How much is too much to give your children?
Consider this: For everything you give your child, you are taking something away. This applies to buying your teenager a new car, giving them the down payment on a home, or leaving them $100,000 when you die. The typical parent, at all income levels, imbibes the fiction that it is their responsibility to take away the struggle in their children’s lives.
Most parents dream their children will have better lives than they do. In recent generations “a better life” has become defined as financial stability. But often in assisting them, a parent dulls the character, integrity, work ethic, and socialization skills their children need to become responsible adults.
The responsible and intentional parent makes an effort to contemplate, discuss, and if possible, determine what life lessons will be missed if financial support or a gift is given. Your teenager gets a DUI from driving while intoxicated. Do you run to your IRA and make a loan to bail him out of jail, hire the best lawyer, and then start listening and believing the lawyer’s rationalizations of how body weight and lack of food intake should excuse the five beers he or she inhaled before jumping behind the wheel of a car? Maybe you should leave him in jail for the night or allow her to be represented by a public defender.
“What?” you say, “My child? He is an honors student and super star athlete!” So what? He was also irresponsible and a physical danger to other innocent people on the highway. If your teenager had injured someone in an accident he would be on his way to prison for an extended term . . . at no charge.
Make no mistake; the development of a “child of entitlement” is exclusively the fault of the parent. In the name of protecting our children, parents create a disconnect between the “safe” or “ideal” world in which our children live and the real world. Children don’t have their own built in warning light. They have no way of knowing they are taking they’re their privileges for granted. We teach them they are entitled to have everything they want. Because no earning takes place in between acquisitions, purchasing a new car, for instance, feels equivalent to purchasing a new bicycle. Value escapes. There is a “richness” missing from their lives. When Michelangelo was asked how he had envisioned his masterpiece David within a giant hunk of marble, he responded, “David was inside the rock all along. My only job was to remove the unnecessary rock from around him so he could escape.” Too many parents fear the pain that will come when they remove the rock around their children, so they never allow them to escape and become “works of art” as adults.
Most of us experience a life filled with repeated fluctuations of compression (difficult events) and expansion (successful events). Difficult times typically last for a while, and then when they recede for a moment, we can move forward. Compression can be caused by both internal and external influences. Internally we struggle with our own egos, our ambitions, our sense of personal worth, our societal position, our self-image, our images of how others perceive us, our health goals, our addictions, our failings, and our feelings of being financially successful and good providers. Externally we get a promotion at work, we get a raise, the economy is healthy, interest rates are low or our neighbors are gracious to us. Conversely, we get fired, lose our home to foreclosure, lose a parent, wife, or child, get a traffic ticket, or find our automobile just decided to quit running. Others have characterized this journey as traveling through the hills and valleys of life.
If you believe you can avoid these rhythms at any income level, you are being unrealistic. They find everyone. Many people believe money relieves these symptoms of everyday existence. One thing is undeniable: There is a direct correlation between people feeling better as compression ends and expansion begins. The burden is temporarily lifted, and for a while life lets out a big sigh and the mind experiences a moment of contentment.
Oddly, most parents could be convicted of trying to make their children’s lives easier and less taxing than their own. Such parental ethics are either well-intentioned errors or just plain laziness. There is nothing better for children than to crash and burn as a result of their own errors in judgment and mistakes, for them to experience the consequences of their choices. You can tell a child not to put her hand on a hot stove ten times without success. It only takes letting her insist on it once for the child to learn the lesson.
So at least spend a little time looking at the downside of your financial support. Before you “take away the pain” of your child’s struggle or misfortune, consider what benefit they might receive from your willingness to listen, love, discuss, and console, in lieu of handing over your wallet. It is ironic how we hope to help our children avoid the same toil that gives us so much satisfaction. We endured and so will they…if we let them.
[About the author: Richard Watts, the founder and President of Family Business Office ® (“FBO”), was admitted to the California State Bar to practice law in 1982 and is an alumnus of the Harvard Business School with an undergraduate degree from UC San Diego School of Economics. FBO is a legal and consulting firm that manages the country’s wealthiest families and their family office enterprises. Richard’s families rely on him to oversee family operations and make decisions with them on a daily basis. Fables of Fortune is currently available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the author’s website.]