Raising Adults Not Children

It’s that time of year again…. caps and gowns, summer jobs, preparing for the next stage in life.  I have written here more than a couple of Junes, hailing our local graduates and giving them advice.  I have also written about the trend of colleges reporting that they feel many incoming freshman don’t have a lot of the skills necessary to make it on their own.  Today I give advice to the parents of kids in transition.  How do you protect and guide them while giving them the skills to succeed as they pass through the developmental stages of life?

I’m a big fan of teaching a man to fish rather than giving him one.  Kids are showing up at college unprepared for the level of responsibility required because there have been too many trips to the sushi bar and none to the bait shop.  I imagine this is more true with students coming from affluent suburbs such as ours than it is in other areas where it’s more typical for kids to have part time jobs or to pay for their own luxuries, such as they are.  Of all the adolescents I see on my couch, I’d be hard pressed to think of those who paid for, or even helped pay for, their first car.  I’d even be hard pressed to think of those who pay for the gas to run their cars.  I’m even seeing a trend where parents’ birthdays come and go, and the children look at me like I have seven heads when I ask, “So, what did you buy your mother for her birthday?” 

[inset side=left]Today I give advice to the parents of kids in transition.  How do you protect and guide them while giving them the skills to succeed as they pass through the developmental stages of life?  [/inset]Remember parents, you are not raising kids, you are raising adults.  What type of adult do you want your child to be?  Do you want him to be someone who saves for a new car, new home, vacation, or do you want him to expect instant gratification?  Do you want her to understand that giving is more important than receiving, and that sending a thank you note is the polite thing to do, or do you want her to say, as an adult, “Oh, my mother doesn’t want anything from me for her birthday, she wants me to spend my money on myself”?  What better opportunity than graduation and “moving up” to start guiding your children towards being the adults you want them to be? 

We can blame the banks and the government for the state of the economy, and that would be fine, but much of the trouble we are in we caused ourselves.  Too many of us had too little understanding of interest rates and credit cards and balloon mortgages and we thought that paying the piper would happen in the distant future, if at all.  We all have lessons to learn about finances, but I’d rather see a kid learn it on a small scale while still under his parents’ guidance, than when a $500,000 mortgage comes due and there’s no money to pay for it.  Think about it….how many of you parents out there encourage or outright insist that your kids pay off debts, put money away, save for the new purchase themselves?  I used to work with a young girl who, from the first day she got allowance, her mother insisted that she save a dollar for later, keep a dollar to spend now if she wanted, and put a dollar away for charity.  She was the only parent I ever heard describe such a setup.  My mother handed me a Mobil credit card when I bought my first car (note when **I** bought my first car).  She explained to me that it was in her name because she had credit and I did not, and because she never wanted me to be stuck with an empty tank, or have a repair that I couldn’t pay for.  HOWEVER, she was also clear that she would not pay a dime on that credit card; that I could use it as needed, but I was expected to pay the bill when it came —  if not in full, for example, for an expensive repair, then in some practical, responsible way.  I had the safety net of knowing I would never run out of gas and be stranded, which was a good gift for my parents to give me, but I also had the lesson of responsibility while still in the cocoon of my family home.  This is not to say that as an adult I have never run up credit card debt or that I am always practical and responsible with money, but I’d like to think that at least when my financial practices are less than ideal I understand the consequences and I get back on track more easily than I might have otherwise.

Some ways that you can help your child become more responsible, financial or otherwise, include expecting him to pay for at least a part of a large purchase, such as a car, a new bicycle, an X-box, etc, depending on his age.  Obviously I wouldn’t expect a six-year old to be put to work at the saw mills so she can have a new bike, but it’s not a bad lesson to say, “This is what we are willing to pay for this purchase; you want the nicer model (or the pink accessories, or the fancy horn); let’s look at how much birthday/allowance/communion money you have and see how to pay for these extras.”  She may decide she doesn’t want or need the bells and whistles and would rather save her money for something else.  You want your child to be safe, so you want to buy her a newer car with more modern safety features, rather than have her go out and buy something off Craig’s List, sight unseen.  That’s understandable.  But asking her to save $1000 towards the car, or to pay the difference in the family’s car insurance if she has a part-time job, or to save enough money to have a cushion in the bank for gas and maintenance is fine.  How is it that we send kids off to adulthood without them having any concept of what it costs to pay rent, maintain a car, put food on the table?  I would venture to guess that most of the young adults that come to see me have no clue what daily needs cost, and that is a disaster waiting to happen when they go off to get their first apartment.  Even just making car payments while working in the summer, and having the parents take over once the semester starts again, is enough of a lesson in budgeting.

What about the concept of giving to others?  I am literally shocked at how few parents take the kids out from an early age to “buy” presents for the other parent.  Not that you need one more “crystal” penguin for the china cabinet, but giving a child money if he is young, or taking a few dollars out of the piggy bank to buy said valuable, and going out to shop, thinking what mom or dad (or even more rare—brother or sister) may like, taking that time, being thoughtful, buying or making a card, will help your child be more thoughtful of others in the future.  No one wants to raise a child to be a selfish adult, but without having expectations that important days like Fathers’ Day or a birthday or other occasion will be acknowledged, how can we expect that as adults they will learn this?  If you want your kid to call you on Mothers’ Day, first you have to teach him what day of the year it is.  And if you want your kids to be kind to each other when the bickering and hair pulling of their youthful sibling rivalry is over, you need to model good behavior, encourage thoughtfulness, and teach them that other people are important too. 

As summer begins, and many of our local youngsters will be getting jobs, it’s a good time to try some of these things.  Guide your child to give to charity, and you do the same.  I was in Saks yesterday, looking at shoes that were ON SALE for $500.  One of my thoughts was, “If someone is spending this much on a pair of shoes, I hope she is also at some point giving this much to charity over the course of this year.”  It’s a good time to encourage your child to save some money to spend at college on things that his parents won’t and probably shouldn’t be covering.  And let’s not forget teaching your kids to get to those summer jobs on time and remain focused while there (no texting at work, PLEASE!).   It’s a good time to talk to your child about lessons learned at the summer job, and how those lessons will relate to other jobs in the future, or how having a college education will open doors to better jobs. 

Of course, if you do all these things, I may lose my own job, as all our local kids become better adjusted, more generous and responsible members of the community, but I’d be happy to budget myself for such a loss of income.

Congratulations to all on the completion of another school year.  Onwards and upwards…

[blockquote class=blue]Barbara Kapetanakes, Psy.D., practices child, adult, and family psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow.[/blockquote]


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