’ve been payin’,

Future’s comin’ much too slow.

And you wanna run but somehow you just keep on stayin’,

Can’t decide on which way to go,

I understand about indecision,

But I don’t care if I get behind,

People living in competition,

All I want is to have my peace of mind.”

 

            –Boston, “Peace of Mind”, 1976

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I would have been shocked into submission if someone had told me in 1978, when I chose the last two lines of the lyrics above for my high school yearbook quote, that those lyrics would one day be my rallying cry to advance the cause of suicide prevention in the aftermath of my own son killing himself. But just as those were the best words to encapsulate my feelings about life then, they are even more important to me 37 years later in my effort to convince parents everywhere that proactively seeking ways to lessen the pressure on our children is the most impactful thing we can do to reduce the global suicide rate among the younger generation.

Rich yearbook 3

Until Jeff changed everything, I had never felt an ounce of anxiety in my life. That is partially because I was dealt a good hand, genetically speaking. I have no family history of mental illness. The more important reason, in my opinion, is that I had an amazing father who went out of his way to make me feel safe, secure and as stress-free as possible. Don’t get me wrong—he was all about hard work, but as long as I did my best at whatever I was doing, he never questioned the result.

We lived in a modest home in a rough neighborhood, but he made me feel that I never had to worry about anything. When the public schools I attended got a bit too rough for my parents’ liking, they sent me to a private high school for ninth grade. While no longer getting beaten up for my lunch money was good for my physical well-being, I was immediately overwhelmed academically. I promptly received the equivalent of a D- on my first European History exam at the school, and I was devastated. I told my dad the work was over my head and I wanted out. I’d rather go back to the public high school and take my licks.

He told me to relax and that I just had to get used to taking essay tests, as I had never taken one before. My dad eschewed college to go into the family business (anyone remember the S. Klein department store in Union Square?), so the fact that I would one day actually go to college was good enough for him. I ended up being an honors student in high school and headed off to Colgate, which made my father a proud guy.

But once at Colgate, I had no idea what to major in. I wanted to be a sportscaster, but there was no communications department there. Dad, ever the voice of reason, suggested Economics because “you can’t go wrong with that.” Well, that would have been true if I didn’t get a D+ in the basic Intro to Microeconomics course. I wanted out again. Supply and demand curves made me nauseous. He said I probably had a crappy professor and told me I’d be fine and to stick with it. I did. I graduated on schedule with my economics degree, albeit with some mediocre grades along the way.

I couldn’t find a job after graduation during the deep recession in 1982, but my father was unconcerned. He even supported my brief flirtation with becoming a TV sportscaster when a station in White River Junction, Vermont offered me the position for a whopping $9,000 per year. He said if I took it and either failed or didn’t like it, at least I wouldn’t regret not having tried. However, I’ve always been risk-averse, so I decided to plod forward in search of a bank training program position.  You can decide from the clip below whether I could have made it.

Dad told me to live at home as long as I needed to, and it would all work out in time. I was hired by a bank called Manufacturers Hanover after seven months of looking, and I remain in the industry 32 years later.

There was no such thing as hopelessness in my parents’ home. It was always about taking the bad with the good and continuing to chip away incrementally at your goals. There were no artificial deadlines. Life was not a race. I am a product of my upbringing, which is why I’m solid as a rock emotionally and it is one key reason I was able to withstand the loss of my son.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

The crucial question, though, is what each of us would do if our child came home with a D- on his/her first exam at a new high school, or a D+ in his/her first course in a proposed area of concentration in college. And how would we react if our young adult child couldn’t find a job for seven months after graduation? Most importantly, how would we treat them along the way on this long, uncertain journey?

In his Op-Ed piece entitled “Love and Merit” in the New York Times on April 24th, David Brooks wrote that the two great trends in parenting today—greater praise and greater honing of our kids to become high achievers—result in what he calls “directional love” and “meritocratic affection”. The consequences for our children’s emotional well-being are great. Brooks wrote:

These children begin to assume that this merit-tangled love is the natural order of the universe. The tiny glances of approval and disapproval are built into the fabric of communication so deep that they flow under the level of awareness. But they generate enormous internal pressure, the assumption that it is necessary to behave in a certain way to be worthy of love — to be self-worthy. The shadowy presence of conditional love produces a fear, the fear that there is no utterly safe love; there is no completely secure place where young people can be utterly honest and themselves.

On the one hand, many of the parents in these families are extremely close to their children. They communicate constantly. But the whole situation is fraught. These parents unconsciously regard their children as an arts project and insist their children go to colleges and have jobs that will give the parents status and pleasure — that will validate their effectiveness as dads and moms.”

I gave Jeff safe love. It is the one thing I laud myself for and don’t beat myself up about. I never once pushed him to follow me into a career in finance, nor did I ever push him to achieve great grades in school. Perhaps the greatest compliment Jeff ever gave me was written in the birthday card pictured below where he wrote that he felt happy and safe when he was around me.

