Review – The Medici

The Medici: Power, Money and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance

by Paul Strathern, published 2017

The history of the Medici family might best be summarized with the phrase “from dust to dust.” As if to emphasize how they were destined for greatness and nobility, the family started out as a bunch of Tuscan hillbillies who could trace their lineage to a legendary knight of the Holy Roman Empire who settled near Florence in the 8th or 9th Century. From there and then, no one heard much of these people until some of the clan moved into Florence proper in the early 1300s and formed a small money-changing business.

Using conservative business practices and investing in roles of civic responsibility, eventually a Medici was elected to the position of gonfaloniere, the primus inter pares of the Florentine Republic. From this position the dice were carefully loaded in the favor of subsequent Medici generations by artfully forming governing coalitions that cemented their public position while creating leverage across their business and investment portfolio through the tactical use of subsidy, official privilege, insider information and regulatory capture wielded against competitors and opponents.

The story of the “overnight success” of the Medici begins here. The first great head of the Medici family and Medici bank, Giovanni de Medici, had jockeyed for favor with the newly appointed (anti-)Pope John XXIII in order to secure a role as the personal banker to the Papal Curia upon his ascendancy, which was then granted. For much of the 14th Century and Renaissance period in general, the papal revenues and banking needs were equivalent to managing the treasury function for the modern era’s most wealthy and complex multi-national corporations. To gain this trust was not only a measure of unique esteem valuable in and of itself, but a responsibility that carried with it priceless information and irreplaceable business franchises throughout European Christendom and even the Levant.

However, Pope John XXIII soon became embroiled in the Great Schism in which he and 2 other rival popes were called before the Holy Roman Emperor and summarily dismissed, to be replaced with his appointment, Pope Martin V. At his son Cosimo’s urging (whom he had sent to be his representative at the delegation attending the papal conference) the Medici’s continued to support the defrocked pope, even helping to pay his ransom for his release from imprisonment. Rather than being a financial disaster, this loyal support of the former pope led to a new lucrative banking relationship under Martin V, because in return for bartering his release the former Pope John XXIII agreed to support the nomination of Martin V and participate in the reconciliation of the Schism, leading to greater legitimacy for the new pope.

As a major political player on top of his business responsibilities, Giovanni left three apocryphal warnings for his descendants:

  1. focus on business, not politics
  2. do not be ostentatious
  3. don’t oppose popular will, unless it is aimed at disaster

It seems as if it should be unnecessary to say that in time this advice was forgotten and eventually, so, too, were the Medici.

But the dissolution of the Medici was a ways away yet. After Giovanni came Cosimo as head of the family and the Medici bank. He faced a disastrous and unpopular war between Florence and Lucca (backed by Milan) which threatened to ruin the Florentine treasury and which had pitted the various leading families against one another. Subscribing to Rule #3, Cosimo opposed the conduct of the war and worked to hide the bank’s assets outside of Florence to avoid expropriation in the war’s aftermath.

For these maneuvers and others, Cosimo was recalled to Florence and imprisoned in the bell tower of the Palazzo Vecchio by a faction led by the rival Albizzi who had plans to execute him for treachery. However, Cosimo’s far flung banking business and participation in the geopolitics of Western Europe had led him to a series of alliances and power relationships with foreign entities such as the Venetian Republic and the Papal States which he utilized to create a kind of diplomatic protection for himself, pressuring his enemies to choose exile over execution as his fate.

In the meantime, he used bribes and the threat of invasion of the city by his own mercenary forces outside its walls to add to the diplomatic pressure and engineer a favorable outcome for himself, all while behind bars.

Shaken but not stirred, Cosimo came to rule Florence through the intervention of the Pope and Venice, but vowed that “he would rule, but he would not be seen to rule” going forward. He had learned his lesson about bearing personal responsibility when it came to matters of state. Further, he was coming to understand that it was easier to wield power when others weren’t watching.

According to one supporter, “Whenever he wished to achieve something, he saw to it, in order to escape envy as much as possible, that the initiative appeared to come from others and not from him.” One policy he pushed for through his crony network was the use of the “catasto”, which had originally been levied to pay for the war, as a punitive tool to crush his political and business opponents through ruinous taxation. While he was forcing his enemies into exile to avoid financial ruin, purchasing and redistributing their former property to his supporters on a bargain basis, he simultaneously used inflated personal balance sheets to hide his income and appear to be bearing the heaviest personal tax burden on a relative basis.

But Cosimo was far from poor:

Between 1434 and 1471, Cosimo spent 663,755 gold florins supporting public works, by comparison, total assets of the Peruzzi bank at its height were 103,000 florins from Western Europe to Cyprus and Beirut.

If he was able to spend 6X the total assets of a well-known competitor at the height of its powers on public works, his total assets and wealth must have been a multiple of that amount. Normal banking and family secrecy aside, the Medici wealth at this time seems to have been nearly incalculable. It is no wonder, then, that one of Cosimo’s key strategies in building and wielding power was to always return favors with favors.

Following Cosimo, who was once to have said that “Trade brings mankind together, and casts glory on those who venture into it” his son Piero and Piero’s son, Lorenzo began to venture the family increasingly beyond the scope of banking and business and into the realm of politics and social standing via nobility. Depending upon how you interpret the events that followed, Piero and Lorenzo were either some of the most “magnificent” leaders of the Medici banking and political enterprises or they were equivalent to the decadent dissipators of the true talent and generational thrift of their greater ancestors.

Either way, the local power of the Medici in and around Florence was successively traded for inter-regional power and influence within the royal families of Europe. As the Medici gained a queen mothership in France, they lost their rule over the Florentine Republic to foreign invasion and intervention and increasingly squandered the capital of their banking and related enterprises. By the early 18th Century the Medici had failed to produce a male heir and had ceded their Grand Duchy of Florence to the Holy Roman Emperor and ceased to be a meaningful business or political entity forever.

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Review – The Bonfire Of The Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities

by Tom Wolfe, published 1987

During a these days rare dinner with friends our conversation turned to the time men spend away from home and their families, working their jobs. In this era it has become fashionable for women to work jobs and make money as men do, but save for a few standouts who are either childless outliers or work from pure necessity due to a failed relationship and mounting obligations, women do not “work as men do.” They don’t spend as much time at it and they certainly are not existentially defined by it. You may fall on either side of this line in your suppositions and beliefs, but where I fall is that this is the nature of man and woman.

In this role of provider, of striver, it becomes difficult if not impossible for a man to dissociate himself from his work such that he can stand independently apart from it without falling down on top of himself. He can always find a way to justify spending just a little bit more time at the office, or networking on the golf course, or catching up on emails after hours and so on, rather than reading to his kids or helping with household chores or kissing his wife on the forehead. Not because he’s trying to shirk his “duties” — far from it, for a man’s duty is to work! — but because in so prioritizing his time he is more fully expressing and embodying himself and defining who he is through his productive ambition.

There are two terrifying prospects then for men– to have no productive work to throw oneself into, or worse, to have work that doesn’t matter, to the man, to his family and to the world.

