Let them paddle their own canoes

November 5, 2010

Discover how to protect your retirement nest egg while instilling values in the next generation.

Instead, I calmly responded to my son's announcement. "David," I said, "it's fine with us if you want to take a break from school, but if you are going to live at home, you need a full-time job." At the time I didn't realize I should have added other rules, like turning in his family gas card or paying his own credit card bills.

After David had been home for a few months, I bought a book called Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children by Allison Bottke and realized that by enabling David, I could be leading him toward a disabling financial future. It wouldn't take long for him to lose motivation for making his own way. Yet I needed to better understand where to draw the line between helping my son and enabling him.

An enabler, on the other hand, is "a person who recognizes that a negative circumstance is occurring on a regular basis and yet continues to enable the person with the problem to persist in his [or her] detrimental behaviors. Simply, enabling creates an atmosphere in which our adult children can comfortably continue their unacceptable behavior." Many people think of enabling only in regards to drug addictions or alcoholism. However, enabling encompasses many other areas of life, including whether we're raising children to become independent, self-sustaining adults who experience the consequences of their own actions.

As a financial adviser, the enabling situations that I see begin and continue because of money-the parents have it and their children want it. I recently saw the 40-year-old son of one of my clients spend a 6-figure inheritance in less than 2 years, and now he's several years behind on his property and income taxes. Even though his son keeps asking him for help, the father wisely continues to say no, referring his son instead to professional credit counselors.

After 9 months of living at home and cutting grass at a local golf course, David decided to attend the National Outdoor Leadership School. Upon his return home, Betsy and I made a commitment to handle David's behaviors differently. We drew the line-he got another full-time job, and I collected both his gas card and his credit card. The result? He soon decided he didn't want to live at home and work a low-paying job for the rest of his life. The break from school showed him how most Americans live, and he realized that with the right education and dedication, he could have a better chance of success in life. David is now back in school full-time.

In her book, Bottke shares a saying that really resonates with me: "You can't paddle another man's canoe for him." Many of us have been paddling our adult children's canoes for too long, and if we're not careful, enabling our children financially may negatively impact our retirement lifestyles.

Although change can be agonizing, the long-term benefits definitely outweigh the pain, especially when it comes to protecting your retirement nest egg and passing along positive values to the next generation.

The author is a founding partner of Brightworth, a wealth management firm.

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