Eminent orphans

Losing a parent is one of the most devastating things that can happen to a child. The world goes topsy-turvy. The psychologist Felix Brown reports that prisoners are two to three times more likely to have lost a parent in childhood than the population as a whole.

But for some people, Malcolm Gladwell points out in his new book, the death of a mother or father is a spur, a propellant that sends them catapulting into life. Because they are on their own, they are forced to persist, to invent, to chart their own way — into a curious category Gladwell dubs "eminent orphans."

There are, he reports, a lot of them. Historian Lucille Iremonger discovered that 67 percent of British prime ministers from the start of the 19th century to the start of World War II lost a parent before the age of 16.

Twelve presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — lost their fathers while they were young.

A psychologist, Marvin Eisenstadt, poured through a number of major encyclopedias, looking for people whose biographies "merited more than one column" — and of 573 people, Gladwell reports, "a quarter had lost at least one parent before the age of 10. By age 15, 34.5 percent had had at least one parent die, and by the age of 20, 45 percent.

I have not read the new Gladwell book yet, but this particular topic is interesting. It suggests that losing a parent while young amplifies the volatility of outcomes for the child, either for the better or the worse.

It's not a coincidence, I suspect, that in so many fairy tales or young adult stories, the hero of heroine has lost one or both parents early in life: Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Lion King, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen. Also, let's not forget the comic book heroes: Batman, Spiderman, Superman, and on and on.

And then there are the famous technology executives who lost a parent early or were adoptees, like Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, or Jeff Bezos. I'd always reserved judgment on this theory since anecdotal confirmation can be statistically anomalous, but the statistics above are intriguing.

While no parent would wish such misfortune on their own children, the question remains as to how to cultivate their grit and resilience with the other forms of stress and adversity. Nassim Nicholas Taleb should write a parenting book on how to make your children antifragile.