How to Raise a Kid: Thomas Jefferson vs. Abigail Adams Edition

Thomas Jefferson pushed his daughter to succeed, while Abigal Adams cautioned her son against failure. What's a better incentive?
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In 1783, Thomas Jefferson was in Annapolis, Maryland, serving as a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress. At the time, he was still grieving the death of his wife Martha, who had died soon after giving birth to their sixth child a year before. When duty called, Jefferson reluctantly left Monticello and his three living children -- Martha (whom he called Patsy), Mary, and Lucy -- in the care of a family friend. Forced to perform his fatherly duties from a distance, he wrote frequently to Patsy, who at the time of the following letter was 11 years old:

My Dear Patsy,

After four days' journey, I arrived here without any accident, and in as good health as when I left Philadelphia. The conviction that you would be more improved in the situation I have placed you than if still with me, has solaced me on my parting with you, which my love for you had rendered a difficult thing. The acquirements which I hope you will make under the tutors I have provided for you will render you more worthy of my love; and if they cannot increase it, they will prevent its diminution....

I have placed my happiness on seeing you good and accomplished, and no distress which this world can now bring on me could equal that of your disappointing my hopes. If you love me then, strive to be good under every situation and to all living creatures, and to acquire those accomplishments which I have put in your power, and which will go far towards ensuring you the warmest love of your affectionate father.

A few years earlier, in the midst of the colonies' struggle for independence, 11-year-old John Quincy Adams had accompanied his father on a mission to Paris to convince France to join in the war against Britain. His mother, Abigail, was said to have missed her eldest son dearly, and wrote to him frequently. When she wrote the following letter in 1778, he had just completed the arduous Atlantic crossing:

My Dear Son,

Tis almost four months since you left your native land and embarked upon the mighty waters in quest of a foreign country. Altho [sic] I have not perticuliarly [sic] wrote to you since yet you may be assured you have constantly been upon my heart and mind.

... remember that you are accountable to your maker for all your words and actions. Let me injoin [sic] it upon you to attend constantly and steadfastly to the precepts and instructions of your father as you value the happiness of your mother and your own welfare. ..., for dear as you are to me, I had much rather you should have found your grave in the ocean you have crossed, or any untimely death crop you in your infant years, rather than see you an immoral profligate or a graceless child.

Yet you must keep a strict guard upon yourself, or the odious monster [i.e., vice] will soon loose its terror, by becoming familiar to you.

Upon first reading, it is immediately striking how remarkably frank eighteenth-century Americans were with their 11-year-olds. Beyond that similarity, these two individuals were clearly parenting their children in very different ways, and psychologists have spent the last twenty years studying and understanding the impact of these differences on the adults we eventually become.

Jefferson expresses his deep love for Patsy, while also threatening in no uncertain terms to withhold that love should she disappoint his hopes.

Let's begin with Jefferson's parenting. Notice how in his letter, he speaks frequently of his hopes for Patsy, and of his desire for her to be accomplished -- to fulfill her potential. He expresses his deep love for her, while also threatening in no uncertain terms to withhold that love should she disappoint his hopes. When parents think about their child mainly in terms of how they would ideally like the child to be, as Jefferson did, they often shape their child's behavior through providing (and withholding) positive experiences. So when the child behaves well, he is showered with praise, affection, or attention. But when he misbehaves, he gets the cold shoulder, and his happiness is replaced by feelings of emptiness and dejection.

We now know that children who are raised this way come to see their goals, at work and in life, as ways to obtain those same positive experiences -- in other words, as opportunities for gain, accomplishment, or advancement. They "play to win," and have what's called a promotion focus. Many studies, most of which have been conducted at Columbia University's Motivation Science Center, show that promotion-focused adults tend to be optimists, are more likely to take chances and seize opportunities, and excel at creativity and innovation. On the other hand, all that chance-taking and positive thinking makes them more prone to error, less likely to completely think things through, and usually unprepared with a Plan B in case things go wrong. But despite the risks, a promotion-focused person would rather say Yes! and have it all blow up in his face than feel like he let Opportunity's knock go unanswered.

