DON'T FEED THE BEARS
How Parents Can Set Their Kids Up for Failure
Please Read the Signs
Every year, hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to our national parks and wildlife refuges. They indulge themselves in the natural and pristine beauty of the great outdoors, and also view wild animals that they do not routinely encounter in the suburbia in which most of them dwell. They are greeted at the entrances to these large national parks by forest rangers and game keepers that provide strict advice and counsel on how to enjoy the park and its indigenous animals safely.
In addition to these instructions, visitors are also warned not to feed the bears. For those who may be forgetful of these rules, there are huge signs posted with both great prominence and frequency. These signs warn all the visitors NOT to feed the bears. Shoot, even the cartoons of my childhood that featured Yogi Bear and Jellystone Park were filled with these same admonitions. These signs are posted not for protection of the human visitors new to the wildlife habitat, but for the protection of the bears! They are necessary because every year hundreds of bears die after the end of the visitors' season. They die not because of what they were fed by their human visitors, but because later after the humans have departed, these large animals are no longer in a position to fend for themselves. Sadly, most of them slowly starve to death.
So why talk about bears? What is it that makes this story germane to our topic of insuring that our children actually enjoy a better life as opposed to just an easier one? As the father of five such bears, I mean kids, and the grandfather of eight grand bears, I will maintain that the moral to the story is absolutely on point. Biblically we know that it is far better to teach a man to fish rather than to continually feed him fish. Why? Because when we impart the gift of self-reliance, we don't merely feed them a meal or for a day, but rather, we feed them for life.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------When we impart the gift of self-reliance, we don't merely feed them a meal or for a day, but rather, we feed them for life.
With that as a premise, the question then becomes how should we impart all the necessary wisdom and desired gifts? How do we do it in such a way that the student does not resent the teacher? How do we do it so that the teacher does not want to kill the student in the process of sharing life’s lessons? How do we do it without spoiling the bear by feeding him and eliminating agency, the opportunity of experiential learning, and the internalization of proper values? When should we start to impart these life lessons? Certainly we don’t want to wait until they are ten years old to teach them how to walk; nor do we tell a very young child only once to look both ways before crossing the street or not to touch the hot stove.
For the life lessons we are talking about here, I always thought it started when the student obtained his or her first after school part-time job. This often accompanied the procurement of the treasured and exalted drivers license that provided independence and a degree of autonomy to said student of life. In our house, it also meant if you wanted to drive the car, you had to contribute the difference in the annual insurance premium that you accounted for with your [teenaged] presence. Over the years my insurance company has very sympathetically helped me to endure the addition of five such co-drivers with much welcome good student discounts which we always encouraged as additional motivation to maintain solid grades.
Aside from having to fork over some of their own hard earned dinero for the car insurance premium, what does the presence of a real job represent in terms of change to the socio-economic status enjoyed by our child? Again, perspective is reality, and hindsight is truly twenty-twenty. From the perspective of my children, the extra cash in their pocket, earned by the "sweat of their brow" should only enhance their standard of living. Their rationale: as loving parents, we should willingly continue to subsidize the gasoline tank, entertainment expenses, meals [consumed with more frequency away from home], cell phones, wardrobe, and other pursuits. Therein rests the first conflict. As I attempt to place myself in my children's moccasins, I realize that they really believe that this added loot should be a way to make life easier for them, and certainly has nothing to do with assisting either the family's overall economics or the parental units' standard of living. To even suggest such heresy is grounds enough to send them into fits of indignation and prompt them to quote the Declaration of Independence on the topics of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Amazingly enough, I actually had one of my offspring point out to me that in terms of lifestyle, that they would come out ahead by NOT working, and by simply relying on the largesse of Mom and Dad. Naturally I pointed out that this was not an option unless they were content with walking places, and doing an awful lot of socially unacceptable brown bagging at meal time! Not to be dissuaded, this articulate, enterprising, and argumentative budding entrepreneur had a great deal more to say on the subject. In discussions he even drew parallels to the number of welfare recipients who refuse to go back to work because it is far easier to sit at home and draw a reduced amount of income without having to endure the indignity of working. It was then pointed out to me that unless I wanted to foster such an entitlement mentality, then I needed to re-think my position. Where do they learn this stuff?
Naturally my strategy dictated that this conversation be steered towards the idea of developing life skills which in turn would encourage autonomy and fiscal responsibility. Imagine a world in which children learned about fiscal responsibility and grew into adulthood that was symbolized by financial independence from their parents. Compromises were reached, and my recollection is that like a truly successful negotiation session, we both walked away from the table just a little bit unhappy.
As noted, my premise is that our children will make more prudent and wiser decisions when they have skin in the game. First and foremost, they learn to distinguish between needs and wants. In this day and age of instant everything, wouldn't it be nice if they actually had to experience something other than instant gratification? What if this lesson fostered the learning of other life lessons such as Ben Franklin’s "pay yourself first," or "neither a lender nor a borrower be." Would this have an impact on the number of college students who are graduating from college and promptly filing bankruptcy so as to free themselves of the credit card debt that they have unwisely saddled themselves with in an effort to live without working, or live beyond their means while students? Thus far, none of my litter has followed this self-destructive path.
