In earlier articles we looked at two important areas of childhood: learning to deal with failure, disappointment, and inconvenience (1); and developing skills in independent play, learning, and finishing tasks (2). We saw how neglect of these retards a child’s timely maturation into an adult able to function in the grown-up world of education, work, and social interaction. In this article we’ll examine how denying a child the chance to work, earn and manage his own means puts off the age when he can live independently and successfully.
In such discussions we must define terms. "Success", in particular, has been narrowed down to money and distorted to mean a level attainable by only a sliver of the population. I heard a commentator say that "success" for a professional man meant earning an annual income thrice his age (in thousands of dollars) – i.e., $150,000 at age 50, etc. That was in the 1990s. Who knows what that success index is today.
My definition of "success" has more dimensions. High earnings mean little if one’s life, finances and personal relationships are unsatisfying or chaotic. People in my acquaintance finished careers for which they were paid very well – far above the level that most workers ever achieve – but they had little to show for it. They had spent every penny. Some colleagues who made piles of money were in their second or third marriages. Alimony and divorce-settlements had ruined them. In the fascinating book "The Millionaire Next Door", authors Stanley and Danko tell of doctors scraping by on $700,000 a year, with no savings for the future. Their children had lavish spending habits, but no training in how to work, earn or save. This is not success; it is not a model for children; and it is not successful child-rearing.
On the other hand, friends of ours from the old days raised six children in a small duplex house, on a policeman’s salary. (I never knew where they put all those kids, or how they had enough privacy to produce them.) Yet every child was well turned out, educated and ambitious – able to work, earn, form relationships and get along in the world. All became productive adults and had their own careers, marriages and families. That success story is replicated all over the country. My own parents accomplished it; my wife and I did, too; and our children are doing the same.
But you won’t hear such stories from the dominant media. As they say around Hollywood swimming pools: "We worked hard, loved each other, raised our kids, paid our bills, and nobody went to jail or used drugs" is not a story. Such accounts lack cinematic sexiness, but (repeating a favorite phrase) life is not a movie. As a society, a culture and a nation we need to stop telling ourselves thrilling (or pathetic) child-rearing stories of abuse, dysfunctionality, neglect, ignorance and stupidity – miraculously overcome – as though these were admirable models to be followed.
To build your dream house, you don’t look for a builder who tells hair-raising stories of how some of his houses crashed, through ignorance and error, but were finally resurrected to a kind of ramshackle functionality. Who would hire that guy? You want a successful craftsman who knows how to build strong, beautiful houses that last and are highly functional. Whether lavish and costly, or modest and less expensive, the same soundness and strength is wanted.
This is true of child-rearing and its intersection with money. The key issue with money is not how much you can earn, but how you use it, what you teach your children about it, and what opportunities you give them to learn how to work, earn and manage their own means.
Everything within reasonable bounds, however. Let’s agree that there’s a minimum level of means for marrying and having a family. I wouldn’t dream of stipulating how much that is, however. When my wife and I married in 1962, we had $300 between us, and we borrowed $500 to pay my school tuition. Renting our first apartment took $200 of our cash, and no new income was expected for a month. $100 bought more in 1972 than it does now, but that first month was a low-budget operation - amply compensated for in other ways. Were we below the means-threshold for marrying? Maybe. But many couples marry on a shoestring. It can turn out well or poorly, depending on hope, determination, love, wisdom, and a willingness to work hard.
Deliberately bringing children into hopelessness is another matter entirely. I spoke with a high school librarian from a small town in western New York – an economically depressed region. She became the confidant of three senior girls, so as the end of the year approached they talked of the future. She thought some or all of them might attend college, but none planned to.
"We’re all going to have babies, Mrs. Brown," said one. The librarian expressed surprise, having had no idea that any was even engaged. "No," said the girl, "we’re not getting married. If I have a baby, the state will set me up with an income, an apartment, and medical care. I’ll be all set for the future." Mrs. Brown thought they must be kidding, but a year later all three came back – each holding a colorfully dressed baby. The "future" of each was secured.
