Parenting Creative Children Towards Lofty (and Risky) Goals

Nick and Nancy Robinson are living the parenting dream. 

Their son, Porter Robinson, stands center stage in a sold-out arena as thousands of ecstatic fans push forward, screaming and clamoring to get closer. The crowd quiets between songs and a 3-D rendering of a house, reminiscent of their home in rural North Carolina, appears on three massive screens to signal the beginning of a song called “Mother,” a lyrical, loving tribute to the support of his family.

The song fades out and Porter says to the screaming crowd, 

“Thank you, mom. My mom’s here today. Hey, make some noise for my mom,” and a roar of fills the arena for Nancy. 

“Now make some noise for my dad, too!” Porter shouts, and a matching roar erupts for Nick. 

“I love my family so much,” Porter says as he walks over to the piano and begins his next song.

Yes, Nick and Nancy verify, the moment is indeed sweet, but the path to that moment challenged their early assumptions about what it means to be a good parent. 

Porter and his parents
Photo credit: Nick and Nancy Robinson

What does a parent do when their child’s life path is unconventional?

When your child yearns to be a doctor, police officer, or hairstylist, there’s a clear path from desire to execution. High school, college, a trade school, maybe graduate study. Take classes, pass tests, complete a certain number of training hours, and off you go into the profession of your dreams. However, when your child heads down a risky, unconventional path to fulfillment, there are no reliable instructions for how to get there, if you can get there at all. 

Parenting a creative, self-directed kid requires a special kind of parental support, not to mention patience, flexibility, and faith. 

Be the parent your child needs

Nick Robinson, an attorney, and Nancy Robinson, a catechist for children and families at her church, had their future family all dreamed up, from hobbies to temperaments, even their outfits. 

I pictured being one of those moms with daughters who played violins wearing matching Laura Ashley outfits. Then we had four boys who showed us who they were, and I shifted from trying to have the children I wanted to being the parent our children needed. 

Nancy robinson

Porter started playing with music at thirteen and is entirely self-taught. He learned through independent inquiry, manipulating sounds from video games on his mother’s computer, creating his own versions of the patterns and effects he loved. While his classmates played sports, took lessons, signed up for clubs and began to think about ways to beef up their college applications, Porter continued to play and create on his own. 

Early on, he was not thinking about playing to sold-out crowds or being nominated for a Grammy (although those would come), the point was the joy, the flow, as he learned to create a meaningful universe of sound. 

Porter describes those early years as a form of role play, and the process was as vital as the end product. “There was this whole world I found in these sounds games and I wanted to feel immersed,” he said. 

Immersion takes time, and fortunately, Nick and Nancy Robinson understood the importance of play and mental downtime. They allowed Porter as much time as he needed without filling his schedule with soccer and tutoring and lessons. Nancy explains,

I believe in boredom, because if you have kids who are bored they’re going to go out and make catapults in the yard with a spoon and a rubber band and sticks. I am also a big believer in letting kids quit. If they’ve signed up for soccer and they’re not into it and they’re just wandering around, out in the field, making Daisy chains into crowns, just let them quit. Let them quit and follow the child.

Nancy robinson

They followed Porter’s lead by supporting the things he cared about, that made him feel alive. They presented him with an electronic keyboard when he was thirteen, and then, in Nick’s words, “he disappeared into his room for three years.” 

He emerged at the end of those three years, on Christmas Day, bearing big news. “Porter said, ‘Hey, they’re playing my song in a German dance club!’ And we were like, wait, what song? You write music?” Nancy recalls.

Nick elaborates,

Somebody sent him a video, the kind you take when you don’t even know the camera is on, of your feet, but the key thing was it was taken inside a German dance club and in the background was a song that Porter had produced and put out on to a forum somewhere and it had been picked up and was being played in that club. That’s how we learned about what he’d been up to in his room over those three years.

Nick robinson

Porter began getting invitations, first to DJ, then to perform his own music, despite the fact that he’d never done either of those things before. “He came out of his room and said, “Dad, they’re asking me to come DJ in a club and I’ve never DJ’d before, and I’m not old enough to go into a club.”

Nick’s response may not be the one most parents would have come up with in that moment, but given who his son had shown him to be, it was exactly what Porter needed to hear: 

“Okay…but besides that, what’s the problem?”

