Over the last week, I probably handed out $100 in cash between my two sons to cover various activities. If they are headed out with friends, I always want to be certain they have spending money – enough for them and a little extra in case another kid comes up short.
“I want change!” I will always caveat as they turn to leave. Sometimes, I get it; often I don’t – or they just roll it over to go towards the next activity.
I don’t mind. The money my husband and I give them is largely unearned and without strings. While the boys are always amenable to helping around the house when asked, they do not have set chores or an allowance from which to draw. Noah works at our synagogue on Sundays and is saving up for a new guitar. He pays for the songs he downloads on iTunes, but we don’t ask him to use his own money when he goes out. Chase is an unemployed 14 year old who holds onto birthday money for dear life and cuts the occasional lawn in the summer when he feels like adding to his growing savings. (We have no idea what he is saving up for, but we admire his tenacity in doing so.)
I can say with certainty that my sons want for very little. We are not millionaires, but after years of scaling the corporate and public school system ladder where we both started from the bottom, Dave and I are financially comfortable. The life I have been able to give my children is a far cry from the one in which I lived when I was their age. For this, I am filled with gratitude… and also with dread.
In an effort to give my boys everything I didn’t have, have I denied them something far more important?
My parents divorced when I was 11 years old, and it didn’t take long for me to understand that we had become poor. The divorce was contentious and child support was sporadic. My Mom was a nursery school teacher who could barely make ends meet. She took the night shift at the local convenience story to supplement her paltry income. She pawned her jewelry; we went on food stamps. I remember feeling very badly about our circumstances, not because of the sacrifices we were forced to make but because I couldn’t do anything about it. Once I turned 14, I started working to pay my gymnastics tuition. I also babysat and at one point used all my savings to buy my little brother a new pair of sneakers. I always worried about money – even through college which I worked my way through. I would take out $10 a time at the ATM so as not to overdraw my account. But the hardship only motivated me. I was poor; but I was driven to do better. There was reason behind my rigor. If it was all handed to me on a silver platter (I would have gladly taken it on a paper plate), would I have had the same success?
I don’t think so.
When I worry about how I may have screwed this parenting thing up, that is what I wring my hands over these days. In an effort to shield my boys from the financial worry that permeated my teenage years, have I created a giant vacuum where the rigor belongs? Neither my circumstances nor my wishes have dictated that these boys work hard for anything. Every dollar that we have put away for college is one less dollar they will have to earn themselves. They are free from concern, and devoid of hardship. All under my watch. Will my guys ever know how to pull themselves out of the muck if they have never sloshed around in it?
And how do you manufacture muck – for muck’s sake — at this point in their lives?
I know my Mom felt terrible that she couldn’t afford to take care of my every financial need when I was younger. But what she gave me was far more valuable. Now here I am, flipping my personal history on its head. I feel extremely proud and grateful that I can take care of my family’s needs. Yet I’m realzing that my success yields very little return for my kids if it makes it all too easy.
So should the brothers expect to be completely cut off from weekend spending money, effective immediately? Probably not. I won’t deny that I want their life to be free from financial worry – at least for now. But I also know that there will come a point in the not-so-distant future when they need to take responsibility for themselves. I think a heartfelt conversation about how I grew my own money tree from basically nothing is certainly in order. And perhaps a little pruning on the lower branches of that tree so my dear, sweet boys have something to reach for.