Some of us deeply question
whether to give substantial money to our kids at all.
It's not that wealth would "mess them up" or that our
children should "have the satisfaction" of making
their own way. It's because we believe they will do well
enough without our money.
We know vividly what a
difference every $1,000 makes to the myriad small, underfunded
organizations laboring to improve the world. To pass hundreds
of thousands (or millions!) to our children who already
have abundant advantages feels like a betrayal of our
values and of our hopes for the future.
Yet for many of us, even
considering this line of thought brings up a great swirl
of anxiety and confusion. As dutiful and loving parents,
shouldn't we put our children's well-being beyond all
others'? If we are inheritors, how can we dare to "break
the chain," that sacred trust of wealth, identity
and expectation, that has been passed down for generations?
We dance between conflicting
tensions--recognizing our fears while still taking persistent
steps towards our vision. Many of us adopt a "weaning"
approach--gradually lessening our dependence on wealth,
and aiming for each generation to stand more on its own
feet. Below, we touch on some of the ways parents have
dealt with this situation.
"How can I know my
kids will be OK?"
Look clearly at the specific
ways you hope an inheritance will improve your children's
lives. Get concrete-- put dollar estimates on each one.
Education. (Is that enough for tuition at
a state college? Or full support through Harvard Medical School?)
Buying a home. (A mortgage down-payment or
enough to buy one outright? A house worth $100,000?
Freedom. (One year off work? Or life-long
freedom from the job market?)
Security. (An emergency cushion? Or never
This process may take some
soul-searching and research, but it can provide a starting
place for a reasonable upper limit on what you might want
to give your child. From there, you can start examining
your fears and assumptions. For instance, money has a
role in creating security, but so does health, community,
practical skills, spiritual beliefs, and many other factors.
How might you help your child develop these? Ask people
who started out without sizeable financial resources what
they think were the costs and benefits of making it on
their own. Remember your children can inherit many valuable
gifts--self-esteem and confidence, contacts, financial
competence--no matter how much or how little financial
wealth you pass on.
Of course, there's no guarantee
your children will be OK even if you leave them a fortune.
It's an uncertain world, and parenting is always a confrontation
with how little control you really have!
(A note of caution: if
you want your children to receive just a certain amount,
make sure these intentions don't get inadvertently undermined.
Check whether relatives also plan to leave your children
money. If you name fixed assets in a will, be careful
that their value over time won't either mushroom or be
eaten away by inflation.)
"Won't my children
be hurt or insulted that I'm not giving them more money?"
Money is not love. If your
children are young, write a letter to accompany your will.
Express all your love for them, your confidence in their
abilities, and the reasons behind the choices you've made.
Most often, a rift occurs
when children "expect steak and get hamburger."
Don't let them think a fortune is coming if it's not.
If your children are teenagers or adults, talk with them
about your values and what you plan to do. Be open to
changing your mind based on the discussions.
As parents, you certainly
know that your children won't always agree with your choices,
nor you with theirs. Even if your children feel some resentment
toward your decision, you can have a good relationship
with them. Feelings can change over time, and often do.
You can still take opportunities
to be generous and flexible. Once your grown children
have established their own lives based on what they create
rather than on your wealth, relatively small gifts (e.g.
several thousand dollars as opposed to several million
dollar inheritances) can be significant to them.
"I never made it on
my own in the world of work--I always had inheritance
to supplement my earnings. How, then, can I have confidence
my kids can make it on their own?"
Get help from people who
have made their own way. Interview your friends, hear
their stories, and find mentors for your kids who can
help your children develop confidence in work. If you
live modestly and raise your children to be comfortable
with that lifestyle, there's more chance they can feel
comfortable and successful even if the work they do is
not enormously lucrative.
"What right do I have
to mandate that my children enjoy fewer privileges than
I enjoy? Isn't that hypocritical?"
If you feel the amount
of privilege you enjoy is not just, change your own life
to reflect your values. Expect it may take some years
to change the shape of your life. Engage your children
(if they are old enough) in exploring what lifestyle you
want as a family. Discuss values and adopting different
ways to live that appeal to you all.
If you are a multi-generational
inheritor, a recognition that your personal and family
identity has been tied up with having wealth may underlie
underneath this concern. You may need not only to resolve
this within yourself, but also to have many conversations
with relatives about the ideas and values that inform
Can your children belong
to the family and not be wealthy? How will they relate
to their richer cousins, or attend expensive family gatherings?
Just as working-class families often experience a sense
of cultural loss when children rise up the class ladder,
there is some loss and confusion (for both generations)
when children live with lower incomes than their parents.
Changing family norms can certainly be stressful for the
whole family. Go gently, and get support (empathy for
what's hard, encouragement to persist) from those who
agree with your perspective.
Remember, you are not depriving
your children of the opportunity to get rich. You are
simply choosing for them not to start out that way.
--Anne Slepian and Christopher
Mogil, MtM editors
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