Because my children know that I was sent off to work at age 14 (with a birth certificate doctored up by my father that said I was 16) so that I could become more or less self-sufficient, they generally know when to stop arguing and to dutifully nod their head and accept the tyrannical decisions of the [benevolent] despot that they call Dad. I was allowed to continue to live at home with the expectation of three hots and a cot, or
three squares and an oblong, take your choice, as well as medical and dental care. I was however expected to pay my own way for everything else. Since this was common knowledge to my children, I did not have to repeatedly reference what they have termed the "raw deal" that I received. What they don't know is that while I do appreciate the fact that I don't owe anybody anything, I do remember how unfair I thought it was that I had to sacrifice a lot of the normal fun activities in which I would otherwise have participated. Also, because of the skewed manner in which I was raised, I have had to tread softly in attempting to teach the principals of financial independence for fear of going too far in one direction or the other. We naturally contrast my "raw" treatment with the "sweet" deal that their mother received: free ride to a small private college, a new car, and a checking account that somehow replenished itself merely with a telephone call home.
This past summer, my youngest daughter decided not to come home from college following her freshman year, but rather to stay out West and to enjoy the new-found freedom she had discovered. She opted to take some classes online, and to work full time. My heart skipped a beat with complete rapture. We had hit another milestone in our family history because another one of the progeny would have the money to put skin in the game and to actually pay for her living expenses during the upcoming school year. This had not been possible for Eliese during her first year because she had been sick and unable to work her senior year in high school and the summer before leaving for college. As a result, she left home with woefully inadequate reserves to assist in her adventure of higher education, and our help was required. Of course the prospects of her full time employment did not forestall the potential conflict of the infamous budget talk which I knew was going to bring a clash of perspectives and values.
As one would expect, our perspectives on who should pay for what has always been in a constant state of flux. For example, we have always encouraged our children to develop their talents. Eliese is very musical. So much so, that she can play so many different instruments that I have lost count at the present time. Her musical ability goes beyond mere talent. Because I am both green with envy, and in total awe of her talent, I have often found it difficult to say no to her even when it meant an additional $1100 for a second [better] flute when she was still in grammar school. While piano and flute are her primary instruments, she decided, early on in high school, to teach herself to play the guitar. Soon she was strumming on Mom's old twelve-string acoustical, bemoaning the fact that it was not "her" guitar, and of course, that it was "old" and needed new strings, and well, that she would definitely play better on a new one of her own choosing. I ignored this white noise for several weeks, not sure if this infatuation with the guitar was something other than a passing fancy that could actually end up passing on by. Turning a deaf ear when it comes to fiscal outlay is something that I have raised to an art form. Before I knew it though, she was strumming more and more songs, some of which I would ask her to repeat time and time again because I enjoyed it. As noted, providing this encouragement comes easily to me. Soon though, she was out "window shopping" for guitars with a knowledgeable friend of the male gender.
This was certainly an additional reason for me not to like the guy; bad enough he dates my daughter, now he has the audacity to spend my money as well! While I was attempting to steel myself for the associated cost of this new talent, I was still unprepared when Mom fielded the fateful phone call in which our youngest pride and joy announced that she had found a "real beauty .... on sale." This is when real conflict arose.
From her perspective, anything that furthered the development of a talent was still a parental expense. She very ably cited twenty five years of precedent where we had underwritten the development of talents for her and her four siblings ranging from music lessons, wrestling shoes, gymnastic grips, dance shoes and outfits, to a long line of musical instruments. In my somewhat defensive perspective, this new musical sojourn was certainly more of a want rather than a need.
She soon engaged the most powerful lobbying force this side of the United States Capitol building: her mother. After an intensive negotiating session, the agreement struck was that we would split the cost of the guitar. While it lacked the political crafting that accompanied the Missouri Compromise, I thought it was one with which I could live. In my mind, it really was a compromise, a joint venture of sorts, with both of us desiring the same outcome, and both sides with equal skin in the game. Hmm, maybe we could accomplish an object lesson here yet.
Unfortunately I was soon to learn that this was not going to involve actual cash changing hands, because in terms of her investment, she was going to "work it off around the house,” performing chores for her mother. Are there any more chilling words to the parent responsible for paying the bills? Is there anyone reading this tale smelling a rat yet? But wait, there's more. Naturally, one cannot buy a guitar without also purchasing a hard case for the protection of both the investment and physical well-being of said guitar. Add to that the assorted picks, the dehumidifier for inside the case, as well as other accouterments, and well, you see where this is heading. The credit card statement came in with the modest three digit amount prominently standing out against the majority of two digit charges. After realizing that several weeks had already passed since the purchase of said guitar, I calmly turned to the mother of my youngest daughter and quietly asked how we were doing in terms of recouping the other half of our investment. I was told not to worry about it. For my own piece of mind, I have chosen to believe the reports that she has done her duty and that the slate has been wiped clean. I do this because the alternative is just too painful to contemplate.
The guitar is now two thousand miles away from me. I miss it. I miss hearing the strumming and the soft lilt of my daughter's voice. I saw it this summer when we visited all of our children out West. It looks as good as the day we bought it a couple of years ago. It has definitely been well taken care of and protected. I don't think any of the luster associated with the purchase has been lost. My daughter still refers to it as "my baby."
To date, the money earned over this past summer is still safely squirreled away in the bank, and she is eating regularly, has purchased all of her school books, paid for her car insurance, cell phone bill, cable bill, and has kept the gas tank filled. She also very proudly purchased with her own money a used electric piano keyboard so that she can maintain her prowess on the piano. While I don't know if we completely avoided feeding the bears on this one, I think we did take some huge strides to insure that she won't perish with the onset of winter and the disappearance of visitors.