Jeff last birthday card to me

However, I failed miserably by not realizing that in today’s pressure-packed world, it’s simply not enough to refrain from imposing stress on our kids. That alone is not sufficient to help them find their peace of mind. We have to take it one step further by proactively and aggressively seeking ways to reduce the stress and pressure that they feel. We must forcefully convey the messages that there is no universally accepted definition of success, that there are no deadlines for achieving goals, and that living in the moment is key to enjoying life.

While Jeff was steamrolling toward a 4.0 GPA at Horace Greeley High by virtue of his natural academic prowess and strong work ethic, I never once went out of my way to let him know that it would be perfectly fine to get a “C” here and there, or even a D+ like I did in microeconomics, and that his world would still keep turning. I never urged him to get “A’s”, but I never told him to relax and just do his best either. That may not sound like I did anything seriously wrong as a parent, but it’s a nuance that can very well be the difference between depression and serenity.

When he was working 18+ hour days at his paralegal job at a major New York law firm, I didn’t encourage him strongly enough to start looking for something that he could get passionate about. He took the paralegal job just to get employed, not because it was enjoyable or rewarding for him. It wasn’t until after he quit and started taking antidepressants that I aggressively worked to lighten his emotional load, but by then suicidal thoughts had crept in and it was too late.

Jeff all nighter email

Jeff no shame email

Jeff ample notice email

And at the end of October 2010, after he had been weaned off the meds, I didn’t even think to take Jeff away to a beach to clear his head, have fun and to strategize together, as the great team that we were, about his future. It was an egregious mistake that I will never live down.

The bottom line is that reducing the unnecessary level of pressure that these young people feel to not only “succeed” but to do so quickly, however self-imposed that pressure may be, is one way to lower the suicide rate in this age group. Suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2013, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The estimate is that a person takes his/her life every 13 minutes in this country alone.

Wall Street has tried to address these issues by limiting the number of weekday hours its younger people can work and by only allowing them to come to the office on one weekend day. But as an insider, I can tell you that many hardliners I work with scoff at these limits and lament the fact that these young people are getting off easy compared to how hard they all worked back in the day. It’s appalling to hear, and I have called people out on it. The reason these limits were put in place is because a young intern at Bank of America in London literally worked himself to death in the summer of 2013 by staying at the office 72 consecutive hours without sleep. Apparently, nobody asked him to do this, but it is equally apparent that nobody insisted he go home either.

In my wildest dreams, I would never have imagined that a son of mine would one day be one of our community’s poster children for suicide. But he is, and I haven’t run from that reality. I’m an average, regular guy, and if this can happen to one of my kids, it can happen to anyone’s.

My point is that we all need to be extremely in tune with our children’s feelings and cognizant of the importance of easing their fears. It’s time to prioritize their mental health over academic, athletic and career achievements. They need to know that it’s ok to not know what to do, or to fail and take time to regroup, and neither we nor they should create artificial deadlines. They need to know that our love is safe and unconditional.

The song “Peace of Mind” should be on top of everyone’s personal Billboard chart. The critical line is:

But I don’t care if I get behind”.

Of course we mustn’t care, because what does it even mean? Behind who? Behind what? If your friend gets engaged before you do, are you behind in some sort of race? Or if you find the career you love before your sibling does, so what? Or if you take 5 or 6 years to graduate from college, does the world come to an end? Of course not.

In the scheme of life, none of this matters. Each individual travels his/her own unique journey, and that is actually the beauty of life. We must encourage our kids, and they must encourage each other, to follow that unique road, to do so at their own pace, and to expect and accept that there will be detours and bumps. By consistently spreading this mantra, we can drive societal change and help reduce the global suicide rate.

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My father adored Jeff, who was his first grandson, and given that Dad lived a wonderful life to nearly 83, I must admit that I’m glad he wasn’t around to see how Jeff’s life ended. It would have devastated him, and he never would have been able to comprehend how anyone could even consider suicide as an option.

2012-05-20_36

My Dad and Jeff

On this Father’s Day, I salute and thank my dad, Leo J. Klein, for always lifting undue pressure from my shoulders. It is because of him that I never worried when I stumbled, failed, or had no idea what to do with my life when I was 22.

My greatest heartache on this day, though, comes from knowing how deeply disappointed he would be that I didn’t take the parenting lessons he taught me by example and apply them to my own son. Aggressively trying to moderate Jeff’s self-imposed drive to follow a perfect path toward adulthood may or may not have saved him, but it certainly would have given him a better chance to survive when things turned south.

All I can do now is reiterate to Drew and Brett how proud I am of them, how much I love them, how happy I am that they are following their passions, that they should just enjoy each moment, and that I will be there to support them every step of the way.

Talking to them about these things is the way I intend to spend Father’s Day, and I hope that many Dads around the world will do the same.

–Rich Klein

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One Response to “Time To Lessen The Pressure On Our Kids And Help Them Find Peace Of Mind–A Father’s Day Reflection, Part 5”

  1. AudreyHBrooks June 17, 2015 at 9:42 am #

    Thank you. I am so moved, as ALWAYS, by the way you shine a light on the human experience of parenting.

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