In a recent interview, rock icon Sting announced that his six children shouldn’t expect to inherit his fortune, which is estimated to be worth more than $300 million. On the face of it, that makes Sting seem rather, well, stingy – and for all I know, he may be. But his reasoning – that he didn’t want to leave his three sons and three daughters “trust funds that are albatrosses round their necks” – raises the question: should parents deny their offspring an inheritance for their own good?
Sting grew up as Gordon Sumner in a working class family in a seaside shipping town, and vowed early on in life that he would rise above his circumstances and become rich and successful. He obviously achieved that in spades, and doesn’t apologize for it: “I am grateful I have made money. I appreciate it because I spent much time without it... I am very well off and I am certainly not complaining. I was not given it. I earned it through hard work and it was hard work.” But “if it had all been handed to me on a plate, I’m not sure I would appreciate it or have survived.”
That’s the lesson he seems to want to pass on to the younger Sumners. “People make assumptions that [his kids] were born with a silver spoon in their mouth, but they have not been given a lot.” Instead, Sting continues, “they have to work. All my kids know that and they rarely ask me for anything, which I really respect and appreciate. Obviously, if they were in trouble I would help them, but I’ve never really had to do that. They have this work ethic that makes them want to succeed on their own merit.”
This seems valid and reasonable to me. However, when I raised this topic among a few friends, the majority felt that family is everything and Sting is a jerk for stiffing his kids (but then, they also felt that Sting was a jerk to begin with). One even argued that this showed bad parenting on Sting’s part.
I must disagree. I strongly suspect that the 62-year-old musician’s children, now all adults ranging in age from 18 t0 37, have never exactly wanted for anything, and I doubt seriously that he will leave them absolutely nothing in his will. I believe he simply expects them, for their sake, to make their own way in the world – and in the process, to discover who they are, where their talents and passion lie, and how hard they’re willing to work for that success. In other words, he expects them to grow up. I think that’s pretty good parenting.
Bill Gates, another man who has built up a pretty sizeable bank account, similarly said of his children that “they need to have a sense that their own work is meaningful and important. You’ve got to make sure they have a sense of their own ability and what they’re going to go and do.”
I respect Sting’s concern that guaranteeing his kids a cushy life of trust fund luxury would likely warp them irrevocably. As examples, one could point to any number of arrogant, entitled rich kids, often the children of wealthy celebs like Sting; kids who never really had to work, who never faced the financial consequences of failure or the rewards of their own success, and who thus remain locked in immaturity; children of whom it could be said, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Howard Hughes does in this entertaining scene from The Aviator, “You don’t care about money because you’ve always had it.”
“My generation all assumed we would have a better standard of living,” Sting mused in the interview. “The one that we spawned cannot assume that.” He points to the fact that his rough road to world-beating success had developed in him “a resilience and a toughness,” valuable qualities to hand down to one’s kids in a world that is less economically stable than before.
For those of us who tragically don’t stand to inherit wealth like Sting’s, the choice between riches and self-reliance isn’t really an issue. But as a general theory, the lesson still stands: it’s better to teach your children to walk on their own two feet than to carry them the rest of their lives.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 6/27/14)