This happened in the early 1990s, before policy reforms that now limit such abuses. But it is depressing to realize that people in this country – not long ago, but quite recently – have produced children with so little concern for them or hope for a real future. You really don't know whether to laugh or cry. In the context of this article, I cite it as a boundary. Limited means, but hope for improvement, is one thing; deliberately choosing poverty for a child is another.
Learning to work, earn and manage one’s means is often called the "Puritan ethic", but I continue to be surprised at how many people from Christian traditions treat such concerns as unworthy of a person of faith. "The Lord will provide," is cited by some as a reason not to teach children industry and thrift. But non-religious parents neglect this area of child-rearing, too. Some cite a "hard" childhood filled with "too much work" as a motivation for sparing their children such vicissitudes. Others think childhood should be a carefree time, with real-world concerns pushed off far into adulthood. Still others think spending one’s adolescence at menial jobs, managing small earnings, does not prepare a child for a "professional-level" career.
Whatever a parent’s thoughts on such matters, shaping a child’s attitudes toward money, work, and self-sufficiency can’t suddenly be addressed when the child hits 18. Or – saying it more accurately – you can wait until then, but making an impression is unlikely. Learning these things is like learning to play the piano. You need time, practice, a good teacher, and a piano.
The piano-simile is especially apt. No sane person tries to master the piano without the actual instrument. Yet many parents seem to think that the skills needed to work, earn and manage money are like a "coat" that a child simply dons on his way out the door, after college. It is helpful if a child has seen hard work and thrift modeled in his own home, but he (she) also needs to get his hands dirty. He needs the discipline of reporting on-time each day, of taking instruction, of completing tasks as directed. He needs the experience of being praised for good work and scolded for deficient work. As the case may be, he needs to experience being fired or laid off and learning that he can survive, recover, and surmount such setbacks. He needs to feel the pride of counting his own earnings and spending them wisely.
In all matters of child-rearing, you start small and help a child to grow in understanding. An allowance – long before a child can work outside the home – is a good financial start. There are many ways to do it, but regularity, reasonable amounts, and dependability are essentials. One neighbor promised his kids a regular allowance, but always cited some behavioral lapse or other failing as a reason not to pay when the day arrived. No valuable instruction occurred there (except never to work for a swindler). Some parents link allowance to chores completed. Others pay only for chores. The child can decide how much he wants to earn. (We tried this method once, when we promised 1¢ for each bag-worm picked off the Arborvitae tree. Our ambitious kids ruined us by picking 1800 of the little devils.)
At our place, allowance was a regular stipend, unrelated to chores or other duties. It was paid on Friday afternoon – in cash, full amount. We thought it should be dependable – just like a paycheck. (Imagine if you had to worry if the boss would try to beat you out of your pay over some shortcoming during the pay period.) Shirking assigned tasks or chores brought other sanctions – some for which the kids would gladly have traded the few dollars of their allowances.
Allowance started early. Our daughter was two when we moved to our first house. She quickly developed the habit of begging for a nickel every day when the ice cream truck came by. (It was 1965.) Seeing that nothing was being learned, we started giving her five nickels each week. One had to be put in the Sunday School offering and one in her piggy bank. Three could be spent (on ice cream, etc.), but there were no more until the next Saturday. (That last lesson was the hardest to learn. It caused many tears.) As she and her brothers grew up, their allowances were increased, appropriate to their ages and needs. Eventually we added a clothing allowance so each could control his wardrobe. (Mom was the final authority, but she was not a dictator. For a while, one of the boys had a lot of cool jackets, but his underwear had holes.)
At twelve, I saw that I needed money to make any progress with the girls. (A powerful motivator.) I learned to work and become a person of means by shoveling snow, cutting grass and delivering papers. My kids did the same. There was no hanging out at the mall. Life was far too busy with school, homework, sports, and odd jobs. The boys wanted to mow grass because it paid well. I let them wear out the mower doing it – a small subsidy to their business.
