THE MOST important thing a father or mother can do for his or her child is to define and model success. In my career as a student, teacher and public official, I have seen scores of people who looked great on paper but floundered as human beings because they did not understand what brings success.
That occurred to me not long ago while hiking with an old college buddy, who I'll call John, a Bohemian musician so talented that he manages to make a living at his craft. While my friend has many attractive features, alas, like many artists, John obsesses endlessly about how he doesn't have enough money, how rich people have too much money and how all other people care about is money.
"I'll bet you're teaching your son Tony that he has to make a ton of money and live in a fancy house like you do," John declared with contempt. "So how much does Tony have to make? A hundred thousand a year? Two hundred thousand?"
I had to explain that I want my son to grow up happy, just the way my dad taught me to grow up happy. And as wisdom from the Torah to the New Testament to the Quran to modern psychologists such as David G. Myers (author of The Pursuit of Happiness) shows, so long as you can afford your basic needs, money simply does not buy happiness. Therefore, it cannot buy success.
Next year, when my son enters first grade, he'll be old enough for me to tell him what my dad told me about what happiness requires. But unlike my dad, I'll actually write it down. It will go something like this:
No matter what anyone else thinks, I will always know that you are a wonderful success if you can do six things:
Most important, obey the laws of God, which means act as a nice person considerate of others and engaged in the world around you rather than just yourself.
Obey the laws of man, which means staying out of trouble. If the laws of God conflict with the laws of man, remember Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portugese diplomat who saved thousands from Adolf Hitler's death camps by giving them false passports. Mr. Mendes was dismissed for his actions and ended up in poverty, but still declared, "I would stand with God against man rather than with man against God." (Luckily, here in America, we almost never face that kind of choice.)
Try different jobs and don't be afraid to fail at some of them. People who never fail never really know how to succeed. But in the end, after you try different things, have sense enough to choose work you love. It makes life so much easier. America has 150 million jobs, so don't stay in one you hate. Life is too short.
Even as you try different things, always have a backup plan. Don't jump out of a plane without a parachute, and don't major in music without minoring in real estate, because you never know.
Save your money. If you have more money than you need, you will never be tempted to do wrong; better to quit a job than to face too much temptation to break the laws of God or man.
As Adlai Stevenson put it, always look up.
If you can manage those six simple things, then no matter where (or if) you go to college, or how much money you make, or how big your house is, or whatever anyone else thinks, I'll know you're a wonderful success. And I will be so proud of you, just as my father, who you're named after, was so proud of me.
Robert Maranto, a former Baltimore resident, teaches political science and public administration at Villanova University.