My oldest grandson, Justin, has cerebral palsy. When he was in middle school, my daughter and her husband invited me to attend a parent-teacher conference. Justin’s teacher was a young woman, probably in her early 20s. She told us that one of Justin’s classmates had announced to the whole class that, according to his mother, all of the kids would be moved along no matter what.

These were special needs students, and she shared her frustration that most of the kids simply stopped doing their homework. She felt powerless.

I took out my business card and wrote my home phone number on the back. I told her that we appreciated everything she was trying to do and that if Justin wasn’t working to the best of his abilities, to call his parents. If the problem continued, she could call me. Then I told my grandson I never wanted to hear from her.

To his credit, Justin graduated from college, earned a master’s degree, and now works as an accountant. He heard the message.

Dropping the Ball

I like to close each year with a letter straight from the heart. This year I’m writing to parents and grandparents to say that frankly, many of us are screwing up our most important job: raising self-sufficient adults.

Everywhere I look, there are signs that we’re dropping the ball.

  • Only 39% of incoming college freshmen graduate within four years.
  • 50% of recent US college graduates report accepting financial help from family, although half of these new graduates have full-time jobs, per the ongoing study, Arizona Pathways to Life Success for University Students.
  • In the US, 14% of adults ages 24-34 live at home with their parents, according to Gallup.

These are bleak statistics, but instead of dwelling on failure, I prefer to focus on the key practices of parents who are getting it right. Here are seven keys.

Key #1—Set expectations early. When baby boomers were growing up, they were expected to go to college and then move out on their own. Mom and Dad made that crystal clear by about fifth grade and helped their kids prepare. If you want Junior to move out and stay out, make that expectation explicit, and help him set and meet realistic goals for making that happen.

There’s one expectation in particular that parents often overlook. No matter what your children’s skills and aptitudes are, responsible parents insist that they put forth their best effort. Even guys like me (a charter member of the “get by club”) can use their mistakes to teach their kids.

Key #2—Make independence the goal. We’d all like to go through life with the privileges of adulthood but the responsibilities of children. As sociologists Allan Schnaiberg and Sheldon Goldenberg have pointed out, the benefits young adults from middle-class professional families enjoy often make independence less appealing than extended adolescence. Parents need to make independence the more attractive choice.

We all know parents who help with rent or car payments for their adult children. In one such case, the young guy confided to me that he and two buddies split the cost of season tickets to the local NHL team. I shook my head in amazement. The longer parents support that kind of behavior, the harder it is to wean kids off the dole.

So your 25-year-old wants cool stuff, and he wants to control his own time. The more financially independent he is, the more choices he’ll have. It’s just that simple.

Key #3—Teach good financial habits early. A friend shared a creative money teaching moment with me. When he and his wife took their three young kids on long car trips, he would give each child $5 every morning. The rules were clear. No one asks Mom and Dad to buy anything when they stop for gas, lunch, or at a souvenir shop. They could spend the $5 on whatever they wanted, or they could save it.

The first day, one child spent all the money, one spent half, and the other saved it all. He said the system worked like a charm. By the time the vacation was over, there were three savers in the back seat.

It’s never too early to start showing children how to earn their own way. At what point do you stop handing out no-strings attached allowances and assign chores to make them earn that money? There’s no reason a third grader can’t work around the house for his pocket money.

Key #4—Saving is a must. When your children earn money from chores or little jobs and when they receive money as gifts, help them set put a certain percentage in savings. Talk about the difference between saving to buy something and saving for college, a rainy-day fund, and long-range wealth accumulation. Help them prepare the deposit slips and review their monthly statements with them.

Key #5—Coach your grandchildren. Grandparents have more influence in money matters than they might realize. Maybe it’s because somewhere around age 13 most kids would rather talk to anyone but their own parents. Whatever the reason, seize the opportunity.

According to a recent survey from financial firm TIAA-CREF, 85% of young adults said they’d like to discuss money and saving with their grandparents. And what’s more, 73% of young adults said their grandmas and grandpas influence their saving and spending habits. Interestingly, just 3 in 10 grandparents think they can impact the money habits of their grandchildren.

The teaching opportunities start early. Those special shopping trips with Grandma are wonderful opportunities to educate. Show them how to look for value and avoid overpaying. Set a budget for those trips, talk about it, and stick to it.

Key #6—A second job is a good thing. I was surprised when my children asked how their mother and I made ends meet when we were young. I had a full-time job, and when it ended at 5:00 p.m., I’d walk across the street to manage the convenience store until closing time. I never gave it much thought; we needed the money.

I realized later the real message we were sending the kids: if things get tough, you do what you have to do. Since then, I’ve watched my children do much the same thing.

Key #7—Mentor. I saved my favorite for last. When my oldest daughter was in her early 30s, she had two children and a full-time job. Her youngest has some medical challenges, and they were struggling financially. She attended a personal finance class, and she and her husband added up all their debts, including credit cards. It was significant.

As she told me this, I felt a knot in my stomach. Being a Mr. Fixit, I wondered if she was going to ask for a loan. When she finished covering all the debt they’d accumulated, I took a deep breath and said, “Wow! What do you plan to do?”

In a very excited tone, she told me about the financial plan they’d put together with help from the class. It would take five years, but they could do it.

She wasn’t calling to ask for money; she was asking for advice. I thought later about what a disservice I would have done to their marriage if I had helped them financially. What would I have done to their self-esteem? Every few months she would call and announce that they’d cut up another credit card, and we would cheer.

I hear many stories about parents who want to be friends with their children. I say, give praise when they deserve it and deliver the tough messages. That’s the job of being a parent. Then, when your children become parents, you can be best friends forever.

On the Lighter Side

This Christmas we had four generations together. I’m the oldest now, and in a few short months I will complete 75 laps around the sun. That was pretty close to a man’s life expectancy in the year I was born, and I’m blessed to still lead an active and colorful life with my wife Jo.

A warm thanks to all of you who’ve dropped me an email during the year. Many of you share the same concerns, and your encouragement and feedback mean a lot to me. The idea for this week’s missive came from a reader, and I’m sure the idea for the next one will, too.

And finally…

I found a series of quotes that seemed fitting for this week.

  • I loved you enough… to let you assume responsibility for your actions even when the penalties were so harsh they almost broke my heart. But most of all, I loved you enough… to say NO when I knew you would hate me for it.
  • Because of our mother, we missed out on lots of things other kids experienced. She insisted on knowing where we were, who our friends were, and that we be home on time. It was all her fault. Now that we have left home, we are all educated, honest adults. We are doing our best to be mean parents just like Mom was.

One of the best parts of the holidays is when the “mean” moms and dads of the world feel a special bond with their children as they stand together watching the next generation grow. The kind hug, squeeze of your hand, or a simple wink is all the thanks we need.

Happy New Year!

See ya on the flip side…