When my mother died, she left all that was left in her estate to me. But that didn't lessen my resentment of how my brother had, when he was alive (he died before my widowed mother did), talked her into giving him access to her savings accounts and squandered two thirds of it.
Whether we need the worldly goods or not--I was fortunate in not--there is something primal about the resentment we feel for a sibling if our parents treated them more favorably than us.
I bring that up lo these many years later because Paterfamlias and I--and our friends--are now the older generation, the parents of the grown children and, human nature being what it is, many of us are probably tilting more toward one child than another, helping out a child who may be struggling financially and not offering equal rewards to one who is not. The common sense of our actions may be apparent to us but not necessarily to the child who's not getting his or her share.
At least that is a point raised in a recent British publication, The National. After ranting a bit about parents who favor the "weaker" of their children over the more successful one, the author sums up research that has a surprising kick to it:
"Research in the United States found that parents helping their young adult children financially was linked to what it called a "solid parent-child bond" that got stronger the more money is given. I found it surprising, and disturbing, that money was a bigger issue than emotional support and affection. Other research states that sibling relationships were not affected by preferential treatment, like affection, as long as they were given the same amount of money. Give one more money than the other and you’re condemning siblings to bad relationships with each other later
So it turns out that our adult children are sensitive to inequality just as they were when they were small children living under our roof.
The answer to the issue is not necessarily to change our ways or even the scales, but to let our kids know what we're thinking and get input from them. In the best of all possible worlds, their reaction will be like that of a friend of mine's son who told his parents he was fine with their helping out his sister and that they should feel comfortable leaving the bulk of their worldly goods to her. He and his wife both have MBAs and high-paying jobs.. They are more than able to support their two children and send one who needs an extra boost to private school The sister holds a low-paying job (she's a social worker) and her husband, who lost his job in the 2008 recession, has been unable to regain his footing. They are struggling to support their twin girls. It is a relief to the parents to know that they are providing financial help to their daughter without their son resenting it. (Not knowing when the need for that help will end? Relief-less.)
According to Megan Ford, a therapist and head of the Financial Therapy Association, the biggest reason parents offer adult children financial help is that they are struggling due to a job loss, divorce or the pursuit of a career path that’s meaningful, but not lucrative. Also high on the list: providing assistance to a child who is disabled or has special needs or is dealing with addiction or mental health issues.
The National's author has this advice for those who are not even-handed in handing out or leaving money to their grown kids:
"Talk about it with your family, explain what you want to do, why, and that you realise it affects everyone. You might be surprised with the different takes on what you’re proposing. And most importantly, talk about being fair. You want to be fair don’t you? Find out what that means to everyone, not just what it means to you."