The question was as abrupt as it was surprising: "Do you help your kids out?" It came from a friend we've discussed money matters with before. Our answer was as brief as it was open-ended: "We do, but it depends."
The friend who asked the question, says he does not. "I believe in fostering independence. They have to stand on their own two feet." And yet, it's more complicated than that--for him and for us.
The issue that prompted his question was a recent request by his married daughter--a mother of two and a lawyer who has opted not to work full time. She had called dad and asked him for $1,000 to cover the costs of a trip to Los Angeles to be with her best friend whose mother had just died. Dad declined. "It would be nice for her to go," the dad told us, "but this is something she should pay for herself. My wife and I worked hard for our money"--dad and wife retired a year ago--"We're comfortable but we don't have that much."
Paterfamilias chimed right in. "It's not an emergency, it's not something she absolutely needs. I can understand turning her down."
The dad then went on to say he had just lent his son money to buy a boat. A boat! The son is prospering in his job and has long dreamed of owning a boat. He asked his dad for a loan so he can buy it now. A boat may have more physical substance than a trip to L.A. but it's not exactly a necessity. And could clearly fall under the category of something he should pay for himself. And yet, dad said yes, no hesitation. Why? The son has borrowed money from dad before; he has always paid it back--on time and in full. The daughter, it turns out, has also borrowed money from dad--and never paid it back. Her requests for money come with a sense of entitlement--at least that is the way dad interprets the requests.
In effect, dad is applying a business-like calculus to his children's requests for financial help: A loan, yes, but only if the credit rating has been maintained. A gift, maybe, depending on what it's for and how good the credit standing is.
Our calibration is slightly different: different children, different situations, different attitudes. Ours don't ask for help. It's only when we learn about a need that we pitch in. And we try to do it subtlely. Sometimes it's couched as a loan; sometimes, as an outright gift. But beneath it lies a similar calculus: How responsible are the life choices they've made? They may take a financially risky course but a responsible one in terms of doing something worthwhile. If that creates a fiscal need along the way, we'd rather help them out now then leave it to them later. But the bottom line is similar to that of our friend's: We need to feel they have a sense of responsibility and accountability. We wouldn't feel good about lending or giving our children money if we felt it would be frittered away on, say, a sports car or a Prada purse. Not that grown children don't have a right to those things--they do. But only if they can afford them on their own.
The conversation reminded me of a scene from a PBS version of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park: A married daughter runs off with another man, to the shock and opprobrium of her family. The father--wealthy man, of course; this is Jane Austen country--is livid. He refuses to welcome her into his home--but he will see to her comfort. For him, as for many of us a century later, however much the calculus swings against a grown child, we aren't going to let them face life's crueler side if we can afford it. Unless letting them face it is the only way they'll grow up.