“Bonfire” is a story of the undoing of many characters. Great and small, main characters and side acts alike, each person is ultimately undone in this story in various dreadful ways, like the cuckolded Arthur Ruskin who succumbs in a plate of his fancy food at a French-dining scene. But the most terrible undoing of all, at least as far as a man is concerned, is the undoing of Sherman McCoy.

The major drama of the story follows McCoy in the criminal aftermath of his hit-and-run in the Bronx. But this drama serves only to distract the unobservant reader from the more existential moment when McCoy tries to explain to his six year-old daughter what he does for a living. In that moment, he learns that his work is inexplicable and meaningless.

Though touted by himself and others as a “Master of the Universe” at a major bond trading firm, Sherman McCoy comes to the understanding that he is at best a lowly salesman and at worst a janitor. He makes his money by trying to convince other people to buy and sell things and the residual value of these transactions, though large in absolute terms to an individual, are nonetheless like so many “golden crumbs” to be swept up from the table or floor of even more gluttonous organizations and actors.

Although seemingly talented, good at what he does and maybe even in a sense born to do it, it is essentially menial work and McCoy is replaceable, not strategic. He experiences this fact tangibly when, as his personal drama percolates, he witnesses the ways in which his former world goes on happily without him. This is the truly crushing blow for him, when he begins to have trouble sleeping and contemplates an existential way out of his misery.

Though cast as a social satire and an attack on financial hotshots and others of privilege, the book is perhaps better understood as a warning to men in general. That warning might be to anchor your work in your self and not to anchor your self in your work; as long as you are alive you will have your self, but you may not always have your work, at least in the way you’ve always understood it.

Review – American Icon

American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company

by Bryce Hoffman, published 2013

As I read this book, three questions ran through my mind. The first question was “Was Ford Motor Company worth saving?”, the second question was “What do we mean by ‘save’ and what would have happened to Ford Motor Company if the effort was unsuccessful?” and the final question was “Why was Ford savable but GM and Chrysler were not?” But before I share my thoughts on those three questions I will try to summarize my understanding of how Alan Mulally did it.

Prior to being headhunted for the CEO role at Ford, Alan Mullaly had not spent any time in the international or US auto industries. While he had a nostalgic interest in Ford products rooted in his childhood memories like many Americans of his generation, Mullaly was an aeronautical engineer by education and trade and had made his name climbing the ranks of Boeing’s commercial aviation division. He was known as an able executive manager from that experience but many people inside the company and in the wider business world were skeptical that he’d be able to make an impact without understanding the unique intricacies of Ford’s automotive operations.

Besides questions about the applicability of his experience and skillset, Mulally faced the problem of the “bench”– by recruiting an outsider to run the company, Bill Ford was signaling that there was no one within the company who was up to the task. Further, there was a belief within the company and shared by other business strategists that Ford’s culture was broken and it couldn’t be fixed by continuing to employ the very leaders who were responsible for it being what it was. People expected Mulally to come in and make a number of dramatic public executions but no one could predict how he’d repopulate the executive ranks with fresh faces when the company was going through a crisis and faced a nightmare in attracting talent to a sinking ship.

Mulally’s solution, then, was both simple and unexpected. He treated his lack of industry knowledge as irrelevant in favor of installing proven management practices he developed at Boeing; and he endeavored to let the individual members of the leadership team come to their own conclusions as to whether they had what it took to change the culture and save the company– he created a new standard for performance and accountability and expected everyone to rise to the occasion or else fold under the pressure and leave on their own.

The cornerstone of his management practice was a weekly business plan review held on Thursdays with the global leadership team. Each VP was asked to run through a number of preformatted slides and color-coded KPIs in front of their peers, indicating the state of their operations against plan and projected five years out. The goal of the meetings was to publicly acknowledge challenges and to generate awareness that could lead to group problem-solving in follow-up special review meetings. Bringing visibility to problems created opportunities for the team to consider solutions that might originate outside a specific operating unit and it also allowed them to avoid compounding mistakes by adjusting operating plans in light of new challenges in related divisions.

This practice addressed one part of the corporate governance problem Ford had. The other part was addressed by restructuring roles and divisions themselves. Mulally implemented a matrix approach to management hierarchy and reporting which not only increased the number of VPs reporting directly to him, solving the problem of information silos or lack of accountability through problems hidden by bureaucracy, but it also organized more functions on a per-project basis which increased the likelihood of successful resource coordination within the boundaries of the project.

When most people think about strategy, they think about competitive strategy meaning what kinds of decisions does the company make with regard to its customers or its competition? But there is another layer of strategy which is often more important in a very large, very complex organization such as Ford, which is corporate strategy– how will the internal resources of the company be organized to maximize scale, efficiency and coordination? Mulally definitely made adjustments to Ford’s competitive strategy (such as his insight that their product lineup was too complex and fractured and needed to be radically simplified to fewer competitive models, or his commitment to raise the quality and durability of Ford’s products) but it appears the biggest impact was made through his corporate strategy rooted in new corporate governance initiatives.

Every social organization faces coordination problems. Without successfully solving these coordination problems, which are unique to each entity based upon its history, size and competitive position, there is chaos inside the company which results inwardly in waste and outwardly in a weakened competitive position. It is therefore entirely possible that something as simple as creating more effective meetings (which increase the quantity and quality of information-sharing across the organization, improving coordination) and restructuring roles and responsibilities (which empowers the “right” people to act on certain information, or else creates new responsibility for action that otherwise did not exist) can have a dramatic impact on the fortunes of a multi-billion enterprise.

Of course there were other key initiatives that took place either at Mulally’s behest or on his watch which played critical roles in how the story turned out, including a major renegotiation of the company’s union contracts as well as a massive refinancing of the company’s debt and capital structure. But from my reading of the text, these things would’ve at best given the company a bit more rope with which to hang itself. Fixing corporate governance and leveraging the company’s corporate strategy was the real coup de grace that Mulally delivered. For an amateur executive manager such as myself it is both inspiring and a bit unnerving to think of how poorly managed so many major and minor enterprises alike are given this insight.

Now that I’ve offered my interpretation of how Mulally pulled it off, let’s explore the three higher level questions I wondered about as I was reading. I’ll take them in reverse order.

The book doesn’t make it clear why Ford could be saved while GM and Chrysler could not. (Along the lines of the “rope to hang with” logic, while Ford had an incipient existential crisis aggravated by the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, GM and Chrysler remained happily/deludedly oblivious to their own until the GFC arrived.) One answer might be that Ford still had significant private family ownership while GM and Chrysler had already been converted into unfamiliar, faceless corporate automatons by that point and so there was no individual impetus to save them. This reason, if true, represents a different kind of corporate governance problem that extends into the realm of social governance.

Another reason might be that GM’s and Chrysler’s problems were too deep. Even if someone was aware they needed saving, and wanted to save them, they couldn’t be. It would’ve been futile. So no one even tried. A final argument I considered is based upon scarcity. There was only one Alan Mulally in the world, he could only save one legacy American automobile manufacturer and so once he was called upon to save Ford there was no one left for the other two. I consider this to be the least likely circumstance but it could be true.