Another example of Jefferson's promotion-focused parenting can be found in Senator Edward Kennedy's memoir True Compass, and the recollection of words his father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., spoke to him when he was a boy.

You can have a serious life or a nonserious life, Teddy. I'll still love you whichever choice you make. But if you decide to have a nonserious life, I won't have much time for you. You make up your own mind. There are too many children here who are doing things that are interesting for me to do much with you.

Again, if Teddy does something "interesting" (i.e., living up to his father's ideals for him), then he will be rewarded with attention -- attention that all of Joe Sr.'s many children very much wanted. If he failed to be interesting, then Father would withdraw that attention -- and Teddy was fairly warned. It's not surprising, then, that so many of Joe Sr.'s children evidenced such strong signs of promotion focus in their adulthood: ambitiousness, confidence, creativity, an eagerness to tackle new challenges, and a degree of recklessness, too.

Now, look again at Abigail's letter to young John Quincy. She doesn't promise her love as a reward for his accomplishments, nor does she entreat him to live up to his potential. Instead, she emphasizes the importance of being accountable, following instructions, adhering to moral rules, and avoiding the danger of sin and vice. In other words, she reminds her son of what he should be, and of the dire consequences of failing to live up to those expectations.

Children raised with a prevention focus don't really play to win; they play to not lose.

Parents, like Adams, who think of their child more in terms of who they believe the child ought to be -- in terms of the child's duties and obligations -- are more likely to influence their child through the providing of (and protecting from) negative experiences. When he does something that violates his mother's rules, he is criticized or punished (e.g. extra chores); but when he obeys the rules and makes no mistakes, life is peaceful.

Children raised this way become adults who often see their goals in life as opportunities to meet their responsibilities and stay safe. They don't really play to win; they play to not lose, and have what we call a prevention focus. In our studies, we find the prevention-focused to be defensive pessimists -- more driven by criticism and the looming possibility of failure than by applause and a sunny outlook. Prevention-focused people are often more cautious and don't like to take chances, but their work is also more thorough, accurate, and carefully-planned. They are also more analytical, better able to delay gratification and follow rules, better organized, and more conscientious. Their biggest regrets are the mistakes they might have avoided, if only they had been more vigilant.

No wonder, then, that young John Quincy Adams grew to become a successful life-long public servant, and a man of great personal reserve and austerity, whom the historian Paul C. Nagel described as "inordinately vexed by his own blunders and inadequacies."

So is it better to parent like Jefferson or Adams? It's worth pointing out that the difference between Jefferson's promotion parenting and Adams' prevention parenting isn't necessarily about the kinds of values you want to give your child. Two sets of parents may seek to instill the same goals and values in their children -- let's say, wanting them to do well in school, share generously with others, and be polite -- but they can go about sending the message very differently. ("If you do well in school, I'll be so proud of you!" versus "If you don't do well in school, you'll be in big trouble.") It's this difference in delivery, rather than in content, that shapes a child's dominant focus.

Which focus is better? The answer is, neither. Promotion and prevention focus have different strengths and weaknesses, and they can both lead to the enjoyment of successful, satisfying lives. Really, all good parenting has trade-offs. There is no particular kind of parenting that yields for children "all the benefits, and nothing but the benefits."

Of course, it is possible for child to be both promotion and prevention-focused, allowing them to be creative and analytical, good at seizing opportunities and careful planning. Taking a page from both Jefferson and Adams is probably the best approach, though you might want to lighten it up a little. The watery grave part seems, in retrospect, a bit much.

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Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, is a social psychologist and the associate director of Columbia University's Motivation Science Center. She is the author of three books, including Focus: Use different ways of seeing the world for success and influenceand a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review, WSJ.comand 99u.

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