Nick accompanied Porter, then seventeen, on that first DJ job, their first introduction to the club scene. 

We didn’t know anything about electronic dance music or the world he was involved in, so I went with him. I wanted to see what’s going on in those places. We have a history of addiction in our family, so I went and I watched him like a hawk.

I remember standing there in this club in Santa Cruz and he was behind the decks with 75 or 80 people jumping around. And this sounds like something someone would concoct in retrospect, but it’s true. I called Nancy and said, “I watched Porter and those other kids in the room and he’s working. He’s concentrating, he’s sweating. He’s hard at work and if he’s going to be in there, I’d just as soon it be on that side of the deck.”

As Porter grew more successful, Nick began to catch glimpses of the massive fork looming up ahead. One of the roads made sense to Nick and Nancy because they had traveled that way themselves: college and a four-year degree that would secure admittance into the world of white-collar professionals. The other road, however, veered off into uncharted, hazardous territory. 

Keep an eye on the future and figure it out together

While Porter was traveling all over the world, writing chart-topping singles and performing to larger and larger audiences, Nick kept an eye on that fork and came up with a plan: 

So we get to the 11th grade, and things are starting to pick up, with all the inquiries and opportunities. His [music career] might be viable, but I don’t know. So I said, Porter, look, here’s what I’d like the deal to be. You continue to do well in school and get into a good college, and my part of the deal is we will support the music a hundred percent. But the music could turn off tomorrow, and if you have not gotten yourself into a good college or had the opportunity to get into one, then I’m going to feel like we didn’t do this right. And he said, “Okay, I’ll take that deal.”

Nick robinson

Porter kept up his end of the deal and worked hard to keep both roads open. Nick recalls, “In his senior year, I picked him up at school on a Friday morning at 10:30 after he’d taken the English AP exam. I took him to the airport and he flew to Norway for a show on Saturday and then to Sweden for a show on Sunday, and he was back in school on Tuesday.” 

Porter applied, and was accepted to his parents’ alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and when the time came to decide whether he would attend, he asked for a one-year deferral. 

That year, Porter played about 250 shows and traveled the world, diligently studying up on cultures and customs before visiting each new country. When his request for a second deferral was rejected, Nick recalls, “we were at the defining moment. He had to decide if he was going to college or not. But at that point it was so obvious to me that Porter had been in college, basically, for two years.”

Porter decided not to attend college, but keeping with their deal, Nick and Nancy have been all in on Porter’s music career. 

They attend Porter’s shows when they can and help him maintain a sense of perspective and grounding. “We point out people who are humble, point out what a beautiful trait that is. That’s something we really value. [The kids] hate cocky showmanship. They’re really about authenticity. But you still worry. You worry because you don’t want them to believe a lot of what’s been said about them,” Nancy said.

Nick nods in agreement, and adds the high stakes of music industry expectations have taken their toll on Porter’s mental health. 

Ghost Voices was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Dance Recording. (2019)

We make sure to check in with our son all the time

We deal with that by checking in with him all the time. The day before [Porter’s first album] Worlds came out, he was at our house and I said, “Porter, so tomorrow the record’s coming out, you’ve been working on this for a while. What would success be for you? What are you really hoping for? And he said something like, ‘Dad, I think if there were ten or fifteen people that heard it and it made their life a little better, that’d be enough.’” 

“And I said, ‘Okay good. Because it’s highly likely that if you release a record, there are going to be a few people that really love it.’ And if that’s the bar, then I know it will be okay.”

It has been more than okay. Worlds has sold one million copies worldwide and in 2018, Porter was nominated for a Grammy for Ghost Voices. His latest album, Nurture, debuted in April of 2021 and has sold 130,000 copies to date. 

Whether Porter’s career ends with Nurture or he gets to keep performing for decades to come, Nick and Nancy plan to be there, just offstage, cheering him on as he shows the world who he is.

More Great Reading:

Parenting Teens? 15 Books You Need to Read Right Now

About Jessica Lahey

Jessica Lahey is the New York Times bestselling author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed and The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence. (April 2021)

She writes for The Washington Post, the New York Times, and The Atlantic.  She lives in Vermont with her husband and two sons. 

Read more posts by Jessica

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