In any case, it might not be an important question to answer. We might consider why in trying to answer the second question, “What do we mean by ‘save’ and what would’ve happened if the effort was unsuccessful?” Things get sticky here. If Ford Motor Company collapsed, as many American and international nameplates collapsed over the years ahead of it, life would go on just as it did when the others fell. Some of the physical assets, such as plants and parts inventory, would be purchased by surviving manufacturing entities and others would be scrapped or abandoned. Some employees (and managers) would find work in the same field under different ownership and others would find work in new fields unrelated to automotive. Some of the brands, technology and IP of the company might be purchased by third parties and in that way the Ford brand might be “kept alive” indefinitely. Or it may have been the case that a failure of that magnitude killed the value of this historic franchise and the Blue Oval would be buried for good.

If anything Ford did had value and utility in the marketplace, it would likely continue to have such value and utility whether “Ford” was responsible for producing it or not. And to the extent it did not (in whole or in part) there’s really no reason why such activity should continue under Ford’s aegis if it wouldn’t under anyone else’s. Nostalgia by itself is only worth so much and it turns out that is not very much.

So “saving” Ford really means keeping a certain collection of assets under the control of a certain collection of financial and management interests and retaining certain contracts with employees and a certain ecosystem of vendors and distributors. There’s nothing magic or eternal to this and the evidence for this fact is contained by the knowledge that Ford itself had agglomerated into itself other foreign brands such as Volvo, Mazda and Jaguar-Land Rover. If some brands can die and others can live on under Ford’s ownership, certainly something similar could happen to the Ford brand and organization without cosmic repercussions. The dramatic tension of the story loses a bit of gusto when we consider all of this.

The final question is a moral question. It implies a “should”. Should Ford Motor Company have been saved? Asking about its worth begs the question “Worth to whom?” And you could insert many answers there: its employees, its suppliers, its customers, politicians with Ford operations in their districts, “society” at large, and so on. But because Ford Motor Company is and was a public company owned by a collection of shareholders and operated with the intent of earning a profit and thereby generating wealth, I want to focus this question on the members of the Ford family, who were its controlling shareholders and thus primarily responsible for the strategic governance of the company.

The book makes it clear that aside from Bill Ford and one or two other direct descendants of Henry Ford, the Ford family as shareholders were not deeply involved in the management or operations of the company and in fact many of them might be what are politely termed “trust fund layabouts.” That is, many of the existing Ford family members did little through their own efforts to contribute to the enhancement of the value of the Ford Motor Company nor any other personal enterprise they might be associated with and instead enjoyed a comfortable life of easy wealth and leisure thanks to the luck of being born into an inheritance.

Personally, I see no moral evil in that, though many people do. Some people will be rich and some people will be poor and the fact that some people are rich simply because they had a successful relative isn’t their fault. If anything, we should protect these privileges as a social obligation because the wealth they enjoy was rightfully created by one of their heirs and that individual, because they created it, has every right to do whatever it is they want to do with it up to and including giving it away to charity, giving it away to relatives or burying physical manifestations of it in a giant pit.

That being said, because it is not a moral evil for them to have it it’s also not a moral evil for them to lose it. They’re certainly not entitled to it and they don’t seem to have any real capability to make anything out of it beyond a means of personal amusement. Why Ford Motor Company should be “saved” to protect them from the follies of the world is a question with no objective answer. If it wasn’t them who owned this wealth it would be someone else, so why worry so much if their ownership claim dissolves in a pool of historical mismanagement and transfers to some other person or persons with a better idea of what to do with it? That sounds like progress, to me.

In fact, it sounds not just like progress, but like Thomas Jefferson. We might but repurpose a few words from his famous correspondence to have something rather fitting for this occasion, as seen here:

What signify a few fortunes lost in a century or two? The tree of economy must be refreshed from time to time with the wealth of trust fund layabouts & shiftless public shareholders. It is its natural manure.

More Thoughts On Silver Spoon Kids

The following are more thoughts and notes from our reading of Silver Spoon Kids.

When you die, you will leave behind your money but most importantly your values; which will be most important to your children and their quality of life? It seems a major mistake many financially successful families make is they spend all their time and energy trying to provide the first resource and give little if any attention to the latter. As the parent of one friend quipped about the inheritance he planned to leave behind, “I’ve done my part.” And as my friend observed, “What does that mean, and what are we supposed to do about it?”

According to the authors, there are five primary ingredients to consider if one endeavors to raise responsible, emotionally healthy affluent children:

  1. demystify money
  2. understand fundamental psychological principles of human development
  3. clarify concept of personal values (parent)
  4. parents’ relationship with money
  5. money messages that are modeled for children

Money itself is not “the problem”, but rather the problem is money unaccompanied by values.

A generational problem that faces families whether they are financially successful or not, but which is especially easy to overlook as important for the affluent, is that all parents face different sets of challenges; strategies that may have been appropriate (with money) in one set of circumstances may be damaging when affluence is a factor. So it isn’t enough for parents who struggled to make money to leave their kids with the same attitudes and perspectives they had before they had money, and it also isn’t enough to assume that just doing the opposite, or worse, scolding, terrifying or otherwise being neglectful towards children with regards to money, is going to address the issue.

Passing on values from parent to child requires repeated interactions over many years and some families don’t have (or make) time for this repetition. If the getting of money is demonstrated to be a more important value for a family than the coming together to talk about its meaning, guess what the children learn from that? Guess what children learn from any parent who is not present? Answer: whatever the hell they want, and nothing good. You can not parent from a distance.

Engaging in real conversations with real people (like their parents) is how kids mature emotionally and become socialized. It isn’t realistic to expect children to become reasonable and responsible about money without an example of reasonable, responsible attitudes about money being modeled for them that they can interact with. Affluent or otherwise, kids need their parents to be their for them to grow up right. This is a fundamental principle of child development.

Consistency of routines and experiences is a big part of transmitting values and socializing children effectively, ie, taking the same family vacation to the same place each summer (depth rather than breadth). So it’s less important WHERE you vacation or HOW you vacation but rather THAT you vacation, and that you do that over and over again so children can count on it and grow through the experience.

One goofy example from the book that stood out to me as a mistake not to make in terms of prioritizing values: a well-to-do family found their “dream house” early on in the family formation process. In order to afford this “dream house”, mom had to go back to work and earn an income outside the home. Somehow she was able to make enough to help make the mortgage AND to hire an au pair to help look after the kids. The result: a beautiful home empty of a real family to live inside of it. This is putting the cart before the horse. The author’s didn’t say this but that is my read on the situation.

Another point raised in the book is that lecturing kids about money isn’t effective. Besides the fact that no one likes being lectured to and few tune-in for such treatment, the simple fact is that the transmission of values requires repeated interactions with multiple nuances on the same subject for the knowledge of the observer to become intuitive. Kids take their cues from thousands of interactions with you, from listening to what you say and observing what you do in a wide variety of situations. It is the furthest thing from a “one and done” Birds & Bees-type conversation to get habits, disciplines and attitudes about money across.