We also subsidized "capital" purchases, matching each of their dollars for new bikes and old jalopies. Even college costs were subsidized on the "50% plan", as we called it. All loans, scholarships and family gifts went toward the child’s half. Our half was in cash. My wife and I thought it was important for the child to share the cost of these important purchases. (Later, after all had graduated, we used appreciated company stock to help each one pay off his school loans.)
This was our way of teaching our children how to work and become self-reliant. It is not The Way. There are many ways, but most of them share these key principles:
Everyone is a player.We worked out a method on these things, and we stuck to it. Every child had to be a player. No one had to work extra jobs, but funds for personal use were scarce if you didn’t. No alternative source of funds was available for someone who just wanted to lie around and watch TV. (None of the kids wanted to do that.)
Equality and even-handedness.Some families tend to let things slide with the last child, after a fairly structured start with earlier children. You can’t change the rules, late in the game, just because one kid doesn’t like them and you’re tired of arguing. The other kids will notice.
Flexibility.Sticking with a plan is good, but there is no virtue in being bull-headed about what isn’t working. We tried to put car-insurance inside the 50% plan at first, but we found it was impractical. Thus, we paid the insurance, and each child paid his own gas. Car repairs were shared, but that rule was not absolute.
Absolute honesty.This should be a "given", but I note it because so many families seem to welsh on allowance and other matters. Parents who say they’ll pay something need to do it. No cheating or delaying. Ditto for kids. Small but important items of honesty also need to be emphasized – like not joining your friends at a restaurant or ice cream shop if you know you don’t have enough money to pay your way. My kids all told of college classmates who regularly did that. They never had any money, so someone would always pay their bill. It’s called "gold-bricking", and it’s a form of stealing that needs to be nipped in the bud. Those children were not raised properly. I sometimes see it in adults when we’re with a group at a restaurant. They will order costly items, then try to get the group to split the bill equally, after the fact. It’s embarrassing to watch. Most have no idea that their sly stratagem has been observed.
Shared investment.Children should share investments in costly items, appropriate to their ages. Cars, spring break at the beach, and college tuition are costly things. Without some financial stake in them, a young person can be tempted to treat them contemptuously. Parents wringing their hands over children who wasted a college education given to them know what I am talking about. College is ruinously expensive, now, so even the 50% plan we used is probably impractical. Nevertheless, some sharing of the investment is important. A free ride teaches nothing.
Cash first.This will make readers chuckle at how "old-fashioned" I am. Don’t I know we’re a cash-less society? Yes, of course, but this doesn’t mean we know how to function well in it. Children running up big credit-card bills or writing checks until all the money for the college year is prematurely spent don’t know how to handle money. Many adults twice their age don’t, either. You have to learn to handle cash first. I recall grandpop saying one measure of maturity was whether you could walk around for a week with $100 in your wallet and not spend it. There is "pain" in peeling those twenties from your dwindling bankroll when you buy something. You don’t get that pain from signing a credit-card chit or writing a check. The "pain of cash" ensures that this is an essential expenditure for something of value. It’s no accident that credit-card companies throw credit cards at students. They know the pain missing from plastic purchases lets that virtual money flow like water.
More could be written, but we’ll leave it there. Schools try to teach a child about these things, but it’s the parent’s job. There’s no magic bullet – no secret insight that can put everything right after years of neglect. A child’s life is like a speeding train. Zip – it goes past. It’s easy for a parent – especially a dad – to miss it amid the hurly-burly of adult concerns. One child-rearing expert says the most important single factor in raising children successfully is "showing up". Just being there every day far outweighs any special expertise or skills. I know any number of families in which neglect of this simplest of all truths caused great pain, immense damage and ruined lives.
The Bible says, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." (3) Words to remember and live by.
*******(1) The Aging of Childhood (Part I) – http://www.ahherald.com/content/view/777/27/
(2) The Aging of Childhood (Part II) – http://www.ahherald.com/content/view/1012/27/
(3) Proverbs 22:6 (KJV)