Tending the Garden

Phil Dawson

WE HAVE A HARDWIRED biological incentive to promote the wellbeing of our kids, so that the family line will continue. This is the selfish gene in action. Yet modern human behavior suggests that the wiring may be at least a little faulty—for three key reasons.

Environmental. Our domination of natural resources continues to create tremendous improvements in global wealth, but it sometimes comes at the expense of the only confirmed habitable space that’s practical for our species.

To some extent, this is unavoidable. Even the most ardent and noisy environmentalists I know aren’t advocating a return to the days before cheap energy and the attendant conditions, when people were rid of their teeth by age 25 and worked to death 10 years later. Still, we are the only stewards of our lonely planet, and it’s a delicate balancing act. Environmental sustainability must be achieved for our children to succeed and prosper.

Cultural. Over the past 400 years, Western thought and culture have laid a foundation for the incomprehensible quality of life we enjoy today. Our shared values have allowed individual freedom and wealth to flourish. A brief look at world history in the 20th century will show that when wealth inequality is eliminated, misery is universal—but when wealth inequality is unchecked, the pillars that support civil society can become very unstable. Either outcome is catastrophic to peace and prosperity. We must tend the cultural roots that sustain our quality of life.

Financial. It has been said that wealth carries the seeds of its own destruction. Thomas Stanley and William Danko wrote about what they called “economic outpatient care” in their classic The Millionaire Next Door. They noted that adult children receiving parental financial support often lacked the knowledge and motivation that enabled their parents to succeed and prosper. If we’re too generous in helping our children’s financial wellbeing, there’s a grave risk our efforts will backfire.

Which begs the question, “What should we leave to our kids?” There are four items on my growing list:

  1. Teach your children self-reliance. As a parent, sometimes the easiest thing to do is give your children what they need. This may be appropriate in some cases, particularly when they’re young. But for them to grow past bottles and diapers, parents must allow their children to explore and gain experience from bad judgment. Their struggle may be hard to watch, but it’s necessary for the learning and growth of any healthy person.
  2. Teach your children gratitude. It’s easy to take running water, the ever-present electrical grid and modern medicine for granted. This is especially true for those of us who have never known a world without these things. But these things exist due to the great effort and sacrifice of many people, past and present. If your kids think they live in a world of grievance and oppression, a few weeks in Haiti should do the trick.
  3. Teach your children joy. How many times have you seen entire families sitting together in a public space, well-dressed in the midst of abundance, each person very alone with their mobile device? This is a relatively new phenomenon and we are just beginning to learn the desperate psychological effects of our disconnectedness. With a little help, children can learn early on to find joy in the natural world, in connection with others and in doing hard things.
  4. Teach your children generosity. We all need to be reminded of our responsibility to create a brighter future. We don’t exist to demand rights, happiness or self-esteem. Your children can learn to bring meaning to their lives by seeking and accepting this responsibility—and by investing in the lives of others.

If our kids are properly grounded, any assets we leave them can be a blessing. But that grounding—financial and otherwise—is unlikely to happen by accident.

When not paddling, biking or shooting, Phil Dawson provides technical services for a global auto manufacturer. He, his sweetheart Donna and their four extraordinary daughters live in and around Jarrettsville, Maryland. His previous articles include When Brokers FailFinancially Fit and Fighting for Peace. You can contact Phil via LinkedIn.

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