The View

Birth of a salesperson: is tough parenting the key to career success?

Our children’s determination not to take no for an answer may lie in how we bring them up

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 8:55am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 10:40pm

“You win again,” the memoirist Karl Ove Knausgaard complains to his strong-willed toddler in the second volume of his autobiography, and I know exactly how he feels.

I also have a daughter who does not take “no” for an answer. If she gets a rejection, she comes back with a new approach, a new argument, an adjusted pitch to the nasality of her whine.

I like to joke that my cave-in parenting style is strategic, a way to prepare today’s youngsters for a career in one of the few fields of employment that can’t be automated – sales. Imagine a child raised in an autocratic household, with unbendable boundaries. Would that child grow up to be someone who retreats at the word “no,” instead of pushing on?

The United States is famous for its strong sales culture, which in turn may play a role in the country’s pronounced consumerism; America is also famous for its indulgent parents. Is there a connection?

The US is famous for its strong sales culture [and also] for its indulgent parents. Is there a connection?

Yet in the past generation, many American parents have been getting stricter and more exacting – and in some cases, intentionally adhering to what they see as a more authoritarian Asian parenting style. Indeed, when I read Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a few years back, I waved it around the house and vowed my spineless parenting days were over.

Research into the economics of parenting styles by professors Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti shows that rising inequality and the high skill set demanded by the modern knowledge economy is killing off permissive trends in parenting the world over.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, when anti-authoritative, laissez-faire parenting reached the peak of its popularity, economic inequality was also at an all-time low. Given low returns to education, there was little reason for parents to exert major efforts to push their children,” the researchers wrote in a piece for the research website Vox.

“The last 30 years, in contrast, have seen ever-rising inequality combined with increasing returns to education,” they add. “Children who fail to complete their education can no longer look forward to a secure, middle-class life, and consequently parents have redoubled their efforts to ensure their children’s success.”

There is already a backlash against so-called soccer moms and helicopter parenting, yet excessive parental engagement does seem to have reasonable returns. Social scientists at Kobe University surveyed Japanese adults on what type of relationships they had with their parents growing up, then compared the answers against the participants’ incomes and reported happiness levels.

According to a recently published report on its findings, Tiger parenting correlates well with financial success, but the products of this type of upbringing were not exactly off the chart on the happiness scale. Children of “supportive parents” - those who are deeply engaged in their children’s lives but also trusting and not overly rigid – were more likely to report both later career success as well as personal happiness.

Besides economic pressures, cultural trends also influence parenting styles. The US playwright Arthur Miller struck a chord with his 1949 play Death of a Salesman, which hit the stage at a time when rampant fun-loving consumerism was leading to fears that society had lost its moorings.

The salesman of the play’s name, Willy Loman, is a failed parent. Rather than cultivating virtues in his children or teaching them the benefits of hard work, Willy emphasized razzle-dazzle and told them to dream big. As adults, his two boys were adrift in both their professional and personal lives. In contrast, a neighbour kid who is well brought up and works hard in school, later becomes a successful lawyer and happy family man.

Willy Loman was not a successful salesman and, according to business researcher Steve Martin, perhaps this is not surprising. Martin claims that traits like modesty and conscientiousness are common among successful salespeople. So is being able to deal with discouragement - i.e., persistence despite being told “no.” However, as far as I could find, nothing in the literature indicates that “cave-in” parenting cultivates this latter trait.

Rather, playing team sports is best for cultivating a habit of pushing on in the face of losses. But the soccer mums obviously already know that.

Cathy Holcombe is a Hong Kong based financial writer