Parent Trap

On providing for one’s children, and how people get it wrong

One of the common things people cite when talking about their motivations for career decisions and efforts is the duty to provide for their children. Seems like a pretty straightforward, noble objective -- and it is.

Thing is, though: a lot of people get the math wrong. Right goal, wrong approach.

In some cases, the problem is straightforward: at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, where the main goal on the radar is to supply the basic necessities, there’s not much to figure out. There’s no greater or more appropriate sense of purpose than to make sure your children have food, clothing and shelter.

As you move up the ladder, though, things get a little more murky. People continue to explain all kinds of choices and behaviours as being motivated by the need to provide for their family, well past the point of supplying the basic necessities. And when they do, they often overlook hidden costs and tradeoffs.

Suppose someone changes jobs or chases a promotion for the sake of adding to their already comfortable income. Presumably the extra income gives them more options than they had before, and no doubt those options are great for the family: maybe now they can afford a nicer home, or nicer things and experiences, or more money set aside for the kids’ education. All good stuff, on the face of it.

But what if the new job comes at the expense of longer work weeks and higher stress levels? Or what if the hours and the acute stress are fine, but the work itself is boring or depressing or just barely tolerable in some other way? What if Mom or Dad comes home at 5:30PM every day, to a nice home in a nice neighbourhood, pissed off at the world? It’s pretty easy to end up in a situation where Little Johnny & Suzy have it all -- stuff, experiences, opportunities -- and oh, by the way...a miserable parent or two.

The crux of the matter is in what it means to “provide” for one’s children. By convention, this phrase seems to be roughly code for maximizing comfort and opportunity, and -- therefore -- maximizing the money available to pay for those things. Trouble is, that’s too narrow a definition. Comfort and opportunity are great, but they’re not the only things that matter in preparing a child for life.

Here’s a big huge variable that people overlook: Johnny and Suzy will one day grow up and be responsible for their own wellbeing, and one of the biggest determinants of how well they fare at that is the example they learned from Mom and Dad. If the tree did or sacrificed everything “for the kids” -- including their own happiness -- guess where the apples are likely to fall? Setting a child up to thrive in life has to include some consideration for the knock-on effects of the parent’s own wellbeing. Trying to buy your kids’ happiness with your own misery is like trying to drink yourself sober.

Adding that variable into the equation -- about the example you set -- changes the math completely. Now it’s not just about supplying as much comfort and opportunity as possible. “Providing” for your children is actually about giving them the best chance of maximizing their life satisfaction, which is a much bigger thing. And at the risk of trying to capture the ocean in a teaspoon, maybe what we can say about that is that it somehow involves living life on your own terms: learning to make choices and take action that add to your wellbeing. 

In other words, the best thing you can do for your kids is to influence their behaviour, not just their circumstance. And for that, the example you set and the mindset you hand down are arguably the biggest gifts you can give. Instead of making grand personal sacrifices, go the other way: fight like hell to protect your zest for life, even if it means a little less comfort along the way. Your kids will thank you for it.