My five-year-old daughter and I were out Christmas shopping the other day, and it wasn’t long before I heard the inevitable words, “Mommy, can I have this?” I know she will utter this phrase over and over any time I take her shopping with me, yet I never tire of hearing it. Each time she asks, an opportunity opens up for me to teach her important lessons about wants versus needs, price versus value, and self-control over impulsive buying. Although she does not fully grasp most of these concepts, I know that over time she will gain understanding and carry those valuable principles throughout her life. However, regardless of whether or not I seize that learning opportunity, the usual first answer to her question is “no.”
The simple answer “no” did not work so well when she was in her “terrible twos.” But “no” has always meant “no” and I have never changed my “no” to a “yes.” With consistency, she eventually figured out that continuing to ask was futile and screaming in the store would only result in undesirable consequences.
“No” is a word I heard often as a child. We certainly weren’t poor, but if my parents had given in to every request of all five of their children, we would have been. I learned quickly that I was not going to get everything I wanted. But I was lucky to always have everything I needed — and my parents helped teach me the difference.
I grew up in a family where life did not revolve around me; it revolved around the family. That’s not to say my parents did not sacrifice a lot for their children; they did. Their sacrifices were largely what taught me to sacrifice for my children. I can sacrifice designer clothes if it means my daughter can participate in gymnastics and art classes. I can sacrifice another year without a new car if it means I can drop her off at school without anxiety because I trust her teachers and the curriculum they teach. I have often marveled at the ease with which sacrificing comes for the good of my family — how naturally prioritizing occurs. For many of my peers, it is much more difficult. Such difficulties have led many of them to plummet into thousands of dollars of credit card debt. And many of them are still dependent on their parents for help paying bills.
As a child, I did not realize how lucky I was to hear the word “no.” Based on the spending habits and massive debt amassed by those of my generation (those in their late twenties and early thirties), I know that many of them suffered the misfortune of too many yeses. In families where the world revolves around the child, the inevitable is that the child grows up with a sense of entitlement. We are now witnessing the fruits of raising children that way. We are suffering the fiscal irresponsibility of the “me” generation who expect everything to be handed to them. What parents can’t provide, and what these grown children do not provide for themselves, is passed along as an expectation for the government to provide.
Unsurprisingly, a recent study by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Investor Education Foundation found that younger generations have lower financial literacy than their predecessors. According to the foundation’s 2009 National Financial Capability Study, only 25% of participating adults were happy with their current financial conditions and 15% of respondents did not even have a checking account. And only 41% of respondents with dependent children had set aside money for college education expenses. Instead of saving for their children’s educations, many parents just cry out to the Obama administration to make more government money available for students to attend college.
Whenever one of these studies comes out, the question parents should ask is what they can do to make sure their children are not among those statistics. Instead, the first question that pops into many American minds is “how is the federal government going to fix this?” In light of these findings, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced their new campaign to improve high school financial literacy.
Just announcing that the federal government was on the job made many parents breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t know if they don’t believe in their parental capabilities or if they just don’t want to have to expel any energy to teach their children if the government will do it for them. What I do know is that they should be terrified to allow Timothy Geithner and the federal government to teach fiscal responsibility to the generation that is going to be paying for our Social Security and Medicare.
Would you trust the federal government to balance your checkbook or set up your household budget? Would you allow Congress to make the tough decisions for you on what expenses constitute necessity and what expenses need to be cut in hard times?
I’m no economist, but in my experience, if you have no money, yet continue to spend money, you will end up with more and more debt. So, when Obama says that we have to spend our way out of this recession, what sort of message does that send to this “younger generation” of financial illiterates?
And with so many tax-evading government officials, the federal government is sending the wrong message about consequences of fiscal irresponsibility. Lying and cheating are promoted to pinch pennies, instead of saving. I do not want to teach my children that the only way to get out of paying taxes without penalty is to get elected to public office.
Another important fiscal message for children is that you can’t have it all, so you have to choose your expenditures wisely. What message do children learn about financial prioritizing with a Congress that has passed over 8,000 earmarks this year? I’m not asking Congress to provide financial literacy to my children, but it would be nice if they didn’t act counterproductive to my efforts.
I have so often heard the argument that if parents are not parenting, the government has to step in. Although this idea was most likely born of the best intentions, it is the very type of apathetic and entitlement thinking that got us into this fiscal mess in the first place. The best parenting to the nation the government can do is with tough love — and making use of the word “no.”
Imagine if Congress said, “No, this is not our job,” and they gave parenting back to the families. By saying “yes” they perpetuate this line of thinking that parents are not capable of parenting their children. Human beings have been raising their offspring since, well, the beginning of human beings. Convincing parents they are not up to the task robs them of the dignity, pride, and joy that accompany the most rewarding job on Earth. We need leaders helping parents believe in themselves, not teaching people they can’t do it so the government has to do it for them. If government help and guidance are needed anywhere, it is not in teaching children, but in making resources available to help parents teach their children.
More than once I’ve heard someone else’s child ask that immutable question, “Can I have this?” Usually, it is followed by the word “no,” followed by a tantrum of crying, and suddenly “no” changes to “yes.” I suppose the mother believes it’s easier that way. In an age with so many working mothers, no mother wants what little time she has with her child to be spent arguing. But what she should know is that if she sticks to her guns and endures a few tantrums, she’ll reap the long-term benefits of gaining her child’s respect. Eventually, the response to “no” will taper down as the child gains the understanding taught through parental consistency.
The same can be said of government. “No” may not be easy for the nation to hear at first. But in the long run it strengthens families and sends a message that the people of this country can believe in themselves. “No” may be the best answer in helping us raise a new generation of self-sufficient adults who understand challenges, learn from mistakes, and take personal fiscal responsibility.