Aiding children can test wisdom

  • Article by: ROSS LEVIN
  • Updated: April 26, 2008 - 8:50 PM

Financial help to offspring involves weighing a sense of obligation against potential pitfalls and ability to provide help. Emotions, above all, can cloud good judgment.

Our daughters recently received their driver's permits. My wife asked one of them to adjust the mirrors before she drove -- she directed the rear-view mirror so she could see herself.

I took the other driving on a sunny day. I had her wear my not-hip-enough sun glasses. She immediately pulled her hood up over her head, thereby obscuring her view of the road while also concealing her identity from any acquaintance who might otherwise see her in less-than-fashionable shades.

Teaching our children to drive is an obvious parenting rite of passage.

We have had to figure out how to coach them since we can't do it for them. As I gradually have become more comfortable with their driving, they have also become more comfortable behind the wheel.

Recently, clients came in for a meeting. Part of our discussion centered on whether or not they should financially help out their adult child.

After graduating from college, their son took a good job in sales, but he was miserable. He was a talented performer and that is where his heart lay. He quit his job and was trying to make a go of it. He was working incredible hours on this dream. The parents were in a quandary.

Two of their other children had taken more traditional routes and were ensconced in good (read: acceptable) careers. So the question was asked, "Should we help our son?"

There are three things to consider when making decisions: What do you want? What do you know? And what can you do?

What do you want? In this case, the parents' wants were conflicted because they preferred that their son enter a field with a clear path to financial security, but they also wanted him to make a living doing work that he loved. When they focused on him, rather than on themselves, they could see that he had already made his decision.

What do you know? They knew that they had issues with his career choice and were therefore blocked from thinking clearly on the topic. They also knew that their child had always been responsible and had always loved the arts. Most important, they knew that with their own careers they had made safe and responsible choices in which they felt trapped. In fact, our original planning work was about helping the husband feel financially secure so that he could leave his job. They therefore knew they did not want their own son to feel as stuck as they had been.

What can you do? While they did not have the resources to provide unlimited support to their child, they could help in significant ways.

Our discussion then centered on what was reasonable. Generally, it is not a big help to completely remove someone from their struggle. The challenges create the stories from which a rich life is developed. But the parents could provide support with the essentials -- health care and housing. They haven't decided for how long they will provide assistance, but they don't have to. They can watch this unfold.

In deciding whether or not to help your children, there are many things to think about, but the central thoughts should focus on them. Be careful not to make them perform in order to garner your financial assistance -- this often leads to resentment. Be wary of replacing your emotional support with financial support -- this can result in feelings of entitlement.

Instead, be sure that any financial commitment you make is reasonable for you and for them. Bailing them out of their ill-fated choices is a natural tendency, but not particularly helpful. Withholding from them because they are not living their lives as you feel they should live them doesn't help. It deprives them. It indicates that you don't believe in them.

A useful message for thinking about this can be found in Peter Block's book, "The Answer to How is Yes." He says, "The rush to a How? answer runs the risk of skipping the profound question: Is this worth doing? And it skirts the equally tough corollary question: Is this something I want to do?"

Problem solving is something with which we are comfortable because it involves action. Sometimes, though, this action interferes with either the sight lines of possibility or the fault lines of over-responsibility. Work with your children, don't rescue them and you won't drive them away.

Spend your life wisely.

  • Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina. He is a certified financial planner and author of "The Wealth Management Index." His Gains & Losses column appears on the fourth Sunday of each month. His e-mail is

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