We’ve been reading a lot of family stories lately. My grandfather’s short memoir is as good an American story as they come. His grandparents, who lived in a village in the northern Netherlands, basically couldn’t afford to feed his father. So when my great-grandfather was a boy, he rose at 5 a.m. to tend a local landowner’s sheep in order to earn his keep. When that sheep-tending young man had his own family, he decided to immigrate to the United States. My grandfather was 7 years old when they came through Ellis Island. Things did not go well instantly; my grandfather wound up leaving high school in order to work and help out with the family finances. He was very bright, though, and eventually got admitted to college provisionally without a high school degree.
It’s interesting how business-like he was about this in the memoir. He didn’t go on many dates; he didn’t have time. He needed to spend every minute studying to prove he belonged in college. But that choice had huge payoffs for his family. He became a minister, and then all his five children wound up becoming professionals with, eventually, upper middle class (or better) lives.
Things were tight for my parents when they were just starting out. They had my older brother shortly before my father started a PhD program. They were both gainfully employed by the time I came around, though they kept their frugal habits. I have plenty of memories of my mother clipping coupons and stuffing them in the envelope on which she would write her shopping list (it took me a while to realize that one could write shopping lists on forms of paper other than envelopes). It was a solidly middle class existence that got better over time.
My kids are growing up in a different world. It’s a world in which we spent spring break in the Netherlands last year, renting a lovely manor house, and seeing those northern villages where my ancestors hail from. It kind of blows my mind that my children are growing up spending spring breaks in Europe (and Disneyland, and Vail), though it brings up its own issues. Many issues.
In honor of April 15th, this will be “money week” on the blog, with a particular theme of money lessons I’d like to teach my kids. We’ve been amazingly blessed. Some of these blessings, however, complicate the normal lessons one might try to teach. As I was reminded reading (and reviewing) Ron Lieber’s book, The Opposite of Spoiled, “I won’t” is a more mushy statement than “I can’t.”
There’s been much in the news lately of middle class economic anxiety, and how it will wind up shaping the next election and subsequent policy. Key to feeling at least middle class, it seems, is a sense of economic stability, and the general belief that one’s kids will be able to do better than you.
I am grateful to feel economically secure. However, the question of whether my kids will be better or worse off is a complicated one. I imagine they’ll do fine, and one can always be surprised. Bill Gates Sr. was a very successful, well-to-do lawyer, and yet his son obviously outperformed him in the wealth department. Same with the Zuckerbergs. On the other hand, I don’t want to approach parenting with the expectation that my kids will have the same inclinations that my husband or I do. Maybe they won’t want to attend Ivy League schools. Maybe they’ll want to, but won’t get in. Maybe they’ll want to focus less time and attention on paid work, and optimize for other parts of life. Maybe one of them will want to pursue a life of contemplation that involves getting up early to tend sheep in a small village in northern Europe. Who knows? I want to still have good relationships with all of them regardless of these things. They are their own people.
Do you think your kids will be better off than you will? Are you better off than your parents and grandparents?