Friday, January 24, 2014

A little bit of responsibility can go a long way

From today's Briefing:

When I was young, I was responsible for packing my own school lunch.
My meal was usually a sandwich and an apple. No big investment of time, no fuss. The work in no way scarred me for life.
And yet here I am, in charge of a 12-year-old and 8-year-old who have never once packed their own lunch.
I reason that it’s part of my job to make sure they’re well-fed, and they need to focus on getting ready for school in the mornings. And, I admit, I take pride in packing healthy lunches that represent all the food groups.
But how are they going to learn if they don’t do the work themselves? How will they perfect the just-right ratio of peanut butter to jam if they don’t experiment with different amounts? How will they know to put the apple and milk at the bottom of the lunch container, instead of the top, so that the sandwich doesn’t get squished?
Common sense and all kinds of reading tell me that to raise children into self-reliant adults, I need to let them actually be independent in childhood. And I try, I really do. But I often catch myself doing when I should be teaching or letting go.
Perhaps my biggest weakness is financial.
In some circles, Cooper and Katie would no doubt seem spoiled. They have everything they need and much of what they want.
They own more jackets and shoes than absolutely necessary. Their combined treasury of board games and Legos is slightly embarrassing. We could open a small neighborhood library with all the books.
Yet relative to many families in our community, they live frugally, which lulls me into thinking I’m leading them in the right direction.
We have one, slightly old video game system for which we haven’t purchased a new disc in two years. They own no flashy labels. We partially rely on public and school libraries to feed our book addiction.
They rarely ask for anything when we’re out — perhaps because they don’t need anything and because they’ve learned that I’m impervious to “I want that” pleas.
I don’t think that I overspend, but I definitely do all the spending.
Cooper and Katie don’t have an allowance. If a child wants a recently published book, I often buy it. If someone is going camping, I write a check to cover expenses.
When we’re on vacation, I offer to buy one reasonably priced souvenir per child. At church, I take bills out of my wallet so that my children can give an offering.
(In my defense, I do require that they pay for anything they’ve lost or damaged that they want replaced. Left and lost your jump rope in the gym? You can buy a new one for $6.)
What I should do is follow all the financial experts’ advice and provide a weekly allowance, giving my children the freedom to manage their own spending, savings and giving. How else will they fully appreciate the value of money?
If the month includes a camping trip, an invitation to Main Event, publication of a new hardback and release of a long-awaited movie, but you have enough cash to pay for only two of those, how do you decide how to spend your money?
So far my children haven’t had to consider the question. I make the decisions for them, securing all the control and relinquishing no responsibility.
Part of my hesitation in adopting an allowance system lies in knowing that I need to fully embrace it. There’s no point in establishing a whole new economy in our home if I’m going to bail out bankrupt children. So I’m working on defining terms and expectations — for Cooper, Katie and me.
One day in this home, children will prepare their own lunches — at least some of the time — and they will collect, save, spend and give their own money. And then we’ll leap the next hurdle on this marathon toward independence.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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