Eminent Orphans

In the early 2000’s, Malcolm Gladwell termed the phrase “eminent orphans”. Eminent orphans is defined as an child who experiences the loss of a parent before their 18th birthday. Statistics have shown that approximately 1 in 20 or about 5% of children experience endure this situation according to the UC Census Bureau.


According to Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book, “The Outliers” and several studies by researchers Worden & Silverman, there is a large number of successful individuals who have lost a parent at a young age. Around a third of the presidents in U.S. have lost their fathers at a young age including 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.


Based on Marvin Eisenstadt’s research into the major encyclopedias of individuals who have lengthy biographies or more than one column, around 25% had lost one parent before 10 years old. About 35.5% had at least one parent die before 15. About 45% of the notable individuals in the encyclopedia had a parental death by 20.


While this is extremely interesting, there have not been many studies to determine if it is just correlative or causative and that a significant number of individuals who have lost a parent at a young age have been successful throughout history. In the research field of psychology, this phenomenon is also known as the phaeton effect. With an APA-published study of the phaeton effect, it was noted that in eminent individuals,  childhood father loss was more common than loss of the mother with a ratio of 1.7 to 1. Moreover, results have provided support for the Phaeton theory but have extended the effect to other forms of loss and not just parental death, concluding that some adversity or loss may have positive effects in success.


On the flip side, individuals who lose a parent at a early age are statistically known to be at a higher risk for committing crimes and facing mental illnesses. A research paper published by UC Berkeley in 2004 by Gertler also indicated that a child’s outcome of obtaining a higher education is adversely affected by a parent’s death.


Evidently, this topic still has a lot of exploration potential. From my experience, I have noted two significant takeaways from having gone through this myself. The first being that I have had an increasing sense of “seizing the moment” on, perhaps, a much more extreme level than others. I am always consistently planning, pursuing, reaching for the next step to be closer to my life vision and I attribute that to fully understanding that life is unpredictable and can often be unbelievably short.


As for the second takeaway that I have had to navigate and come to terms with is that the death of my parent does not matter to most people. While I speak for myself, I believe that others who have experienced this will understand what I mean. Within the last four years, there have been plenty of times where individuals who I have chosen to be vulnerable with about my story, have forgotten on multiple occasions that my dad passed away. As a result, I have chosen to be extremely selective in who I share this with and most of the individuals I consider friends do not know. The truth is solely that most people will not comprehend or find significance in what they have not been affected by.


All that means at the end of the day is that you, and you alone, get to determine and define how the death of your parent impacts you. And for that, I urge you to remove yourself from any statistics and become the outlier.