There is a recent article in the New York Times about the value of a gap year – taking a year between high school and college to travel, volunteer, do service work, learn a new language, etc. Embedded in the article was this paragraph which really grabbed my attention:
“Although I appreciated my parents’ support, I also recognized the extent to which it had become detrimental. Their attempts to eliminate any possibility of real failure had guaranteed its own kind of failure. Financial dependence had enabled me to make a major life decision, the decision to go to college, without taking personal ownership of it.”
My father was an engineer at General Motors in Warren, Michigan. My mom was a stay-at-home mom who cooked, cleaned, did massive amounts of never-ending laundry and raised seven kids. I’ve always described my family as middle class: enough money to be pretty comfortable but not enough for luxuries. We went on vacations, but they were mostly camping trips with a really big tent and camp stove in northern Michigan. We had a house that was big enough for our needs, but no one had a bedroom all to themselves. It was a major event when my dad installed an electric dishwasher in the kitchen (it was actually portable – on wheels – and had a hose that you hooked up to the sink faucet to run it!).
When my oldest brother Steve started college at Wayne State University in Detroit, my parents couldn’t afford to pay for his schooling, so he had to. He worked at a grocery store. That’s the way it was. Everyone in my family worked. We were babysitters, yard maintenance workers, life guards, waiters, caddies, ice cream sundae vendors, dishwashers, pizza makers, and more. I’m the youngest child, so by the time I started at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, my parents were no longer supporting seven children and certainly could have afforded to pay for my schooling. But there was an unspoken agreement that they wouldn’t, because they hadn’t done that for anyone else. That would not have been right and I didn’t expect that privilege which my siblings didn’t have.
So I got a job. Several jobs.
In 7th grade I started a paper route to earn money and start saving for college. By the middle of junior high, when I wanted to swap out my glasses for contacts, my parents and I agreed that I’d pay for half the cost. In high school I worked as a busboy and dishwasher at a local restaurant during the school year. During the summers I worked at Pine Knob Outdoor Music Theater, where the superstars of the 80’s reigned: Bryan Adams, Elton John, Depeche Mode, Tina Turner, The Cars, The Go-Gos, Chaka Khan and Whitney Houston. In the evenings I was an usher and security guard; in the mornings I returned to do maintenance, which included picking up cigarette stubs, cleaning the toilets and sweeping up spilled popcorn.
In college, I worked as a dishwasher, waiter, bartender and student supervisor in a catering department. While working 25-30 hours a week and taking a full course load, I sometimes resented my roommates whose parents footed their bills and who had a lot more free time than I did.
And yet, I can say that paying for my own college education is one of the things of which I am most proud in my entire life. I had complete and total ownership and full responsibility. I was 100% invested in a way that my roommates never were. I choose my classes carefully and made sure I got all of the value out of each course. When I received my diploma, I took incredible pride in the total amount of hours I had worked in order to achieve that goal.
Maria Montessori wrote about the importance of economic independence for adolescents. My questions to you are: how are you allowing (or requiring) your child to gain their economic independence? How can they earn their own money (allowance from parents doesn’t count)? Who pays for their monthly cell phone bill? Who pays for the apps they download? Who pays for back-to-school clothes shopping? Who pays for their CTA card? Who pays for their movie tickets? Who pays when they order Sandwich Shoppe?
I’m not suggesting that your child can be entirely financial independent right now. But I’m strongly suggesting that you find a way for him to start earning money (baby-sitting, cutting grass, pet-sitting, shoveling snow) and start looking for places where you can expect her to chip in to cover part of the cost. They should definitely be chipping in for cell phone usage and for some of their outings with friends. Is it possible that your child even pays for a small, small percentage of their NNM tuition? Does he know how much his education costs? What if she made her own small donation to the school’s Scholarship Fund? How can you make your child financial invested in different aspects of her life so she takes things for granted less often and he experiences the pride of working hard to get something he wants?
I know I’m not the only one who worked as a teen and young adult. I’m sure many of you did, too. I recognize that times have changed: paper routes don’t exist in the same way in a city like Chicago; summer time for teens seems much busier these days and they have less time for working and earning money; for very good reasons, businesses can’t just employ a 14-year-old. But if you think about the long-term goals and about the values and work ethic you want your child to develop, you’ll find a creative way to make it happen.
Here’s another paragraph from the article which I appreciated and with which I completely concur:
“But my father wasn’t convinced that a gap year was the right decision. He let me know that if I left school, I wouldn’t receive any financial support. At the time, I viewed this as a threat. Now I see it as a first step toward allowing me the freedom I needed.”