This past weekend, I was cleaning out a drawer in my office when I came across a stack of photos from my early childhood. My parents, my brothers, and my cousins were constants in these pictures, all looking stunningly young, all of them depicted in that slightly washed out style that thirty year old snapshots take on.
It was the little details, though, that really resonated with me. I’d see my mother in the background of one picture, standing near a large pot on the stove, and I could practically smell chicken and dumplings cooking. A picture of my father standing in rubber hip boots immediately calls to mind the sounds and the aromas of freshly-caught fish. A picture with a cousin or a sibling smiling would bring about the sound of their laughter in my ears.
We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but my childhood was filled with things that were far greater than money.
A sense of security I always felt safe and secure at home. Sure, my parents argued once in a while, but there was never a moment when I doubted my own safety or security at home, and there was never a moment that I doubted that they both loved me. When I needed them, they were always there for me.
Compassion for others My family constantly gave of themselves to help others, particularly my parents. I can’t remember the number of times that people would unexpectedly show up for supper and my mother would find a way to get that person a full plate of food. There wasn’t a summer that went by where my father wasn’t giving away a large chunk of what our garden produced to our friends and family and other people who needed it.
A desire to learn My parents read constantly in front of me and encouraged me to do the same. They also constantly reinforced the value of learning new things and my father was always discussing the events of the day with me. I was raised to learn and to know things.
An entrepreneurial and self-sufficient bent My father ran several small side businesses, particularly small-scale commercial fishing and gardening to sell excess produce, as well as providing plenty of fish and vegetables for ourselves. He channeled a lot of his spare time into this and often recruited his children (and others) to help as well. I particularly enjoyed the gardening aspect of it and fondly remember taking charge of watering the gardens.
A strong sense of community and family There were seemingly always people at our house beyond our immediate family. Socializing and a sense of community were constants during my childhood.
All of these elements are things that shaped me deeply as a person, and they’re elements that I want to provide for my own children. What was missing, though?
Channels for learning Beyond reading, the channels for learning often felt narrow. Many of the things I wanted to learn about required some significant startup cost, such as learning a musical instrument. As I mentioned, there was not much money to be had when I was growing up. Even beyond this, my parents were often uncertain as to how to channel things beyond taking me to the library and giving me books as gifts.
Understanding of money Basic money lessons were something else that I missed out on in my childhood. From my perspective, it often felt as though there was barely enough money to get by, except that my parents would have occasional windfalls. During those windfalls, we’d splurge on things – that’s how I wound up with a Nintendo and quite a few games with it – but at other times, there was a sense of not having enough. Money felt chaotic to me and I had a sense that when you had money, you needed to spend it soon.
Today, I find myself in the shoes of the parent, with three children looking to me for guidance. How can I address the seven concerns I see above?
A sense of security We need to provide a stable home for our children, and the best way to do that is to constantly work on our marriage. If my relationship with my wife is strong, the foundation of our family is strong, too. Another key point in this equation is to spend time individually with each child, as well as collectively with them, so they have security in their relationship with their parents and feel limited jealousy toward their siblings.
Compassion for others Lead by example. Give to charity, and involve our children in that process. Respect people and care for them regardless of their religion, sexual preference, race, disability, or anything else. Luckily, we have opportunities in our life for our children to meet people of other religions, races, and lifestyles and see that they’re normal people who have ups and downs, joys and sorrows, talents and weaknesses, just like everyone else.
A desire to learn This one comes naturally, as my wife and I are both voracious readers and voracious debaters of the issues of the day. We are starting to strongly engage our two oldest children in these debates, and they’re both picking up reading as well.
An entrepreneurial and self-sufficient bent I run my own business. Almost all of the parents of my children’s friends are employed by others, but they have an example of entrepreneurship at home. We also try to do a lot of things ourselves in front of the children, like making soap and laundry detergent, growing our own food, repairing the toilet, and so on.
A strong sense of community and family This is perhaps our weakest area, and it’s the one we actively work on the most. We have a circle of friends that we interact with often and we know many more people in the community on a more casual basis. We participate in a number of community activities and we strive to use community resources as much as we can (by going to the park, participating in youth sports leagues, and so on).
Channels for learning We have a savings account set apart for this, so that we can channel whatever growing passions for learning our children have. On top of that, we try to create educational experiences all the time that allow them to dabble in different areas, from art to paleontology.
Understanding of money We have an allowance system in place. Beyond that, we’ve started to discuss the concept of bills and income to our oldest child on a conceptual basis. I write about personal finance, of course, so this is something that’s a pretty regular topic for us.
Here’s the thing to note, though. Most of the stuff I mention above doesn’t cost money. Instead, it takes time.
Time is the deepest cost of parenting. The ability to do all of these things, to make sure as many doors are open as possible for your child, takes a lot of time.
Many parents are willing to step up to the plate when it comes to money, but the investment children really need is time.
Simply put, children are far better off if you work a minimum wage job and can spend a few hours with them a day than if you work a high-paying job and are constantly absent from their lives. Sure, you might be able to buy them expensive toys and take them on great vacations, but that’s not when they need you. They don’t need your stuff and they don’t need a ton of you one day and an absence of you for a long period. They need you steadily as they grow, because these lessons don’t take root overnight.
Almost all of the things I named above require no money or very little money. Instead, they require some planning and some time investment.
If I learned one lesson from my childhood, it’s that good parenting is about time, not about money. I try to apply that every day of my own parenting journey.