On Parenting and Financial Choices

For those of us who are parents, or anticipate being parents, or have been parented (yes, there’s something here for you too), there are a few points which warrant discussion.

If you did the family history exercise mentioned earlier in the book, you’ve begun to appreciate the impact the familial environment has on how we relate to money. At the same time, the social environment has a strong bearing on us that we are only able to dimly appreciate. I addressed this in the section on “materialism”. But now I want to address a point at which these two intersect.

We love our children. I’ll take this as a given and consider it good. But materialism is an equal and opposite force that inserts itself into the relationship we have with our kids. Companies capitalize upon this love – as in, they make money off it. In exchange for money, companies and institutions promise us the opportunity of success for our children. (This is the whole premise behind Caitlin Zaloom’s Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost.)

To be sure, there are ways and circumstances in which this opportunity really does translate into a better life. If the school you’re zoned for is a really horrible learning environment (and I’m objectively speaking here – vermin infestation, no A/C, no drinkable water, 12 computers for 300 students, days more filled with incidents of disruption due to PTSD than actual instruction, etc.), then chances are, paying for private school, or moving to a zone with better schools, will actually change the course of your child’s life trajectory in a positive way. (For the purpose of the current discussion, we’re setting aside the argument for sticking with the community and as a family, being agents of change from within, rather than running away. It’s a highly personal choice of social action which requires deep commitment and a clearly rationed set of moral choices, beyond the scope of this book.)

But there comes a point where we take this to extremes. Our children have dreams and aspirations. But what they lack is perspective due to life experience. That’s where we can help out. When a child is convinced in early high school that they have to attend a given college, it’s not about the degree they will earn, but the name brand the college is pumping out. It’s the price of Nike Air Jordans or a Coach bag at the 1000x level. When we focus on developing our qualities and capacities for service, we and our children may actually need the degree being conferred. But the way in which we go after it, will be a completely different approach.

Huge sums of money can be saved by getting the first two years of bachelor’s level general education requirements completed at a community college. Then, you finish the second two years at the university of your choice. The Bachelor’s degree conferred will be from that university and that’s what counts. (And lest these educational institutions be denigrated, I’ve had friends testify that the quality was outstanding, better than what followed at the four-year school.) The added benefit here is that we put the breaks on the materialism momentum, where everyone is swept up in the hysteria, and reflect on what the end goal actually is and not the promise of a smooth path to achievement. We step back, interrupt materialism’s influence on us, and focus instead on creating the outcome we want using the principles and tools we identified as being coherent with not just achieving for today, but to create the type of future that we need. (That, and, given the current discourse around the impact student loans have had recently, we may see radical shifts in the near future in the design and costs of higher education as experienced by you, the consumer.)

Materialism isn’t just about attachment to physical things, but unhealthy pursuit of all things in the world: titles, fame, status, money, prestige, bragging rights for ourselves and for our children’s accomplishments. If our children are exhibiting some of these traits, chances are someone who’s modeling the behavior is living under the same roof. The standards we set, the reasons, the why and how, will shape our kids in profound ways. Using a grocery list, and then making a game of seeing how close the family can stick to it, can teach children to resist impulsive purchases, and enables all family members to help keep each other accountable for the family’s financial well-being. On the other hand, incessantly working at any hour, with no time considered sacred from such pursuits, tells our children that achievement in the form of recognition at work is worth sacrificing time spent in connection with those we love. Is that the message we want to send? Is any fame worth that? And so we temper it back to a moderate space, and success becomes redefined in this light. Our children see this and thus become well rounded: studying hard, but playing, and creating, and serving too. Such small actions will reverberate and shape the big choices when the time comes.

This book is a work in progress and we’ll all benefit from your input and collaboration. In the “Leave a Reply” below, please post examples, comments, questions, and needed edits. By posting, you grant permission for inclusion of any content to become part of the book, now or in the future, in whatever form it may take. I’ll give attributions to the extent possible. I know sharing about our financial lives can be sensitive, so if you want to share anonymously, please use the contact form instead and I’ll honor your request.

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