In terms of understanding child development, one of the truly crucial discoveries has been the importance of children forming a secure attachment with attachment figures while they’re young. Without this bond, children tend to experience all sorts of emotional difficulties as they go through different developmental stages. Dysfunctional relationships about money are just one thing. You can solve all kinds or problems in your family, money and more, simply by consciously creating the conditions for secure attachments to form between children and parents.

Many affluent parents fret about their children being able to navigate the risks of the wider world. The key here is to help children develop the capacity for self-regulation, and self-regulation is rooted in secure attachments to parents. Children who have developed the capacity for self-regulation tend to exhibit increased emotional resilience when dealing with adversity and tend to do well in social relationships as they grow older.

Secure attachments require empathic communication– helping children to feel seen, heard and understood. Affluent parents should be investing in RIE classes with their infants and young children and NVC seminars with their adolescents and teenagers, they have the means and time to do so and it will pay dividends throughout their life.

An interesting developmental concept shared in the book was Erik Erikson’s Eight Stages of Child Development, which suggests there are key developmental goals for each major stage of a person’s life:

  1. Birth to 1yr; trust
  2. 2-3yrs; autonomy
  3. 4-5yrs; initiative
  4. 6yrs-puberty; industry
  5. adolescence; identity
  6. early adulthood; intimacy
  7. middle adulthood; generativity
  8. later adulthood; integrity

The first stage, trust, is about developing secure attachment with caregivers. The second stage, autonomy, is the process through which the child comes to understand their existence and capability for survival independent of their parents, primarily the mother. The third stage, initiative, is where the child becomes increasingly self-directed in their learning and play, making their own decisions about how they want to spend their time and what experiences they want to have. The fourth stage, industry, is a time where the child becomes conscious of their ability to be productive and to make a helpful contribution to their social circle (their family). The fifth stage, identity, is when the child is entering personhood and begins to contemplate who they are, what their values are and what meaning they want their life to have. The sixth stage, intimacy, is the necessary precursor to repeating the genetic cycle through pair bonding and family formation as the person learns to grow close enough to another person to form the intimacy necessary for procreation, but also to develop tight enough bonds with others in general that they can become secure within society. The seventh stage, generativity, represents not only procreation and the populating of a new generation but also the peaking productive energies of adults at home in terms of their creativity, work output and intellectual and social contributions to others. The eighth and final stage, integrity, is a reflective period in which most of us will hopefully be able to look back on our lives and feel content that we lived our life according to our most cherished and esteemed values. For some who realize they have been living a lie or not living up to their own expectations, this can be a very painful time indeed, and it is particularly so when surrounded by younger family members who are attempting to form secure bonds, discover their identity, attain initiative and engage in industry or sort out their own identity, when the model before them is a big, fat hypocrite or pathetic loser! Think ahead and don’t become a person filled with remorse by the eighth stage, life catches up to you.

Thinking back to the example of the family that prioritized their home ownership dream over having mom home with the kids, this quote stood out to me:

In the best of all possible worlds, at least one parent is financially able to be a full-time mother or father during the first year.

Of course, the authors were quick to qualify this right afterwards by assuring the reader that, while ideal, you can still raise a good family without this (yeah… but it’s not ideal, which is the whole point). But what I think is most important about this concept is that the ability of family to actually be together is itself a huge Standard of Living value that most people overlook, especially people seeking or experiencing affluence. It’s like they’ve got the fancy house, the nice car, the swanky clothes, the expensive eateries and the ‘gram-able vacays, but they don’t think to spend their affluence escaping that trap of impoverished families mentioned earlier in the book: the inability to afford the time to be together. What would the world look like if more affluent families put that value first and foremost in their family planning strategy?

Why affluent parents should avoid protecting their children from life’s miseries:

Frustration is inherent in any learning process, affluent families should not try to shield their children from this; avoid using affluence to take away the child’s struggle. Children who are not permitted to struggle and succeed often develop a sense of inferiority.

Another key piece of advice I have almost never heard any affluent family engage in purposefully (although all kinds of families will get here in an unintended shouting match or something like that!):

Tell your child about some of your mistakes and some of your failures.

Why? Because it’s valuable for affluent children to know that even their parents, who mostly succeeded in life, screwed some stuff up along the way and still arrived where they did. It takes the pressure off and makes it more realistic to consider “being human” as an option.

In describing personal attitudes about money, the authors described our money relationships existing along three dimensions: acquisition, use and management. Every person has a unique combination of attitudes regarding these three factors, and each person can be either overly conservative or overly risky in regard to each (or skewing toward one of the extremes).

When thinking about the second dimension, use, an important question to consider is:

Does your family have a sense of what is “enough” and why?

For people who think they never have enough money to be happy, maybe what they really are experiencing is a deficit of values, or a failure to align with them in terms of their choices:

People who live in accordance with their values enjoy happy lives; children who live in accordance with their values enjoy an identity.

The authors describe the phenomenon of children who are fully absorbed with their own kind of “Keeping Up With The Joneses” competition for material possessions and status. I refer to this as “social metaphysics” and it seems from the author’s experience that it occurs when children do not have their own values to anchor their observations and experiences in. As a result, they end up referencing other people rather than themselves when trying to arrive at judgments.

And back to the modeling idea:

Our behavior around money tells our children more about our money values than anything we say. Our children may accept our money values or they may reject them, but we guarantee you that they won’t ignore them.

Besides being a hypocrite, you can also make the mistake of saying NOTHING about money with your kids. But that’s a big mistake, too:

Giving money the silent treatment not only robs your kids of the skills needed to manage it, but it can also result in emotionally unhealthy attitudes toward it.

As one estate planner put it “no device that I can draft will make up for lessons that weren’t learned as a child”.

To help your children develop their own consciousness about money, employ reflective discussions with your child which involve asking questions about what, when, why and how to help them form an opinion and reflect on their own wishes and ideas, the foundation of abstract thinking.

Age-appropriate discussions about money

Here are some specific strategies the authors recommend for discussing money with children at various ages/developmental stages:

Ages five and under; we strongly believe you should limit your preschool child’s exposure to television advertising because of her natural “wanting” tendency; what preschoolers can and should learn is the concept of saving, around age three, use the exercise of depositing a fixed sum in a jar each day before allowing it to be spent at a future time, establishes the connection between giving money and getting something return after waiting for money to accumulate; also can discuss the difference between “need” and “want” and illustrate through concrete examples such as food for dinner versus ice cream for dessert

Six to twelve years old; it’s good to start kids on allowances earlier rather than later, let the kids make budgeting mistakes when they’re less likely to engage in emotional battles over insufficient funds; kids as young as eight can be taught to budget and select from among alternatives if you take the time to explain the process; when talking about money, talk in terms of choices and consequences (tradeoffs, also, basic economic concepts?); open a savings account at a local bank and include the child in the process, discussing how it works and what it’s for

Thirteen to eighteen years old; address issues such as the cost of a given item versus its value to the individual, what constitutes an “overpriced” product or service and the idea of setting and adhering to a reasonable budget; giving a teenager and unrestricted credit card simply teaches them to spend; they should be encouraged to budget for longer periods of time, for the entire month or even a school quarter or semester; involve your children in the research process behind a major purchase, let the teenager evaluate product quality and price via internet research and make a recommendation

And here is a list of helpful “Money Dos” for those not inclined toward negativity and things to avoid:

  • do be honest
  • do connect the concept of money with that of responsibility
  • do help them understand that there are limits on spending
  • do acknowledge your child’s negative feelings about money and wealth
  • do treat their questions with respect

Allowance is a hot topic amongst the affluent and some are skeptical because it seems like “socialism” or a “handout”, but an allowance only has a negative effect if parents refrain from dispensing values along with the money according to the author’s research. Instead, view an allowance as the child’s rightful opportunity to share an appropriate portion of the family’s resources. As a more global concept, perhaps families should have a Family Bill of Rights as a family governance tool, and allowance and other money/wealth rights and responsibilities should be outlined in this document. Ie, “As a member of the X clan, you have the RIGHT to Y, but also the RESPONSIBILITY to provide/do Z.” This helps build a distinct family culture around money and other important family values and norms. If your child is going to become a responsible adult, he needs to know that privileges and responsibilities will be inextricably linked throughout his life. As a member of the family, your child should share in both the privileges and responsibilities that go with his membership.

