One of the questions I’ve really struggled with over the past several years is how much help I should provide to my children as they grow older, and what form that help should take.
When I turned eighteen and left for college, my parents were more or less finished with their role as parents for me. I only lived under their roof again for a single summer (the first summer after college). After that, I actually stayed away from home more or less for good, working at career-related jobs and taking on internships.
For comparison’s sake, another person I know went through college by spending almost every spare moment back with his parents. He spent his spare hours either not working at all or working at minimum wage jobs near his parents’ home.
Another comparison: Sarah and I paid every dime of our mortgage and our student loans off out of the proceeds from our own work. Meanwhile, another couple we know openly admits, almost in a bragging fashion, that one of their parents pays their monthly mortgage bill, and another family receives about $10,000 a year in supplemental cash from one of their parents.
I don’t begrudge those other arrangements. If all parties involved are happy with the situation, then it’s fine.
My concern revolves around what lessons I teach my children with the help that I do choose to give them.
Let’s step back for a minute. What’s my goal as a parent? My goal is to create self-reliant and independent children with active and curious minds. Any other decisions they make along the way are theirs to make. All I want for them is to be self-reliant and to be independent.
I’m fully aware that many parents do not share this as a goal. They strive for a lasting relationship with their children. I’d like to have that, but I consider self-reliance more important. They also want their children to have access to material things and to have an easier early life path than they had. If this is a goal for me, it’s definitely a minor one.
I think, based on my communications with readers of The Simple Dollar, that many of my readers are on the same page as me with regards to their parenting choices. They want independent, thoughtful, and self-reliant children above all, and they would like a lasting relationship with them as a secondary option.
What kind of “help” does that imply that you should give your children when they grow older?
After a lot of careful thought and reading, I’ve boiled my ideas down to a few principles.
First, I’m doing everything I can to encourage self-reliance now. I compliment them at least as much on continuous effort as I do on any sort of completed product. My two oldest children are both engaged in activities that, in some part, focuses on building character and self-reliance. We encourage play with toys that are independent and allow for creativity and building. We’re strongly encouraging entrepreneurship and we’re teaching them how to do most household tasks by having them actually do them. While we do engage in activities with them, we give them lots of independent time to read and come up with their own things to play with, usually not involving a television.
Our oldest child is seven and all of these things apply to him. Our next oldest child is five and most of these things apply to her. Many of them even apply to our preschool-aged youngest child.
Second, I want them to have open-ended opportunity. I don’t want educational opportunities for my children to be blocked by financial hardships, starting right now with extracurricular activities and moving forward until they’re done with schooling. If they choose to block it themselves by their individual choices, that’s their decision, but I don’t want financial obligations out of their control to block their pathway to higher education.
That means I’m willing to help them with some of their educational costs after high school, particularly if any are needed for them to get into their desired school, but I don’t intend to just write a check for their education.
Once their pathway to the workforce is clear, my help will be extremely limited. I will provide a place for them to live only provided that they are either working, spending the equivalent of a full-time job preparing to work, building a business, or involved in an internship position. If they’re not working to improve their situation, I have no problem ending any shelter or food that I provide for them.
It is more important to me that they learn to spread their wings and fly than that they’re close friends with me for the rest of our lives. While I would love a continuous strong relationship with our children, I’d rather that they be able to handle the difficulties of a career and adult life themselves without our help.
We hope that the result of all of this is self-reliant children who enter into adulthood seeing it as full of possibilities, not as a prison or a straight path to follow. We want them to be able to take on anything on their own without our help. That might mean not handing them things that we could easily give them, which might be hard, but it richly rewards their life over the long run.
To me, that’s the best way to help my children.