The subject is a tricky one: Generosity guilt. If we share the wealth with our grown children in the here and now, do we risk doing them more harm than good? Do we do more harm than good by indulging them--and ourselves--in making life easier for them?
It's a question we were hashing out with friends where we were house-guests at their home on a lake in a development where the neighbors tend expansive lawns and mind lush rose gardens. Both our friends are recently divorced from their previous spouses. Paying the bills for the lakeside house--its dock, two boats, swimming pool, six bedrooms and huge windows overlooking the lake--is not a problem for either of them. Moreover, they have the money to travel--for pleasure and to visit their grown children who live in various cities throughout the country.
His three children are recent college grads feeling their way career-wise. He is mum on how he does or doesn't help them. Not so her. She bubbles over with fears that she is overindulging her two daughters who are in their late 20s and early 30s and not living anywhere near the level their parents eventually achieved.
"I feel guilty," she says of her willingness to give her daughters (both of whom have small children and husbands) money, treats and other indulgences whenever they ask or she feels they need them. "I'm a terrible patsy," she says, while her current partner nods in emphatic agreement. "I'm an endless stream of money for them." At the same time, she confesses to worrying about their psychological health. "I feel guilty that I enable them to be dependent on me. I don't make them stand on their own two feet. It wouldn't hurt them to be self reliant, but it gets complicated."
One of her daughters has what the mom calls "a black cloud that follows her"--a child needed surgery and there were medical bills over and above insurance; a mistake was made when starting a business and it required cash to rectify. "She's under a lot of stress," says my friend. "I worry about her mental state. If I can relieve her stress by helping her financially, I want to do it." That said, she would like her daughters to distinguish between I need and I want. And to feel less "entitled." When shopping with one of her daughters, the two of them saw necklaces the daughter liked. "She wanted two of them," the mother says, adding that she put her foot down, sort of. "I told her no, just one."
Her desire to indulge her children is mixed with few rules over how far the giving should go. The indulgence argument is simple: She has more than enough money to take care of herself. "I get to do everything I want. I have not said 'no' to myself on anything," she says. "Why make my children miserable for lack of money when they're going to get it anyway?"
Being guilty about being generous is awkward--a conflict in competing values, a feeling of ambivalence about which value should take precedence. This lack of clarity is a point Gretchen Rubin makes in a post on PsychCentral when she writes about wanting to do one thing but wanting something else that conflicts with it. Two of her examples: I want to eat healthfully; it’s wrong to waste any food. I want leisure time when I come home from work; I want to live in a house that’s clean and well-run. "These days," Rubin writes, "when I’m trying to get myself to pursue some course of action, I work hard to make sure I know exactly what I expect from myself, and why, and what value I’m choosing to serve."
Generosity guilt is certainly a push and pull between two values--and which one wins out depends on a whole lot of other values: does a grown child need support because he or she is doing work that helps others but doesn't pay very well? If we value such work, we might chose to enable our child to continue doing it and not suffer the consequence of living within low-income means. A similar reasoning applies to paying college bills or support during graduate school. And if a grandchild needs medical care not covered by insurance, doesn't it make sense to cover those bills that would otherwise stress the parent, our child? On the other hand, two necklaces versus one or even none is a different value.
There's another way to look at the guilt side of generosity guilt: As a manifestation of helicopter parenting.
The question Eli Finkel and Grainne Fitzsimons pose in a New York Times story, "When Helping Hurts" is on point for those of us who help our grown children financially. "How can we help our children achieve their goals without undermining their sense of personal accountability and motivation to achieve them?"
Their answer, based on research they have reviewed, is a pretty solid guide to those of us like my friend who worry about the complications of generosity guilt: "...Our help has to be responsive to the recipient’s circumstances: it must balance their need for support with their need for competence. We should restrain our urge to help unless the recipient truly needs it, and even then, we should calibrate it to complement rather than substitute for the recipient’s efforts."