More Than Money
Issue #9
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Money and Children

Table of Contents

“Breaking the Chain of Privilege”

Some of us deeply question whether to give substantial money to our kids at all. It's not that wealth would "mess them up" or that our children should "have the satisfaction" of making their own way. It's because we believe they will do well enough without our money.

We know vividly what a difference every $1,000 makes to the myriad small, underfunded organizations laboring to improve the world. To pass hundreds of thousands (or millions!) to our children who already have abundant advantages feels like a betrayal of our values and of our hopes for the future.

Yet for many of us, even considering this line of thought brings up a great swirl of anxiety and confusion. As dutiful and loving parents, shouldn't we put our children's well-being beyond all others'? If we are inheritors, how can we dare to "break the chain," that sacred trust of wealth, identity and expectation, that has been passed down for generations?

We dance between conflicting tensions--recognizing our fears while still taking persistent steps towards our vision. Many of us adopt a "weaning" approach--gradually lessening our dependence on wealth, and aiming for each generation to stand more on its own feet. Below, we touch on some of the ways parents have dealt with this situation.

"How can I know my kids will be OK?"

Look clearly at the specific ways you hope an inheritance will improve your children's lives. Get concrete-- put dollar estimates on each one. For instance:

  • Education. (Is that enough for tuition at a state college? Or full support through Harvard Medical School?)
  • Buying a home. (A mortgage down-payment or enough to buy one outright? A house worth $100,000? Or $1,000,000?)
  • Freedom. (One year off work? Or life-long freedom from the job market?)
  • Security. (An emergency cushion? Or never needing insurance?)

This process may take some soul-searching and research, but it can provide a starting place for a reasonable upper limit on what you might want to give your child. From there, you can start examining your fears and assumptions. For instance, money has a role in creating security, but so does health, community, practical skills, spiritual beliefs, and many other factors. How might you help your child develop these? Ask people who started out without sizeable financial resources what they think were the costs and benefits of making it on their own. Remember your children can inherit many valuable gifts--self-esteem and confidence, contacts, financial competence--no matter how much or how little financial wealth you pass on.

Of course, there's no guarantee your children will be OK even if you leave them a fortune. It's an uncertain world, and parenting is always a confrontation with how little control you really have!

(A note of caution: if you want your children to receive just a certain amount, make sure these intentions don't get inadvertently undermined. Check whether relatives also plan to leave your children money. If you name fixed assets in a will, be careful that their value over time won't either mushroom or be eaten away by inflation.)

"Won't my children be hurt or insulted that I'm not giving them more money?"

Money is not love. If your children are young, write a letter to accompany your will. Express all your love for them, your confidence in their abilities, and the reasons behind the choices you've made.

Most often, a rift occurs when children "expect steak and get hamburger." Don't let them think a fortune is coming if it's not. If your children are teenagers or adults, talk with them about your values and what you plan to do. Be open to changing your mind based on the discussions.

As parents, you certainly know that your children won't always agree with your choices, nor you with theirs. Even if your children feel some resentment toward your decision, you can have a good relationship with them. Feelings can change over time, and often do.

You can still take opportunities to be generous and flexible. Once your grown children have established their own lives based on what they create rather than on your wealth, relatively small gifts (e.g. several thousand dollars as opposed to several million dollar inheritances) can be significant to them.

"I never made it on my own in the world of work--I always had inheritance to supplement my earnings. How, then, can I have confidence my kids can make it on their own?"

Get help from people who have made their own way. Interview your friends, hear their stories, and find mentors for your kids who can help your children develop confidence in work. If you live modestly and raise your children to be comfortable with that lifestyle, there's more chance they can feel comfortable and successful even if the work they do is not enormously lucrative.

"What right do I have to mandate that my children enjoy fewer privileges than I enjoy? Isn't that hypocritical?"

If you feel the amount of privilege you enjoy is not just, change your own life to reflect your values. Expect it may take some years to change the shape of your life. Engage your children (if they are old enough) in exploring what lifestyle you want as a family. Discuss values and adopting different ways to live that appeal to you all.

If you are a multi-generational inheritor, a recognition that your personal and family identity has been tied up with having wealth may underlie underneath this concern. You may need not only to resolve this within yourself, but also to have many conversations with relatives about the ideas and values that inform your decisions.

Can your children belong to the family and not be wealthy? How will they relate to their richer cousins, or attend expensive family gatherings? Just as working-class families often experience a sense of cultural loss when children rise up the class ladder, there is some loss and confusion (for both generations) when children live with lower incomes than their parents. Changing family norms can certainly be stressful for the whole family. Go gently, and get support (empathy for what's hard, encouragement to persist) from those who agree with your perspective.

Remember, you are not depriving your children of the opportunity to get rich. You are simply choosing for them not to start out that way.

--Anne Slepian and Christopher Mogil, MtM editors

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