Let ’em wait. It’s not really about knowing when to start, it’s about knowing when to stop. Our children live in an age of entitlement. They believe they deserve and should get whatever they want, need, or hope for with parents as the Cornucopia of Plenty.
Children of wealthy parents frequently (but not always) are given everything their little hearts desire. Children of parents in the lower ninety percent of the population (the rest of us) want everything their little hearts desire and they argue for it by pointing to their rich friends and exclaiming with tearful lashes and a petulant pout that that’s reason enough for we parents to rise to the occasion no matter how financially difficult.
And, too often, we do it.
For at least fifteen years, we parents provide everything for our children. It’s the way it has to be until the kids are old enough to get that part-time job and begin contributing to the family welfare (regardless of income) so they will learn the value of education, work, diligence, sacrifice and reward and be able to pass those lessons on to their own children. Providing for our children is a habit that’s hard to break.
When the demands exceed income, we fall prey to the “keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome and go into debt. She-he’s so sweet, we say. Look at those eyes, we say. I’ll do it just this one last time, we say.
We don’t know when to stop.
We look into those baleful, limpid eyes and give them everything we can. They learn only that they can rely on someone else to provide for their needs.
It’s a tough call. The decision to withhold or give would challenge Solomon himself. Who among us wants our child to risk depravity or social scorn because we withheld financial aid? Surviving in the modern world isn’t cheap. An automobile is a necessity and public transportation is reserved for the poor, we think. College is expensive and how can our darlings attend without help, we think. Cell phones and Internet access are standard fare for our kids but they don’t have the money for such necessities, we think.
One bird does not fly on another’s wings. How far should we go in the belief that if we keep paying for our children’s needs they will somehow learn to provide for themselves? The challenge of adversity and self-reliance kicks in only if our children are made to deal with it.
A fable, if I may: One day a hunter came upon a chrysalis depending from the wire of a fence on a meadow. The chrysalis writhed in motion and caught his eye. For hours, the hunter watched as a beautiful butterfly slowly began to emerge. Overwhelmed by compassion, the hunter pulled the butterfly from the chrysalis whereupon it promptly died.
The moral? It is the struggle to emerge that gives the butterfly the strength to live.
Too often we ignore this profound lesson. Too often we cave, out of love and compassion, and pull them from their chrysalis in the hope they will learn to survive.
My own family is an example. My father and mother were born in 1910 and 1916, respectively. They experienced the Great Depression and knew something of personal sacrifice and strife. They scrimped and saved while I and my siblings were born and raised. They worked hard and prospered. I left the nest at nineteen for places hundreds, and later thousands, of miles away and did just fine. My brother and sister, born eight years after me, never lived more than two miles from the ancestral home and benefited from that proximity. They got cars, they got shopping sprees, they got college tuition, they got apartments and appliances, they got loans for their homes and business start-ups. They were both educated professionals who relied completely on my parents for living the good life.
My brother managed to squander a quarter-million dollars. My mother couldn’t resist his agonized pleas for his next venture and gave him another sixty-thousand after his second bankruptcy, which soon ended in his third bankruptcy. I have no qualms about my brother’s lack of judgment or his impact on whatever I may inherit from what’s left. Frankly, I don’t know what’s left and I don’t care. I object only to his vacant insolence that no matter what he did, if he failed, there was always more money for his next failure. It wasn’t until my mother died at 84 that my father (now 97) finally cut him off from the family tit. Oddly enough, he’s done fine since then.
If we want our children to be responsible, we must force them to take responsibility. If we want them to be independent, we must push them out of the nest. If we want them to be strong, we must let them emerge from the chrysalis without our assistance.