It can be very difficult to give your children financial wisdom if you don’t start from the get-go. I need to set the scene a bit here. I wrote this post almost three years ago. It’s about my 2nd daughter who was at that time a 17-year old with a big sense of entitlement. My husband and I were just starting the painful process of asserting strong, unified boundaries to put to an end what had been an extremely difficult time. As a relatively new blogger, I made the big mistake of posting this article before seeking my daughter’s consent. She read it and was upset – understandably. I rewrote it so that it was a more general piece. But I kept the original. And this week, she gave me permission to post it.
There will be two parts to this story. Today, you’ll read about “Before”. Next Thursday, you’ll read about “After”. Do you have teens who are challenging you beyond your limits? Take heart. You’re not alone. Don’t give up on your child or yourself.
DD2 = Dear Second Daughter
DD3 = Dear Third Daughter
DH = Dear Husband
Atwood on Debt: Berne’s “Try and Collect” Debtor
“Scientists tell us that rats . . . will give themselves painful electric shocks rather than endure prolonged boredom . . . there’s the thrill that accompanies risky behaviour . . . Whatever else debt may be, it can also – it seems – have entertainment value, even for the debtor himself” (Atwood, 83 & 86). Margaret Atwood’s 2008 book Payback gives pause for thought.
One part of it that hits close to home for me is her focus on Eric Berne’s book, Games People Play, published in 1964. “Debtor”, according to Berne, is one of those games, and players go about it differently. Most of us play the game “Debtor” fairly. We follow the rules and strive to pay every cent. Berne identifies another type of player – a cheating player – whom he calls “Try and Collect”. This cheater avoids paying back the creditor and often causes the creditor to give up – resulting in a win for “Try and Collect.” On the other hand, the creditor might get aggressive use the law to get payment from the cheater. In such cases, “The debtor can then position himself as a put-upon victim and paint the creditor as a truly bad person who, because of his badness, does not deserve to be paid. The obtaining of goods on credit, the avoidance of payment, the thrill of the chase, the anger at the creditor, and the acting out of victimhood all come with their own jolt-of-brain-chemical rewards . . .” (Atwood, 85).
It seems strange to me that people would feel victimized at having to fulfill their end of a bargain, but in my own extended adolescence, I did just that in relation to my parents. I played the “Try and Collect” role, often with victory. And when there was insistence on their part, I felt genuinely victimized. What’s with that?
DD2 and the “bride doll”
They say what goes around comes around, and DD2 has been a more stubborn version of my old “Try and Collect” self. I believe her tactics were established the day we went shopping together twelve years ago for a birthday party. With DD3 attached to me in an infant sling, the hand of my strong-willed five-year-old pulled me towards a display of porcelain dolls. I allowed her to select the doll she wanted to give to the birthday girl, and I picked it up, ready to make the purchase. DD2 then flew into a tantrum. It was no fair for Erin to get a porcelain doll unless she got one too! “I want it! Ahhh!” she screamed. “It” was the bride doll, and soon everyone in the store knew it. I felt the vulnerability typical of a baby-toting mom with a screaming young child in a store. Embarrassed shoppers looked away; irritated shoppers cast cold glances my way. You already know what I did. I came out of the store with two dolls that day. One was a bride.
A pattern of enabling
DD2 learned a valuable lesson: Raise enough of a fuss and you get what you want. By the time she reached adolescence, she had honed her skill in this area to a debilitating finesse. I won’t go into detail but will simply say that we have passed through a very dark phase of parenting. Any sense of being a competent mother left me as I navigated this hostile territory, shell-shocked and lost. The endless conversations/arguments with DH; the volumes of reading on parenting teens; the professional counseling we sought – it all came down to the need for us (mainly me) to establish boundaries as a unified team. Battles were raging on every front, and so we had to choose our “hill to die on”. It was the only one we had the power to hold: the hill of money matters.
Cell phone battles
Combined with her willfulness, DD2 has an alarming disregard for the laws of addition and subtraction when it comes to finances. Money has a very short lease in her bank account, wallet, pocket. Debts are ignored. Wants are endless. And there’s no sense of connection between income and expenditure. A credit card in her hands would be a disaster. DD2 purchased a cell phone as soon as she got her first part-time job. The agreement was that she would pay the monthly fees associated with her plan. But it didn’t matter what the agreement was. “Nicky’s parents pay for her cell phone!” “Why doesn’t Dad make more money?” “We’re so different from other families!” “Why did you ever become parents?” You get the idea. As this was our chosen hill, we didn’t let up. If she didn’t pay the monthly bill for the cell phone, we had it frozen – and there was weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. DD2 has a much stronger will than her mother, and she’s not encumbered by my aversion to conflict. She’s armed with a keen perception of buttons to push, and a brilliance in pushing them with killing precision. She had it over me big time. But I stood on that hill and I died those deaths. And right now, I can’t remember when our last battle over a monthly cell phone bill happened. It’s been that long.
Idea of joint account, surprising acceptance & unexpected reason why
DD2 will be starting university this September, and we really don’t want her to fall into the trap of student debt. This summer, DH and I decided that in order to help set her up for financial success, we would need to share a joint account with her. That way, we could enforce savings that would see her through her university years debt-free. The challenge lay in presenting this idea to her. I prepared myself to die a familiar but still dreaded death. We called DD2 to the kitchen table, and I explained with apparent calm strength our plan to set up a joint account and to put aside savings from her income. She said “OK”. We were stunned. Instead of death on our hill, we faced peaceful acceptance.
About half-an-hour later, when I was on the phone, DD2 came into my room saying she needed to talk to me about something really important. She was visibly tense, and so I got off the phone. “I got a tattoo,” she told me. She’d had it for three days. She knew I wouldn’t approve, but she justified its positive message (written in Latin no less) and its fine appearance. My astonishment at her apprehension rendered me speechless. How had I earned the power to inspire it? She must have interpreted my silence as disapproval because she kept up a stream of justifications. It hadn’t cost much. She had paid for it all. She wouldn’t regret it as she grew older. I finally said that although I didn’t like tattoos in general, it was her choice. Her relief was strong and immediate – and perplexing to me, indicating as it did the level of her anxiety. But this humility was short-lived. Walking out of the room, she said with customary sass, “You’re lucky I didn’t get a tramp stamp.” As if I knew what that was.
So DD2’s acceptance of the joint account and enforced savings resulted from her desire to pave the way for our acceptance of her tattoo. Go figure.
It sounds simple: “Don’t give children what they want just because they raise a fuss.” But so does, “Don’t spend money unless you have it.” And yet most of us are in debt. Dave Ramsey says that the road out of debt is simple but not easy; it’s tough. That goes double for parenting. I have reason to hope that we’ve hit bottom and are coming up to new levels of harmony in our relationship with DD2. And I allow myself to envision our head-strong daughter getting her “jolt-of-brain-chemical rewards” from feats of wisdom in money matters. It’s happened for me. And they say that what goes around comes around.
Your (respectful) comments are welcome. I’ve shared a glimpse into a personally tough and sensitive time with the belief that some of you will be able to relate and perhaps find support in it.