Levin: Helping your children find their own voice

  • Article by: ROSS LEVIN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 28, 2012 - 9:14 PM

My daughter at college answered her cellphone with a low, raspy voice. I immediately adopted a parental mode of annoyance and concern -- wondering if the voice came from being out too late or if she was not feeling well. ''Why are you talking like that?" I asked. She said, "Dad, I'm in the library."

My reaction says a lot about me and little about her. Many of us are dealing with expectations for our children that are not based on clear evidence, but come from our own, personal narratives.

With college kids coming home for the summer or transitioning to head off in the fall, I want to explore some of the things that we have been working on with our clients.

Most of us want to protect our kids from harm. We often want them to have better lives than we had or want them to at least have what we have. But what if that type of thinking proves to be harmful?

Some clients were concerned about how their adult child was spending money and were wondering if it was because they gave him too much when he was growing up. The child was accustomed to a lifestyle that he could no longer afford. Instead of creating a story as to why the child is acting this way, simply acknowledge the behavior. If this person were not your offspring, you would observe his actions and know that at some point there will be consequences for him -- he may get in over his head, he may have to take a second job, he may have to spend less, or he may have to downsize.

We want to create a backstop for our children to protect them. But if the backstop is set too close, they can never take a swing on their own. This is especially important when our kids grow up. In order to decide when help is appropriate, you need to assess who your child is rather than who you might want him or her to be.

In a recent talk at the Westminster Town Hall Forum, author/activist Parker Palmer discussed how to "hold tension in life-giving ways." The objective is to have our children live lives of independence. Our tension comes from how we can support them rather than provide support for them. This does not mean that things will be perfect. Support may not mean fixing their problems but rather showing them that you believe that they have the ability to fix them -- in ways that may not look anything like how you would handle it yourself.

Clients were wondering whether it was a good idea for their graduating, unemployed child to move in with them as a way to save money. This is not an easy question. There are big advantages to struggle. Working in a job to support oneself until one can begin a career has been a rite of passage. What are the real costs of the adult child moving home? Some of the social and family costs should be included in the calculation. There is a price to independence, but depending on the child, dependence may be even more expensive.

Some of this goes back to the old nature-vs.-nurture debate. Your children have certain personality aspects that are predetermined, no matter how much you may wish that weren't the case. For example, nurture may help your children avoid alcohol until they are of age, but nature may determine how they handle alcohol once they have tried it.

Our children are accurate reflections of themselves, not of ourselves. One of the things we try to explore is whether a client is helping the kids for the kids or for themselves. When money is involved, if we give our children too much too soon, they may not get a chance to develop in ways that help them discover who they are. If they don't have to make choices, how do they develop money values and determine what matters to them? In Palmer's book "Healing the Heart of Democracy,'' he says that there is an "integrity that comes from being what you are." Do you believe in your children enough to allow them not to succeed, at least by your definition of success?

None of this is easy. But kids have to find their own voice, even if it may be low and raspy.

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 last Sunday of the month. His e-mail is ross@accredited.com.

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