To maintain a joyful family requires much from both the parents and the children. Each member of the family has to become, in a special way, the servant of the others.
– Pope John Paul II
In my years working with people and their money, I’ve had the privilege of seeing some wonderful parents model good values for their kids. One of those parents is my friend Bill. The first time I met Bill, he came to my office with this two sons for them to get some money out of the boys’ universal life insurance policy to buy motorcycles. Bill explained that they had been using the policy as a savings account. For a long time, these young men had been working to earn money, and they were saving as much as possible so they could buy the bikes.
Bill bought these policies for his sons when they were young. He or they could buy more every few years, and he locked in at a very low price. Bill had taught his sons the importance of investing in the future, so they knew how much their dad had put into mutual funds for their college expenses. The life insurance policy, though, was designed to help them save money to buy something they really wanted, like the bikes.
Bill didn’t give his sons rigid rules about saving and spending. Instead, he taught them principles and let them make their own decisions. He helped them understand that they could spend the dollar in their hand today, but if they invest it, that dollar could be $2 or even $10 down the road. Some parents help their children save for the next toy, but Bill gave his sons a vision of what their lives could be like if they had money to invest in their own businesses when they become adults or are financially independent when they are granddads. Now, that’s a long-term perspective! But Bill didn’t focus only on money. He taught his sons the value of hard work, integrity, strong relationships, and the joy of serving others. He took them on trips to homeless shelters and to build churches in faraway countries. After every trip, they came back with more insight about what really matters and more thankfulness for all they have. Bill didn’t just tell his sons about the values they should have. He showed them by modeling a lifestyle of responsibility and service, and he took them places where they could see, feel, hear, taste, and smell the needs of others.
One of the chief tools Bill used to impart character to his sons was Scouting. Bill was a scoutmaster, and his sons loved their involvement in Boy Scouts. Together, they hiked, climbed, swam, and camped in remote sites around the area. The projects they performed taught them lessons about teamwork and integrity, and eventually, both sons won their Eagle awards. I have a hunch that organizations like the Scouts give parents and their kids a leg up on the rest of us, because the organizations are devoted to instilling character in their members-not merely entertaining them or winning at all costs. In Scouting, Bill helped his sons (and a lot of other boys) develop physical muscles, emotional muscles, relational muscles, spiritual muscles, and eventually, financial muscles. And these boys really appreciated their dad’s investment in their lives. They’re now in college, and they consider their father their best friend.
UCLA’s annual study of college freshman shows that today’s teens are obsessed with having more and more possessions. Three-fourths of those surveyed said it was essential for them to be “well-off financially” so they can buy all the things they want. Strikingly, that figure is almost double the survey results from 40 years ago. In a similar poll, the Pew Research Center found that the top goal for 80% of those 18-25 years old is to get rich. David Walsh is a psychologist who leads the National Institute on Media and the Family and the author of No: Why Kids-of All Ages-Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It. He observes, “Our kids have absorbed the cultural values of more, easy, fast, and fun.” His research found that today’s parents spend 500 percent more on their kids, even adjusted for inflation, than the parents a generation ago. “A lot of parents have developed an allergic reaction to their kids being unhappy,” Walsh notes. *[Quoted in The Houston Chronicle, “A generation obsessed with having more stuff,” by Martha Irvine, January 23, 2007.] Parents have played a major role in creating their kids’ lofty expectations and self-absorbed demands, and parents can play a role in reversing this trend-at least in the lives of their own children.
The authors of The Millionaire Next Door warn that giving children too much money prevents them from developing their own abilities to earn and manage money. Those gifts of money become straightjackets. On a broader scale, parents who fail to engage children in meaningful work around the home erode their children’s sense of responsibility, creativity, and drive. Stop and think about the life of an average middle-class American kid today. He has far more disposable wealth than most people in world and almost every person who lived in previous eras. She’s entertained almost 24 hours a day with television, video games, and MP3 players, and she’s connected to her friends at every moment of every day with her cell phone, text messaging, email, and her MySpace account. She’s the most plugged in person in the world, rarely turning off the sights and sounds to come up for air.
The omnipresence of technology has a powerful impact on individuals and their capacity to communicate, and especially, it has cut short many parents’ time with their kids. A Wikipedia article reports that Linda Stone, formerly of Apple and Microsoft, coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe the constant distractions of e-mail, instant messaging, cell phones, and other devices. The article reports:
“To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention-CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter. We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking.”
Children in our culture have very little free time. Instead, their parents often feel they are depriving their kids if they aren’t shuttling them from soccer practice to violin recitals, or from midget cheerleader practice to volleyball games. Instead of learning the value of reflection and creativity, children and their parents value busyness and competition above all virtues.
Television sitcoms make children kings and queens of their homes, and the shows often depict parents as bumbling idiots who exist only to fulfill the child’s whims. Too often, these caricatures find expression in real people in our homes, and fiction becomes reality. (I like to laugh at Raymond, but I don’t want to be Raymond! I wonder if one leads to the other. Hmmmm.)
Since we’ve made children the center of the universe, it’s no wonder that so many kids whine, complain, and manipulate to get what they want. They’ve been taught through a thousand messages that they deserve the world to give them what they want and to make them happy, but that perception creates some of the unhappiest people in the world-both the kids and their parents. Parents genuinely want the best for their kids, but love doesn’t mean doing everything, all day, every day to fulfill their every dream or giving them so much that they never have cause to complain. As parents, our chief responsibility is to love our kids so much that we do whatever is necessary to impart responsibility, wisdom, and the desire to serve others. That’s a tough task. It’s a lot easier to give in to demands, but real love backed by genuine wisdom and strength, enabling us to become counter-culture parents, who impart character instead of giving our children what they want just because “every other kid has it.”
Wise parents regularly take their families away from the noise of culture so they can spend quality time together. Even at home, they carve out time for board games, family talks, and hobbies. They sometimes even turn off the television! These parents model the values of simplicity and good communication. They work hard, but they take time to rest so they maintain balance in their lives. These are the happiest and healthiest families I know.