Screw Nature, The Emanuel Family Thinks You Should Nurture The Crap Out Of Your Kids

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shutterstock_90912071Remember a few weeks ago when Frank Bruni said nothing you do as a parent matters?  That nature always wins and children “matured into who they seemed, from the get-go, destined to be?“ Tell that to Benjamin and Marsha Emanuel, parents of the infamous Emanuel boys. If you aren’t familiar with the three overachievers they raised, there is first-born Zeke, the Harvard Med School graduate who is a U.S. pioneer in bioethics and healthcare; Rahm, former White House Chief of Staff and current mayor of Chicago; and Ari, one of Hollywood’s most powerful talent agents forever memorialized in the character of Ari Gold on HBO’s “Entourage.” In the debate of what dictates our path in life — nature verses nurture — every excerpt I’ve read and interview I’ve seen points to a clear winner in the eyes of the Emanuel boys: nurture is the key to success. Crap, now I have to actually parent.

In his new memoir-slash-parenting book, A Memoir of an American Family, Zeke is counting on your desperation to raise your own little Emanuel prodigy. Americans, for their part, aren’t likely to disappoint with their rabid consumption of all things “expert” in an effort to give their children every the competitive edge possible to pulverize their peers in the game of life.

The formula for raising these superior individuals, it seems, was a multi-ingredient recipe.  Lisa Belkin of The Huffington Post details her interview with the author, revealing that the “mix of high expectations and low micromanaging,” combined with generous exposure to different cultures, the presence of a loving and affectionate father, and uncompromising values of “loyalty and integrity” were the secrets of success. In other words, it was all nurture. Perfectly orchestrated nurture.

Just as in music, their noisy riffs and improvisations were all played with certain rules. Our home may have seemed chaotic, but amid the arguing and the tussling no one was permitted to practice prejudice, cruelty or stupidity. Every comment received due consideration, no matter who said it, standards may have been loose when it came to wrestling and swearing but they were quite strict when it came to values like loyalty and integrity. All that we received depended on us upholding these values, and if we ever failed, we felt the loss acutely.

Crap! Everything I do matters! My child’s success depends on me and my every move!

Before I go spiraling into that new obsessive norm of “constantly feeling like you need to be doing something constructive to shape your child’s being every minute of every day” as Maria so eloquently captured, I’m reminded of some reassuring details.

  • Mimicking their parenting would get you a visit from Child Protective Services, never mind the judgment of every Sanctimommy around. Generally I err on the side of non-helicopter parenting and let my kids have the freedom to figure things out (within reason for a 4-year-old and 2-year-old), but I’m not sure this stuff could really fly in 2013. Belkin recounts:

When the brothers were 6, 2 and 4, they marched unsupervised around the neighborhood, across streets and beneath underpasses. In family arguments, they were encouraged to curse to make their point. They battled at home (“we shed blood almost every day,” the oldest would later write) and were spanked periodically by a mother whose angry outbursts would lead her to yell “I hate all of you equally.”


  • Nature has to play a big role in their extreme success. Even though Zeke shows us the way to the promised land of parenting, there is no doubt that genetics have a role. You can’t simply take a few family vacations abroad, hug and kiss your kids, give them a decent amount of freedom and expect to raise preeminent leaders in science, politics or entertainment. The Emanuel children must have been born with instincts, intelligence and capability far exceeding normal or average. The nurture part of it simply put them over the top.
  • Do we really all want our kids to be uber-successful? I can say it’s not high on my priority list. Resilient, passionate, thoughtful, empathetic, considerate — even that dreadful cliche, happy — come before uber-successful in my book, though I imagine I might be alone in that opinion.

There will never be a singular answer as to whether nurture or nature prevails in shaping children, but I think both stories — the success of the Emanuel brothers and the inevitability of Bruni’s “nature wins” philosophy — support parents cutting ourselves a little slack. I’m using Bruni’s words as my mantra:

No one false step or one missed call is going to consign your children to an entirely different future. Make sure that they know they’re loved. Make sure that they know their place. And make peace with the fact that you don’t hold all or even most of the cards. There may be a frustrating sense of helplessness in that realization. But there’s a mercy, too.

(photo: Stuart Miles/Shutterstock)