Determining what’s appropriate (as far as size of allowance and what it can be spent on) is a process you should share with your child; by communicating allowance parameters you are communicating a rationale that contains your values. You’re also treating your child as a responsible, serious person regarding money, which is how you want them to think of themselves as they deal with it.

If you establish an allowance or some other means of financial support, stick to it. Rescuing sends the worst money message possible; the link between hard work and additional pay is a good one, as it demonstrates that you are the one who can save yourself. If your kids get stuck in a money hole, offer them ways they can go above and beyond to earn additional resources to bail themselves out. Create a list of special chores with a specific dollar amount attached to each; don’t keep this list a secret. But don’t turn money into a game. If you use money to control your child’s behavior, you will raise an adult who is controlled by money.

Later in the book, the authors spend some time talking about the importance of diversity and learning to appreciate and accept (it is implied) people without affluence. They say, “we must learn to help our children value people for their character, who they are, the obstacles they have surmounted and what they have accomplished with their lives”. I think the intent was sincere here but I can imagine your average progressive becoming enraged with this reasoning– what about people who don’t have much character, who haven’t managed to surmount their obstacles because they’re too big, onerous or unfair, or who otherwise have simply been stomped into the ground in life and can’t keep up? How is this not a recipe for failing to value those who have failed?

However, I really liked their take on the importance of inculcating the value of philanthropy, because I think they did a good job of connecting the developmental values of philanthropic activity to the patterns mentioned earlier in the book. Instead of just making some lame moral argument that you’re a bad or incomplete affluent person without having a conscience that goes beyond yourself (smuggled premise), they made the logical, self-interested argument that the thought processes and actions required in philanthropic activity are conducive to building genuine identity, self-esteem and concrete and realistic notions about wealth. Here are some quotes:

We are deliberately not using the word charity, but philanthropy, a desire to help mankind, encompasses all forms of activity and endeavors that help make the world a better place in which to live.

Philanthropy helps build a sense of accomplishment — “I’m helping others” — while counteracting the sense of superiority or privilege that can inhibit industry.

Assisting others confers a sense of mastery over life, by giving of themselves and their time, children find a satisfying answer to the question “Who am I without my family’s money?” Equally important, philanthropy provides teenagers with an activity that can be shared with the entire family.

Philanthropy demonstrates that they are not just the recipient of giving but have the capacity for giving as well

Philanthropic endeavors contradict this notion of a meaningless existence.

That really got me re-thinking the subject and considering how to weave it into our own family tapestry on this topic.

And they suggest philanthropic behavior can begin young, and should:

Writing a check to charity is too abstract a concept for a four or five-year-old. Young children have difficulty dealing with abstractions and need concrete experiences.

Speaking of philanthropy, what can make the world a better place than screwing over lenders, divorcees and their grasping lawyers? That is one reason I hadn’t fully considered for setting up a trust to protect family assets even if your affluence isn’t “substantial”:

One valuable aspect of putting money for children in a trust that is often overlooked is that it doesn’t just help protect the child from the money, but it protects the money from creditors, bankruptcy court and ex spouses in divorce proceedings.

No idea how timely this advice is as the book was written in 2002 and things may have changed, but one thing I’ve noticed about estate planning is that by nature, tax rates change but the rules and structures of long-term oriented tax avoidance vehicles like this rarely seem to do so in tandem.

Questions to ask yourself when forming a trust:

  • for what purposes would you be distributing money to your kids if you were doing it yourself?
  • what would you like to see your children and grandchildren do?
  • what are you afraid might happen to you?
  • what might they do with the money that would disappoint you?

Like the comments about an allowance, the authors have a word of warning about thinking that a “trust fund kid” must necessarily be spoiled:

Affluence, if handled properly, allow your child the opportunity to become anything they want. if you raise a child with a strong work ethic and a sense of responsibility, she will want to do the best she can do no matter what career path is taken or how much is in the trust fund.

Trust funds actually seem to serve as an incentive for children who are entrepreneurial but might be a disincentive for children who work as employees

And the final parting shot in the book as the authors look forward toward the social horizon:

It is going to become increasingly vital for us to find money heroes and communicate their stories to our children.

…because our kids are increasingly surrounded by easy access to impressions of bad actors. Facebook was 2 years away when this book was published but they saw the trend nonetheless through the insipid example of TV and movies.

Our Money Narratives

As described in our review of Silver Spoon Kids, the following are the individual “Money Narratives” for the Wolf and I, as well as our thoughts on a new “Money Narrative” for our own immediate family. The book recommends constructing these stories based upon reflections from asking the following types of questions:

  • What is your earliest money memory (ie, the first important purchase you made)?
  • What did you learn from your father/mother about money?
  • What are some of your family stories about money (ie, the time grandpa was really cheap, or your aunt made a ridiculous purchase)?
  • What kind of financial education did you receive growing up?
  • What were the big emotional issues around money in your family?

The Lion’s Money Narrative

Looking back on my childhood, I find myself puzzled by my family’s simultaneous desires to acquire money and wealth while desiring that it not change them in any meaningful way. What good is striving after money if you’ll live your life essentially the same way with it as you would without it (maybe plus a bigger, nicer house, a fancier car and a more comfortable vacation experience)? We didn’t spend a lot of time openly talking about money in our family, and when others noticed our wealth, it was an uncomfortable and sore subject. I remember being bullied for being “rich” in grade school which confused me at the time because I wore the same clothes and ate the same lunch and rode the same kinds of bikes that other kids at school did. And it hurt because I didn’t think it was true (we never used that word to describe ourselves inside the family) and I didn’t think I had any control over it– why persecute me for something my parents did?

It’s all the more confusing to think of where those kids came up with it. They must have heard it from their parents. And their parents must’ve interacted with my parents and somehow, despite my parents trying not to let their success change them noticeably, it did. When I shared the fact that I was being bullied, I remember being told, “We’re not rich, we’re just well off. And it’s none of their business.” Not very helpful advice for a young child dealing with these social issues! I learned a few things from that experience: that money could be dangerous even if you weren’t “rich”, and that even if I or my family were “rich”, I didn’t deserve it and was a worse person for having it. As an adult, that lesson has lingered and I’ve struggled at times with a sense of being happy with what I have, whether that’s been a lot or a little or something in between!

