“Born Rich” — How not to prepare your children for an inheritance

In my first (most recent) blog post on the subject of how wealthy parents can raise their children “to become autonomous and responsible adults,” I gave a list of seven questions. One of these was “How much should I give to my children? … What is ‘too much’?”

There is no more eloquent response to this question than Jamie Johnson’s 2003 documentary Born Rich. Johnson, a fourth-generation heir to the Johnson & Johnson family, made this film at age 23 by interviewing several of his mega-wealthy peers, some of whom have household names for Americans, like Ivanka Trump.

I saw this film when it was released and felt a pervasive sense of pointlessness and sadness. These kids—very young and very rich— were, for the most part, intelligent and articulate, but it was difficult for me to make out what many of them were doing—or planning to do—with their lives. Said Johnson: “I’d seen so many people who were in my situation and who managed to have everything going for them, yet still live unproductive lives, and even in some cases tragic and miserable lives. I thought, I really don’t want that to happen to me.”

In the most poignant scene in the movie, Johnson interviews his own father, who was clearly uncomfortable. (It was, however, brave of him to agree to be in the film.) Johnson asked his father, “What can I do with my life?” His father’s response, after a long, awkward pause, was: “Well, you could become a collector, like me.”

The next moment showed a close-up of Jamie Johnson’s face: complete deflation, desolation. Could his father not imagine anything more his son could do? Evidently not.

This film is a perfect example of what not to do as parents. Few children of wealthy parents are anywhere near as wealthy as these rich kids, but the dynamic is more the less the same. The Inheritance Project is dedicated to helping wealthy parents choose a different outcome for their children.

To be continued …

Barbara Blouin, The Inheritance Project

2 thoughts on ““Born Rich” — How not to prepare your children for an inheritance

  1. Thanks for your wonderful questions and the beginnings of your thoughts on each one. I felt somewhat differently about the film and the scene you cite. Johnson’s film is complicated, both by his choice of subjects and by the medium itself. I felt empathy for his dad in this scene, as he obviously felt great discomfort being confronted by his son regarding such matters while the camera was rolling. More basically, I question Johnson’s question of his dad. Is it fair to expect a father to tell his grown son what he thinks he should do with his life? I think a conversation about what dad experienced and how he dealt with the challenges and opportunities of life would be more likely to encourage empathy between both generations as well as impart some wisdom. The tragedy in so many families (not just families of wealth) is that such conversations don’t take place. I see the central problem here as the lack of communication and empathy, rather than the failure of parents to “choose a different outcome for their children.”

    Keith Whitaker

  2. word up Keith Whitaker,
    I praise you both for writing about what is clearly a concern of wealthy parents.
    Speaking as a Non Wealthy Person, (N.W.P) I find it strange however to hear this question of responsible parenting choices to predestine suffering free outcomes for ones progeny. Is it not ones own role as parent, regardless of wealth class and age, (race is seldom as much an issue in within rich families), to foster independance and growth through letting go and allowing failure to teach the lessons needed? Is not falling down, regardless of how many times, the key to learning how to not fall down in the first place?
    On a base level the idea that providing determined structure to prevent an occurence is not the same thing as structure which enables. To find fear in unknown and uncommon ground is normal, isn’t it far better to pursue that fear with reckless abandon until it squishes between your teeth with satisfaction? The point being made is that through looking with our parent glasses on at the challenges our kids face in a trusting, open hearted and brave manner we can enable inheritors to become real contributing factors in a tangible positive change of western society, and as the saying goes, strike when the iron is hot. Nothing gets kids these days hotter than failure to succeed, and that is the motivation for falling down, the rise again.
    Im leaving mine the necessary funding to live a life able to fail and succeed as much as possible, a trail of money for them to use and make change in this world in unprecedented ways. But I’m kind of a fundamnentalist.

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