Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Scary Economy and the Trick for Our Kids

This past month or two has hardly been a treat for our town and our country, to say the least. Reeling, frightened and cautious, most of us have had to cut back or cut out certain expenditures. As the grown-ups - many of who have lived through a recession or two in our lifetimes - we understand what is required to trim spending no matter how unhappy or uneasy (or both) it makes us. Our kids on the other hand, denied of "wants" for perhaps the first time in their lives, are shaking their heads: "Huh? What are you talking about?!"

Depending upon your level of wealth(and the majority of families here in New Canaan are in the upper end of the spectrum), your children have rarely had to do without the latest video game, piece of sporting equipment, footwear or fashion item, advanced piece of technology, etc. Sally needs a cell phone with numerous bells and whistles? No problem. Johnny has to have the newest version of X-Box? Why of course! Does Sara ask for $50 to purchase some must-have item along Elm Street? Consider it done. It's almost automatic. Maybe a lot of us did without during our childhood and so we want our children to have all or most of which we were unable. Probably a hefty percentage of kids age one to 21-ish feel entitled to whatever costly whim blows through their vision. And now, the gravy train has more than likely come abruptly to a screeching halt. The trick for us as parents is teaching them that less is not necessarily the end of and to their world, and that gravity can work in the reverse: What goes down can - and does eventually - go up again. They will live anew to wear $150-plus Nikes or the hottest Juicy Couture. Sometime. Just not necessarily now.

Our high school sophomore, Jess, had to settle for Target and H&M fashions to wear up at boarding school this year. We didn't even set foot inside Hollister or Abercrombie or even some of the more upscale (and coveted by her) stores in New Canaan. Her school often offers weekend trips to a local "movie-mall" and she has grown accustomed to phoning us up and asking that an extra $20 be immediately transferred into her debit account. After initial grumbling, Jon will pad over to the computer, granting her wish. She attempted this particular brand of phone call last weekend and was met with an unfamiliar "no." Jon calmly, but firmly, suggested that she needed to learn to budget the weekly $20 we already put into her account better: For instance, cut back on random junk food and yet another Jonas Brothers t-shirt for sale at the mall. Surely the 12-zillion you already posses are enough. I explained that the denied additional $20 didn't mean we were suddenly in danger of being in the poor house, but that expenses big and small needed to be pruned.

"We're not the only ones in town, honey," I reassured her. "Families all over the country need to tighten their belts a bit." And to her credit, she was sympathetic and decidedly un-whiny.

I think the key to calming our own fears, and the frustrations or anxieties of our children, is not to make drastic spending reductions (unless that is financially impossible). If our kids see us panic, well, they will certainly mimic that worry. But if we calmly curtail certain expenses while still allowing some treats it's perhaps more of a win-win situation between parent and child.

While the disposable income of many Americans is not as readily disposable, our children can still be made to feel that the shaky economy is not as mean a trick as it appears. They can learn to do their part in pruning expenses in small ways such as agreeing to rent - rather than buy - that hot, new video game, or helping with the electric bill by turning off lights, computers, televisions and game systems when not in use. My own two younger children - whose cell phones are not in perfect working order - are resigned to do their part and wait until Christmas for their upgrades and/or replacements. I was both shocked and impressed by them agreeing to delay their need for instant gratification; talk about a treat!

Wall Street has most likely (hopefully) blurted out its final "Boo!" So tomorrow night, when your child comes home laden with sweets, let them enjoy their abundance of riches. But not too much; safely saving a piece or two or three for a rainy day is always a good drill to teach. Because you never know...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Parenting Twenty-Somethings

"Having babies is fun, but babies grow up into people. "
~M*A*S*H, Colonel Potter

My oldest child is 25, a United States Marine, and for the moment is stationed at a base on the island of Okinawa. My second oldest son is 23, a "professional hobo," and as such doesn't live anywhere in particular; he just lights here and there throughout the United States. I never know where his thumb is taking him. But even if these two children of mine have long since fled the New Canaan nest, I still think, worry and wonder about each of them daily. Though one might think having a child in their 20's means the job as a parent is pretty much over, that's hardly the case. The parenting part is actually a bit trickier than it was long ago, in a childhood far, far away.
"Mothers do not know what to do when their children come of age... it's hard to find that they've moved on to build a life of their own. It's easy to feel rejected and lonely and to express those feelings by interfering in the life they (the child) are trying to build for themselves," states a website on family education. Although I may not be happy, for example, with Kenny's current lifestyle of living out of his backpack, I have to acknowledge that my hopes and dreams may not be his. As parents, our hopes and expectations are just that - ours. Acknowledging this is one thing, but acceptance of it with all of my being is something I find I must work on daily. I read Kenny's travel blog and I want to reach through the computer and shake him. Or we will have a conversation about where and what his next move may be and when I hang up my tongue is bloodied from biting it. Since his college graduation I have had to swallow the bitter pill that his agenda and mine are clearly not one and the same. I miss my power, as it were; my influence. Although perhaps I am not giving myself enough credit. There have been moments in both of my twenty-something sons' lives where they have turned to me for direction or input. I am the one they call first when successes - small or large - occur. It actually happens more with Kenny than with Blake, which -- given their different life experiences so far -- makes sense. Blake has certainly seen more in his 25 years than many adults see in their lifetimes. Three combat tours in Iraq will do that for a person. He has been on his own since high school graduation, existing under the wing of the military. Blake is always quick with the phrase: "I can handle it myself, mom." I suppose on many fronts that is true, and yet every so often I get that glimmer of my pre-Marine baby boy. The boy who needed my approval, helping hand or guidance, and shyly still does. It is so very odd to me to realize that Blake is only two years younger than I was when I gave birth to him. I remember how adult that life-changing event made me feel, yet also how frightened, young and uncertain. And so my mother came to stay with me for a few weeks before and after his birth, offering both that typical roll-your-eyes-behind-her-back type of advice, and also crucial and calming suggestions; the kind of motherly attention and affection every kid needs no matter what their age. There we were, the mother mothering the mother mothering the newborn child. I learned that there were- are - still plenty of opportunities to do some good mothering even when your child is north of age 20. Your adult child is going to make mistakes and will have to learn to live with and from them, often without turning to you for bail out. And although it doesn't pain us any less to see our child hurt at 22 then at two, there will be times when unsolicited pontificating is not the best course of action. Your goal as a parent at this stage in the game is to help your child feel empowered to take charge. That can be best accomplished if you make it clear that he or she always has a home and family to turn to when life gets tough. The "traumatic teens" have long passed for my older boys and have morphed into the "trials of the 20's." Their stuff is still in their room, clothes, gear and gadgets from their younger days untouched, hanging out in a closet or nestled in their dresser drawer. Both will be home for Christmas this year, a rare occurrence given Blake's career. They will pretend to chafe at my affection, but the slight pink blush that comes across their cheeks will remind me that I am still employed as their mother, even though I am not involved in their day-to-day actions as young adults.
Instant availability without continuous presence is probably the best role a parent can play.