A positive aspect of wealth that I learned from observing my parents is that it can be used to help others. We’ve helped out friends and family members when they’ve found themselves in a tight place. And while we’ve enjoyed many nice vacations, a good fraction of those included friends or relatives joining us at family expense. It has informed my own sense as an adult that if I have the capability to provide for others with less in some situation, I can do that without either party making “a thing” of it and instead just focusing on the opportunity for mutual enjoyment.

Sadly, I did not get much financial instruction growing up. I observed my parents being budget-conscious and balancing a checkbook back when that was something you had to do (they still do this although I’ve encouraged them to set up an electronic account management system many times) as well as reviewing utility and credit card bills to ensure there were no erroneous charges. But aside from having my own bank account to collect gift monies and being encouraged to operate lemonade-and-cookie stands or hold summer jobs as a youngster, I wasn’t taught much about how to make money or how to manage investments. Looking back on it, I don’t think my parents had anything to teach. My dad got swept up in the excitement of the Tech Boom in the late 90’s and I remember him coming home one day crowing about the wild price action in his AOL stock, and then coming home dejected the following week when it had just as unexpectedly crashed. I would watch Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser on PBS on Friday nights with my dad, but we never talked about it and I didn’t fully understand what they were discussing on the show or what the stock market was. I didn’t realize I could invest in stocks on my own until well into college when I discovered the works of Benjamin Graham, somehow without ever hearing about Warren Buffett! Certainly no one ever sat me down and taught me the wonders of compound interest and the importance of getting an early start for a lifetime of successful investing.

And the greatest single source of wealth in our family, our privately owned business, was considered a taboo subject for dinner table discussion because my mom didn’t want her children to feel pressured to be a part of it. Conflicted is definitely a polite way of putting our family’s relationship with money, although on the whole I seem to have picked up a few healthy attitudes and habits because I’m a big saver, abhor the use of debt and credit and have no misgivings about money growing on trees or magically replenishing itself with use.

The Wolf’s Money Narrative (as transcribed by the Lion)

Part of my family’s culture involves exchanging red envelopes full of money on special holidays or in recognition of significant life events. My earliest memories of money are receiving lots and lots of these envelopes, so much so that they filled up an old Swiss milk chocolate candy jug I used to contain them and overflowed the brim! I didn’t understand why I was getting this money or what it was for but I wasn’t going to complain. I mostly just saved the money because I received so much more than I had wants or needs despite growing up humbly.

I learned from my mother that money is not for spending. You work really hard, you earn a lot of money, save it all, don’t spend it, don’t enjoy life. Money is hard to come by. I learned from my father you work really hard, you don’t earn a lot of money, you don’t spend it, and you don’t enjoy life. And that’s not what he told me, that’s what I gathered from observing him. And you let your wife or the smarter person of the couple manage it for you.

Everyone in my family worked really hard, but none of them made enough to feel satisfied. They never explained how much they’d have to make to feel satisfied. And they didn’t seem to have time to enjoy their money anyway because they were always working too hard trying to get more of it!

Money was not a numerical, quantitative thing, it was just some abstract concept.

I spent all of my red envelope money on totally inconsequential things once I realized I had the ability to spend money as a teenager. I didn’t think about what I needed, I just thought “I have money, I guess I’ll spend it”. I wasn’t a conscious spender. My parents never taught me anything, so I just followed my impulses. I didn’t know what we were hoarding money for so I figured I’d just spend it. I wish someone had told me what money could be used for so I could’ve been more thoughtful about the way I decided to spend it back then!

Some things I admired about my family’s attitude toward money is that they saved it. It takes a lot of discipline to save money and not to take vacations or be tempted by material things. The only unethical thing about money I remember is that my uncle gambled a lot of money and this was embarrassing for the family. It was considered wasteful. It was taking risks but not on a sure thing. Tempting fate. Casinos are not seen as having honor and integrity, so it’s frowned upon to be seen there.

I had an accounting class in middle school, but I didn’t learn budgeting until I got married and the Lion taught me. He was also the one who taught me about retirement savings, IRAs and investing.

One big emotional issue about money growing up was that I learned my extended family helped pay for my college education so I wouldn’t have debt. It was very touching and as a result I feel obligated to return the favor by treating elder family members to meals and travel.

When I think about my own affluence, I think “What affluence?” It’s hard to view our position as actually mine, that it doesn’t really belong to me because my husband is the breadwinner and I am the homemaker. That being said,  I feel good about it, I feel lucky. I feel like I’ve come a long way. It’s a privilege to not have to worry about money and feel taken care of. That is not the way I remember growing up in terms of money.

Our New Money Narrative

We want to demystify money in our family and treat it with transparency. We also don’t want to fool ourselves or others about what money means to us, how we acquire it, how much we have and what we plan to do with it. Our plan is to talk about money early and often with our children and as much as possible find age appropriate ways to include them in family money management.

Just as we find activities for our Little Lion to contribute to the household well being, often tasks he himself comes up with after observing us, such as sorting laundry piles, sweeping the floors, assisting with meal prep and clean up, etc., we will look for ways he can be part of our money economy in the family.

At the present stage, when we buy something we let him hand over the means of payment and sign any receipts as necessary, so he understands that to get goods and services from others we have to pay for them. As our children grow, we will include them in dinner conversations about how work is going and where we stand on our budgeting. When it’s appropriate to provide them with an allowance, we’ll introduce them to the concept of budgeting and help them to develop ideas about how they can generate their own income beyond their allowance. We’ll also talk about savings and delayed gratification and the power of compound interest over time to help them conceptualize the tradeoff between some now or more later.

As a family that plans to homeschool, we’re particularly interested in the ways we can integrate math and financial literacy into real life activities. Grandma Wolf has a seasonal baked good distribution business and we look forward to sending the Little Lion to be a (paid) apprentice on her route from time-to-time, learning about marketing and customer service, costing and profit calculation and the value of a hard day’s work. We’ve also thought ahead about stock investing and portfolio management for an enterprising youngster with savings. We see no reason why our children can’t learn about investment selection and management in their adolescence and be in a position by their teenage years to fully research and manage their own portfolio of business interests. This is also appealing because it’s a way for our children to “follow their parents” into an activity and one where we can model the behaviors because we’re doing them ourselves.

We don’t want to give our children the impression there is anything shameful about having money, getting money or talking about money (or even wanting it!) We also don’t want to give our children the impression that simply having money or being able to get it makes a person valuable by itself. Life is complex and money is just one means and one end to be sought in a productive, interdependent life. That being said, we intend to have honest and frank discussions with our children about why some people have a lot more than others and why some people have a lot less– and the answer is not just “luck.” This may seem controversial or a way to invite social problems with children struggling to understand the nuances of life, but we see no way around acknowledging these fundamental realities. Some people are poor for a reason and some people are massively wealthy for a reason.

