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Mothers of affluence: blessing or curse?

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 17 2012 4:33 p.m. MST

“Mom, are we rich?”

“Oh, well, no dear.”

The child's eyebrows raise and the woman follows his gaze around the comfortably decorated dining room, the heavily draped large windows, the leather upholstered chairs and gleaming broad table. His eyes come to rest on his after-school snack, a pile of delicious out-of-season fruits coupled with gourmet meats, cheeses and crackers. He looks back up at his mother, confusion battling disbelief in his expression.

“I mean, yes, we are,” she tries to amend quickly, “but not really rich, that is…”

As strange as it may seem, this scenario is not uncommon, and this mother’s lack of a clear answer is pretty ordinary too. What is it about parents' financial success and teaching children about it that makes these conversations so awkward? Should you feel guilty, proud or embarrassed about achieving monetary prosperity? How do parents help their children to understand that the family is “financially wealthy” without it affecting them negatively or causing them to feel entitled?

These are all common questions. Mothers of affluence have a unique opportunity to shape how their children feel about financial success and how comfortable the children are in all things dealing with money. Mothers need to be mothers of influence in how they engender the concept of money and attitudes towards it in the minds of children.

It is common for mothers to struggle in knowing how to handle these early conversations about money. Fathers struggle with them too, but mothers have a unique opportunity to influence children. Let me offer a few tips.

Carefully determine what it means to be “wealthy.” You might consider broadening your definition of “wealth” to include things that are not quantified in dollars and cents. One example is to be relationship rich. Do you have people around you that love and care about you and have the ability to help you to become successful in life? If you do, you should consider yourself wealthy from a relationship perspective.

Another example is spiritual wealth. Do you know who you are and do you have a personal relationship with God? If you do, you might consider yourself spiritually wealthy. Defining wealth only in terms of things with cash value is short-sighted and cannot provide the depth of understanding that your children need to have healthy concepts concerning true wealth and plain old money. Too many people who consider themselves rich are impoverished in many ways.

Define what money represents to you. As a mother, you have many opportunities to speak to your children about money and what it means. As you become intentional about seeking opportunities to “define your money,” you will find that your children will absorb those teachings.

Example: If you always need the newest car in the neighborhood or the most fashionable clothes, you are defining your money as a status symbol or a measuring stick against others. You may not ever say that is what money means to you, but you are teaching it. At the same time, if you include your children in charitable giving from a young age, you are teaching them that an important context money has in your life is the good that can be done with it.

Mothers should take every opportunity to express what money represents and what role it fulfills for their family. Get intentional about defining your money before it defines you.

Think of money as a magnifier. To magnify is “to enlarge in fact or appearance.” As you think about money, this is exactly what it is: It simply enlarges in fact or appearance what attitudes, ideas and intentions already exist. Money is not inherently good or evil; it is simply a tool of facilitating transactions.

Consider how money might be a magnifier for good. A child who learns to share is more likely to be a good corporate citizen when he or she is wealthy and grown. A child who is taught to “take what you eat and eat what you take” is less likely to misuse or under-appreciate resources as an adult. A child who witnesses random acts of anonymous generosity from his parents toward neighbors and even strangers has been pretrained in the art of charitable giving.

Lessons learned as a child are often forever imprinted on an individual’s personality. Childhood experiences like conspiring to be “secret elves” for the less fortunate at Christmas will have a lasting effect. Will more money change a person from good to bad? It’s not likely, but money correctly applied can magnify the amount of good that person is able to accomplish. How is your money a magnifier for good?

A child raised with a “scarcity mentality" is more likely to become a hoarder of wealth, never believing that he or she has enough. The child that does not learn how to work, and is given credit cards and cellphones with no limits or account- ability, will likely squander riches during his or her mature years. The disease of entitlement has been known to wither away large sums of money and cause destruction in the best of families. Will money change a person from bad to good? It’s not likely, but money poorly applied can magnify character flaws. How is your money a magnifier for bad and how might you change that?

Teach children where wealth comes from. A clear understanding of how a family has achieved financial success is crucial. It takes hard work, ingenuity and some sacrifice to achieve anything significant. It is also valuable to remind children that all success is a blessing from God. The talents and abilities that we have are all gifts from him. As we help our children to view success in the proper context, they will not need to be embarrassed about it, but they will be grateful and become conscientious stewards of whatever financial blessings they have.

Teach them to love to work. As parents, we desire to give our kids “more than we had.” Why is this our natural instinct? Is more always better? More toys, more vacations, more material things are not always better. Perhaps because we want our children to be more (that is, better) than we are, we assume that giving them more things or experiences will make that come to pass. An unintentional yet destructive Trojan Horse.

Many families that have become financially wealthy have done so with great sacrifice and work. Many times parents subconsciously try to make up for time away or missing important activities with their children by showering them with gifts or requiring them to not work. This is guilt-driven and terribly destructive.

Teaching opportunities regarding work are sometimes foregone for more playtime and the very attributes that made a person successful are lost on the next generation. A strong work ethic is one of the most valuable gifts a parent can give a child.

So is being financially wealthy a blessing or a curse? You decide. It just depends on how you approach it. As mothers get intentional about thinking and talking about money with children, it is more likely that financial wealth will be a blessing. Don’t be defined by your money. You define what true wealth really is and teach that to your children.

Dave Specht is professor of family business management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He also owns Advising Generations LLC, a multi-generational family-business consulting firm. Dave is a speaker and writer on the topic. www.davespecht.com

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