woody_zimmerman_118_2007In 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 delays 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 one 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. I didn’t reach it then, and I doubt if I have now.

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 life; 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 in the 1950s-‘70s. (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.

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) real life is not a movie. As a society and a nation, we need to stop telling ourselves thrilling (or pathetic) child-rearing stories of abuse, dysfunction, neglect, ignorance, wickedness and stupidity – miraculously overcome – as though these were admirable models to be followed. Evangelicals call them “trophies of grace.” Yes, the Lord can do miracles of restoration, as it pleases Him – and we are glad of it – but these are cautionary tales at best.

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 finances is not how much you can earn, but how you use it, what you teach your children about it, and what lessons you give them on working, earning and managing their own means.

But – as I often say – everything within reasonable bounds. Let’s agree that there’s a minimum level of means for marrying and starting a family. I won’t try to stipulate how much that is, however. When my wife and I were wed in 1962, neither of us brought much “wealth” into the marriage. We had $300 in cash between us, and I borrowed $500 to pay my school tuition. Renting our first apartment took $200, and no new income was expected for a month. $100 bought more in 1972 than it does now, but that first month was a very low-budget operation – amply compensated for in many ways. Were we below the means-threshold for marrying? Maybe. But many couples marry on a shoestring. This can turn out well or poorly, depending on hope, determination, love, wisdom, talent, and a willingness to work hard.

In our case, this turned out well. (We always said there was nowhere to go but up.) 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-class girls, so as the end of the school 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 her, 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 limited some of those 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, with hope for improvement, is one thing; deliberately choosing planned 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. Obviously, 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. Children need the discipline of reporting on-time each day, taking instruction, and completing tasks as directed. They need the experience of being praised for good work and scolded for deficient work. As the case may be, they need to experience being fired or laid off, and learning that they can survive, recover, and surmount such setbacks.

Feeling the pride of counting one’s own earnings and spending them wisely are valuable elements of financial maturity. Most of all, every child needs to experience the satisfaction of mastering a job, no matter how menial. Becoming mature, productive workers is a critical skill for young people. This is how it’s done.

In all matters of child-rearing, you start small and help a child to grow in understanding. Paying 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. His wife disclosed that he welshed every week. No valuable instruction occurred there (except never to work for a swindler). Some parents link allowance to chores completed. Others pay only for chores - a "piecework" approach. 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 nearly 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 that 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. (The 1965 economy was on a different scale.) 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 nickels 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. One of the boys had a lot of cool jackets, but his underwear had holes.)

At age 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. They wore out the mower doing it. I considered 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 paid in cash. My wife and I thought it was important for each child to share the cost of these important purchases. Later, after all had graduated, we helped each one pay off his school loans with appreciated company stock. (This was an unexpected windfall, however.)

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 alternate source of funds was available for someone who just wanted to lie around and watch TV. (Full disclosure: 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 shouldn’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. The effects of this will be long-lasting.


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. Ultimately, we paid the insurance, and each child paid his own gas. Car repairs were shared, but that rule was not absolute.

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 impractical. Nevertheless, some sharing of the investment is important. A free ride teaches nothing except to expect a free ride.

Cash first.

This will make readers chuckle at how “old-fashioned” I am. Don’t I know we’re a cashless society now? Yes, of course, we all use plastic, but this doesn’t mean we all know how to function well with 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 grandpa saying one measure of maturity was whether you could walk around for a week with $100 in your pocket and not spend it. (These days, that might be $300 or $500.) There is pain in peeling those twenties from your dwindling bankroll, when you buy something. You don’t get that same pain from signing a credit-card chit or writing a check. The “pain of cash” ensures that you’re making an essential expenditure for something of real value. It’s no accident that credit-card companies throw credit cards at students. They know the pain that’s missing from plastic purchases allows that virtual money to flow like water.

Morality, the Golden Rule, and absolute honesty.

This should be a “given,” but I note it because so many families seem untrustworthy on paying allowance and other matters. Parents who say they’ll pay something need to do it. No cheating, delaying or “forgetting.” Ditto for kids: no squirming out of tasks or other commitments. 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 spoke 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 really should be nipped in the bud. Those children were not raised properly. I sometimes see it even 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. Most have no idea that their sly stratagem has been seen. It’s embarrassing to watch. I wonder if they were raised that way, or if they picked up the habit as adults. The Golden Rule – “Treat others as you would have them treat you” – is often scoffed at or simply ignored, these days, but it is nowhere so important as in the raising of children and the modeling of an upright life before them.

Final thoughts.

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.

Recently my wife and I watched the miniseries on the life of John Adams, starring Paul Giamatti in the title role. It is very well done – depressingly so, for its verisimilitude. This great patriot, seminal mind of the Revolution, and influential politician during the nation’s founding was a deeply flawed man who sacrificed his family for the sake of his “duty” to his country. His pride and sense of “rightness” destroyed many of the friendships that had sustained him during his lifetime. Returning home after twelve years abroad as an ambassador to France and Great Britain, Adams found his children grown and virtual strangers. Fierce political battles later estranged him from his old friend, Thomas Jefferson. One son was financially ruined and died a drunkard.

Watching the depiction of Adams sitting alone in the unfinished White House – estranged from friends and family in the final drab winter of his one presidential term – was one of the saddest, most depressing scenes I have ever watched in cinema. It literally brought tears to my eyes. “God, spare me ever from such an end as that,” I prayed as we watched the scene play out.

Indeed, may we all be spared from that. In the end, your family is the only lasting thing that you leave on this earth. Any money you accumulate will be squandered by others. I want to be remembered as having taught my family everything I could and having spent my life for them.

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/columns-mainmenu-28/at-large/15392-the-aging-of-childhood-part-i

[2] The Aging of Childhood (Part II) – http://www.ahherald.com/columns-mainmenu-28/at-large/15519-the-aging-of-childhood-part-i

[3] Proverbs 22:6 (KJV)