We are also giving great consideration to the concept of “philanthropy” versus “charity” in our family values surrounding money and wealth. We’re skeptics of “charity” generally and our children will not see us shipping checks to everyone who comes begging or has an emotional story to tell while we pat ourselves on the backs and feel good regardless of impact and outcomes. They also won’t get the impression that we feel guilty or a need to “give back”, or that giving away or gifting money is the only way to make contributions to their community or humanity. If “philanthropy” really does entail any act or service that makes the world a better place to live for everyone, then we will help our children to understand that being the best people they can be, putting their talents to their best use and living lives of principled striving for their conception of the good are all philanthropic endeavors that make the world better off, as also are donating to public and private causes they feel passionate about, serving in leadership roles in public and private life, giving their time and physical presence to various organizations and efforts and so on.

In summary, we want to raise our children with an awareness of money and wealth, a desire to make their own contribution to the family’s stores of value in their various forms, and with confidence that they can make their own contribution through their thinking and efforts. And with this stable foundation and sense of themselves, we want to see them go out boldly into the world around them, wherever that might be, and help others to build wealth and security of their own.

Review – Silver Spoon Kids

Silver Spoon Kids: How Successful Parents Raise Responsible Children

by Eileen Gallo, Jon Gallo, published 2002

Growing up, I’ve personally witnessed conflicted family dynamics surrounding money. My parents are “successful” as the term connotes in this book, and their goal for their children (myself and siblings) was to create plans and structure for sharing their success with them while trying to avoid the risk of ruining our motivation, realism and personal attitudes. To summarize it in a pithy way, it is the quest to find a way for family wealth to “Have an impact, without an impact.” Somehow, we were to all benefit from family wealth while living as if it didn’t exist.

I’d say it’s been hit or miss, so far. All of their kids turned out morally in such a way that the average friend, neighbor or community member would think to refer to them as “good people” (if I may be so bold as a member of the sect!) But struggles or lack thereof with personal identity, sense of purpose, motivation, etc. vary from person to person and area to area. And at present, a minority of the children are in any position to know what to do with their parents’ wealth in the event of their demise. We might just chalk this up to genes and the randomness of life, but Silver Spoon Kids offers some child development background and family socialization dynamics that provide evidence these outcomes are anything but purely random.

While the authors (a husband and wife duo in the fields of estate planning and family therapy, definitely toll collectors on the highway of family misery built by poor planning) offer a summary of 4 major family money practices they consider essential for parents to master to inculcate responsibility in the second generation, I’d summarize my biggest takeaway from the book in a single sentence as follows:

When it comes to transmitting family values to children, especially concerning money, there is no substitute for parents investing their own time and attention in the relationship and modeling the values themselves for their children.

Most of the cringeworthy examples of “what not to do with kids and money” cited in the book are a result of some kind of avoidance of this elementary wisdom. Either the parents think they can get away with not being there for their kids, or they think the kids won’t notice when they say one thing and do another. It seems that good parenting on the topic of money is identical to good parenting on any other topic. That stands to good reason because child development is not rooted in “things” but in human evolutionary social biology!

So that’s my one-sentence elevator pitch on what this book is about. But here is the 4 point summary of essential practices the authors share at the end of the book:

  1. Understand the theoretical underpinnings; learn about normal stages and behaviors in child development and let this awareness inform your approach to discussing money with your children
  2. Live your values; to live your values, you must first know them, so take time to articulate what is important to you about money and why and make sure it doesn’t remain a secret to your offspring
  3. Teach your child about money through word and deed; don’t be a hypocrite, don’t be silent and don’t expect your kids to just magically arrive at the same conclusions and habits about money (if you think they’re good!) that you have without actively engaging them in the topic in age-appropriate ways
  4. Raise a giver rather than a getter; help your children understand that money comes and goes and there are important aspects to where it goes beyond just where it comes from; emphasize the ways in which money can make all people better off and give your children opportunities to find meaning in being a resource for others

Is this book of interest even if you don’t expect to be wealthy? Yes, because you can still spoil your kids without affluence. Again, the reason is because child development and human social dynamics are a constant of human nature rooted in evolutionary biology, rather than dependent upon material “things” coloring each person’s individual circumstances. Here’s an instructive quote I underlined in the book that describes what’s going on:

Can your children develop a secure attachment if you are with them for only limited periods of time? Interestingly, this same problem is faced by many low-income families, especially those with a single parent.

Yes, interesting indeed. Most of the symptomatic ills of the lower-classes are connected to the notion of parents who are over-taxed versus their available resources (time, money, health, etc.) But affluent families can create the same symptoms in their children by behaving the same way struggling lower class families behave– spending more time at work than at home, expecting children to raise themselves, neglecting to share values (or healthy values) with their kids and so on.

One helpful exercise in the book for getting a grip on family culture surrounding wealth is the development of a “Money Narrative”. It involves creating a short story about one’s early and personal family experiences surrounding money after reflecting on questions such as:

  • What is your earliest money memory (ie, the first important purchase you made)?
  • What did you learn from your father/mother about money?
  • What are some of your family stories about money (ie, the time grandpa was really cheap, or your aunt made a ridiculous purchase)?
  • What kind of financial education did you receive growing up?
  • What were the big emotional issues around money in your family?

The Wolf and I have been discussing this and we’re going to share our Money Narratives in a separate, follow-up post.

An interesting theme from the book is the way in which money is not special or unique in offering parenting challenges, but is simply another vector for making poor parenting choices in general. For example, the authors talk about the importance for children in experiencing struggle in the process of mastery, both because it is inherent in learning experiences and necessary for an individual to learn that they can not achieve mastery without a period of struggle as an amateur, but also because children who do not struggle do not achieve mastery, they are simply rescued by the adults around them. You can rescue someone by doing their homework for them or you can rescue them by paying off their credit card bill. It isn’t money that is “spoiling”, it is the rescuing.

Another item the authors placed emphasis on was the need for including philanthropy in the family culture surrounding wealth and money. I am a skeptic on the mainstream practice of charity. I was pleased to see the authors discount “charity” specifically in favor of “philanthropy” as a broader term encompassing any activity aimed at making the world a better place for mankind to live in. I also appreciated that they disclaimed simply writing checks or disbursing financial resources to organizations and instead talked about the importance of physically serving, in person and with one’s time and skills, and of making this a family activity. The discussion overall was thought-provoking and has given myself and the Wolf some homework to do in thinking about how we want to more closely integrate philanthropy in the core of our family values.

There’s more of value in this book, even if it is, to me anyway, mostly just Good Parenting Common Sense at this point. I’ll organize my remaining notes in a separate follow-up post for easier perusal by those interested in going deep.

Notes – Setting Respectful Limits With Children

Last night I had the good fortune to attend a parenting workshop at a local private educational institution. The topic of the talk was “Setting Respectful Limits” and was led by Karla Kuester, a RIE Associate, two heuristic indicators of an event that is perfect for a Peaceful Parenting enthusiast such as myself. As our Little Lion is entering toddlerhood, I was eager to learn more about tools and techniques for establishing and enforcing boundaries that can help us and him.

The presenter’s website is http://www.karlakuester.com; I will reproduce the titles of her slides in order along with my annotations.

