Across North America this month, an important rite of passage is taking place: College and university students are leaving home, moving to new towns and cities, and setting up their first living quarters away from their parents. And the parents of these young adults are going through their own rite of passage: Resisting the urge to make everything absolutely perfect for them.
Or, as the case may be, NOT resisting the urge. I have witnessed very wealthy parents set their children up in first apartments so tastefully appointed that they could be featured in design magazines. I have also watched parents of much more modest means overextend themselves financially in order to ensure that their kids’ experience of want is virtually eliminated. In both cases, the parents have robbed their children of important personal growth and development opportunities. The worst of it is that, when parents give so lavishly, it leaves the young people with little to strive for and even less to be proud of on their own.
Here’s what I have come to know: Young people absolutely benefit from the experience of slightly skuzzy carpeting and secondhand pots and pans. They go through important maturation processes when they experience what it is to go without, and to make do, and to wait. And without those early adult experiences of knowing that they can defer gratification, that they can measure themselves by standards other than the loveliness of their possessions, something truly frightening happens: Those young people move back home after graduating, shrink from the next round of important life challenges, and require large machinery to dislodge them.
No less an authority on this process than Peter Buffett, the son of one of the richest men on the planet, has written about the need for parents to let their children struggle a little, financially. In his excellent book Life is What You Make It, Buffett writes,
As I see it, living modestly – especially when we are young adults — … is not a penance but a salutary challenge. Being broke or close to it is a state of being entirely appropriate to a certain stage of life. It tests our ingenuity and our humor; it properly pulls our focus away from “stuff” and toward people and experience. It’s not a tragedy. (p. 116)
So here are some guidelines I offer to parents who want to discern just how much financial support is generally wise to offer:
1. Pay close attention to any experience of resentment you might be having. This emotion acts as an exquisite early warning indicator that you might be giving TOO much of your time, energy and resources than is necessary or wise for one or both of you in the relationship. Resentment is often a cue that this emerging adult child of yours has entered a new stage of development, and that it is therefore time to shift how your support is offered. This usually involves transferring more of the responsibility to the child for management of financial and other resources. If you allow the shift to occur, your child will be better able to master the tasks of each new stage of independence. And, not coincidentally, some vital mental energy will be freed up for YOU to focus on more developmentally appropriate things in your own life—your health, your other important relationships, new life goals, etc.
2. When you do feel led to offer financial support, do not give them the curse of a blank check. Give them a modest amount of money that will force them to exercise prudence and to make their own contributions. Make it clear that there will be no additional funds forthcoming for living expenses. And stick to your guns, even when they mess up.
3. Finally, make a point of letting them know how proud you are of their growing independence, of the decisions they are making. Voice confidence in their ability to survive some of the tough experiences they’re having. When they’re making the kinds of decisions that make pride or confidence harder to come by, dig a little deeper for it. And when that doesn’t work, make like the cat: Go shred the toilet paper until you feel better.
Chances are high they will make regrettable consumer purchases at some point. Doesn’t everybody? Didn’t we all? But mistakes made can lead to lessons learned. And hard financial lessons learned early in adult life tend to be much less costly than those learned later.
Here’s wishing you and yours much wisdom as you navigate life’s transitions.