First some basics

A New Look at the Word Respect

Respectful behavior is based on observation. The roots of the word respect are “to look again”. This implies being present-oriented, focusing on what you see right in front of you, in the moment, rather than what you want it to be, what you hope for, expect, etc. Begin your interactions with your child by observing what is and you will start to find the basis for respect.

Noticing is Everything; The Start of the Plan

A child’s security is based on knowing that adults are in charge. This requires consistency in word and action on behalf of the adults. Observations lead to information, and information is the basis of planning. By creating trust in the adult, everyone can relax and and be their authentic selves.

The Goodness of Narration

Verbalizing what you see helps the child connect words to actions (in RIE, this is called “sportscasting”). For adults, it connects the mind to observations and restrains impulsive behavior. Narrating observed events links bodily sensations in the child to cognitive experience. Sportscasting is the key tool to changing your relationship with your child as it slows things down and helps everyone become more aware of the present.

Building Better Relationships

Relationships are not linear, they have meaningful ups and downs. The relationship you build with your child is the foundation for all their learning. It also connects the child to their future life in the world. Always keep in mind the long-term relationship consequences of your decisions and you’ll avoid the mistake of making decisions that are “good for now.”

The Adult’s Job: To Show the World to the Child

The parent’s job is to keep the child safe and acclimate them to society. Life is fun for parents and child when everybody follows the rules. Parents provide children with visibility and a sense of being understood. For children to stay safe, they must stick together with the parents. “You cannot care from a distance.”

The watchwords here are: Designation (what’s the parents’ role?), Availability (being present for the child’s needs), Proximity (being close enough to make an impact in the child’s well-being).

Adults help children learn how to take care of people and property.

Empowering the Captain of the Ship

The Captain steers the ship in a safe direction while maintaining respect and self-esteem with the crew. To do this, the Captain has to stay one step ahead of the crew and anticipate their needs and actions. In this way, the Captain can model for the crew problem-solving and executive functions which will be helpful for them later on in their own lives.

“Lean with a teen; squat with a tot”

It’s important to learn how to move to the child’s level, physically and emotionally, when interacting with them. Maintaining eye contact is a key part of showing respect. With small children, this often means squatting down or sitting on the floor; with teenagers, this often means leaning back and giving them some space to unload. Be present with the child where they are at and they will be able to feel seen and heard.

Can’t or Won’t?

It’s easy when dealing with children to confuse their resistance to a request as a “won’t” when it might actually be a “can’t”. Always check for developmental appropriateness of a request, such as:

  1. Age/stage
  2. Prior experience with the request/task
  3. Level of alterness (sleepy, stressed, etc.)
  4. Hunger or motivation (no one is at their best when feeling lacking)

Some creative ways to set and maintain boundaries and ways to avoid saying “no”

The Function of Behavior

All behaviors are communication. This is true for both the parent and child. What we do communicates who we are, what we want or need, and what we stand for. The parent should strive to get in the habit of thinking about what information is being shared by the other person in what you observe in their behavior; also, what they are sharing about themselves in the way they act.

The Function of Boundaries

Boundaries create a safe space for functioning. Boundaries must be enforced to be effective in creating security through predictable order.

Giving Children Appropriate Choices

Offer children choices you consider acceptable, regardless of which one they choose. Avoid offering choice when none is available, or you would only accept one of the choices. Children learn to be cynical of adults who offer false choices and become uncooperative in response.

Taking the Phrase “OK?” Out of Your Vocabulary

A better alternative than ending a request with “OK?” is “Do you understand?” Asking “OK?” implies a choice for whether or not the child wants to comply, or signals a request for validation (ie, being unsure about one’s authority to make or enforce the request). Avoid power struggles over choices that don’t exist.

Don’t Offer Children ‘Big Person’ Jobs

Be consistent in enforcing rules and verbalizing why they exist and children will learn to follow them. Be clear and firm, not harsh; use a flat voice and expression and simple language, not impassioned speech.

Items for Adult Use

Some items should remain off limits to children. The child can look forward to growing up and getting an opportunity to use them when appropriate. You can establish early on the notion of property by establishing whose is whose.

Modeling

If your child is out of control, don’t follow them there. If you expect them to change their behavior, you must do so as well.

Use Temporal Priming

Give children a sense of when an activity will come to an end. Give them an opportunity to think about what they’d like to do next, or instead.

Give Time Warnings

Establish time before a transition occurs, using a clock or timer. Let the child see you setting the timer, and then the timer determines when changes occur, rather than the adult. This also helps children understand the phenomenon of the passage of time, because for the child there is often confusion about the difference between five minutes and thirty minutes, for example.

Create an Activity Schedule

Create a visual sequence of the day, verbalize it and follow it. This creates a predictable rhythm to the day and helps them anticipate what comes next in their life.

“My Turn”/”Your Turn”

Instead of sharing, introduce the concept of taking turns. This creates a predictable cycle of action with a clear time frame for the child to anticipate. With very young children it can be a game initially, and later on it becomes a concept they can utilize when there is conflict over a limited resource.

Holding the Place for Turn Taking

An adult can “take a turn” for the child and model a wanted behavior when the child demonstrates they aren’t up for it. In this way the child can consider doing it themselves next time after they’ve processed the significance of the adult taking their turn for them.

“First ___, Then ___.” Statements

You can help children understand the priority of tasks before receiving something they prefer by showing them what comes first and then what follows. This is slightly different from “If ___, then ___.” because the conditionality of “if” implies a kind of role-playing or moral hoop to jump through, whereas “first” implies an existing natural order to the world they must comply with. This is an especially useful tool for dealing with multiple children and daily routines; by showing children who gets what in a consistent order, they can come to accept their place in “line” and have security that they will be cared for when it is their turn.

Focus On What You Want Your Child to Do, Not What You Want to Stop

When communicating with your child, focus on positive actions not negative actions. Often children do the last thing they heard, so if you say “Don’t X” they hear “X”. Also, asking for what you would like prevents guessing or the chance that they choose an alternative behavior you still find unacceptable.

“You get what you get, and you don’t get upset!”

Help children understand that they won’t always get what they want in life. It’s important to learn to accept situations where a lack of control over the outcome exists.

Never Underestimate the Power of Taking a Break

Model the ability to self-soothe for your children when a situation heats up between the two of you. Regain your calm and composure by informing the child that you intend to take a step back, catch your breath, have a glass of water, etc. before addressing the conflict again.

Catch Your Family ‘Doing Something Right’

Point out behaviors you like and identify the specific action you appreciated and why. It is far more motivating for people to be recognized for what they are doing well than to be reminded of their failures.

Consistency and Repetition: The Name of the Game

To be effective, boundaries must be enforced consistently by ALL caregivers in a child’s life. Allow no wiggle room or your efforts to enforce boundaries will go to waste.

Respect Takes Time

There are no shortcuts to building a respectful relationship.

“We say respect is ‘worthwhile.’ So isn’t it worth the little while it takes to be respectful of the children in our care?” ~Polly Elam, President of RIE

“You have all the time in the world if you start right now. Take a breath in, feel your feet on the ground, exhale and ‘carry on bravely.'” ~Kenneth James Kuester