Debt and Challenge for ‘Wus’ Parents: Growing a Backbone

DD3 = Dear Third Daughter
DH = Dear Husband

Parenting Styles

Barbara Coloroso, parenting author and speaker, identifies three parenting styles in her book Kids are Worth It:
  • The brick wall parent is autocratic and unbending.
  • The jellyfish lacks leadership and is easily manipulated.
  • The parent with backbone has both structure and some flexibility.
Backbone emerges as the clear winner among these three styles, and while brick wall moms and dads are advised to soften up and develop flexibility, jellyfish are advised to grow a backbone. Dave Ramsey labels the jellyfish among us as ‘wus’ parents, and he gave quite a rant about our kind as the incident with Rachel Canning was unfolding. (Eighteen-year-old Canning tried to sue her parents for living expenses and college fees earlier this year after she left home, unwilling to live by their rules.)

My Challenge as a Jellyfish

Since our journey out of debt began in June of 2012, one of the biggest challenges I have faced has been in confronting my tendency to default to jellyfish mode as a parent. I know logically that as part of our debt reduction efforts, we have to budget what we spend on our children, their allowances, and their activities . And I thoroughly believe that by establishing clear financial boundaries, we are giving our daughters the gift of fiscal wisdom. But despite the fact that I embrace this outlook with my reasoning and beliefs, I still find it a struggle to assert those boundaries in the moment.

DD3 and The Black Keys Concert

“Mom,” DD3 said earlier this week. “Tiffany just asked me if I wanted to go to a concert tomorrow night. It’s The Black Keys. We didn’t know they were coming, and we love them! Her parents will get the tickets for us. They’re $75.”
Notice that DD3 did not ask her father about the concert ticket. DH is a brick wall working on 
flexibility. His default mode is “No!” so not much chance anyone is going to ask him for anything 
when I’m around. 

“How much money do you have?” I asked, pretty sure of what the answer would be. DD3 gets a monthly allowance, and she had gone shopping with friends early in September.
“None,” she said. “Could you give me my October allowance early?”
DD3 puts 20% of her allowance in a savings account which she doesn’t touch, and she gives 10% to charity. Even with a full advance on October’s allowance, she wouldn’t have enough to buy the ticket. Besides, we don’t want her to get a taste of borrowing from the future. I said “No” to the early allowance idea.
“Can I just take the money out of the bank?”
“No,” I said. “The money in the bank stays in the bank.” It was a teachable moment, so I took it upon myself to spell out the lesson. “If you saved $10 or $20 from your allowance every month and put it in the fire-box, you’d be able to do this sort of thing.”
“But I won’t be able to go tomorrow night!”
“No, but something will come up in six months, and you’ll be ready for it.”
DD3 found no comfort in this tidy lesson. All she felt was disappointment about not being able to go see The Black Keys.
I’m always amazed at the “generosity” of other parents. Our children’s friends consistently have money to go out to movies, for ice cream, for clothes shopping . . . and for $75 concert tickets. I don’t enjoy being stingy in comparison. I had a strong inclination to join the crowd and say, “Sure, Honey! Here’s the $75. I love you. Enjoy the concert!”  But I caught myself in time, and I stuck to the program. DD3 avoided talking with me for the rest of the evening – another thing I don’t like. But I held strong and trusted it would pass.

Benefits of Backbone

A couple of days later, as I was driving her home from her sport, DD3 started to talk about her plans for October. “It’s going to be an expensive time,” she said. I could see her mind at work, budgeting for the upcoming fair and for her friend’s birthday. She’s gaining an awareness of expenses and the need to plan ahead, I was pleased to notice. Would DD3 have given any thought to such things if I had said “Yes” to the concert? I don’t think so. She hadn’t liked the experience of running out of money and having no options. It had left enough of an impression that she knew she wanted to avoid it next month. My guess is that she’ll manage her October allowance in such a way that she won’t hit zero before the month is over.

And for my part, I’m reinforced in my resolve to “stick with the program”. My inner-jellyfish is still lurking, waiting for an opportunity to take over, but I’m staying vigilant. And I’m growing a backbone.

Comments are welcome!

I would love to hear what you have to say. Feel free to share your thoughts, offer advice, disagree, or ask questions. (Disrespectful comments will be deleted.)

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  1. Good for you! I think if she had take the “advancement” that starts teaching her about going into debt, because there are so many things I want NOW but know I have to wait for. I’m sure I would be disappointed too, but I think you did the right thing!

    1. Thank you, Tonya! I used to beg my parents for advances on my allowance, and they gave in every time. And here I am decades later trying to get out of debt. I hope that our “mean” approach will spare DD3 the burden of debt later in life.

  2. I loved Barbara Coloroso and used her book frequently. Having said that, I still became jelly like and sometimes fell for the borrowing forward of the allowance. Actually I probably just did this again this weekend. We went to the fair with my daughter and family and my youngest daughter too. I charged her admission and mine to my credit card and she is going to pay me back. Despite having walked over to the bank while we were waiting for the parade to start and she never withdrew any money. I hope it’s not because is doesn’t have much money in the bank. I might have to take a trip to the library and take that book out again!

    1. If your daughter is anything like I was when I was young and still living at home, she will assume that you’ve forgotten, and that she doesn’t really owe you the money back. I hate to admit it, but I have an understanding of kids who manipulate jellyfish parents. Sigh.

  3. I would like to have thought I would have taken the same path….I’m all about real life learning experiences for my kids. Although, I wonder if I would have caved under the “I’ll give you this as a gift so you can have a great experience that you will remember for the rest of your life.” I’ve been known to do that sort of thing from time to time….I guess I don’t really know if this would have been one of those times or not. Kudos to you for sticking to your guns though!

    1. The whole “I’ll give you this as a gift” thing is valid. But for me, I’m finding that I resist it when it’s being imposed on me or if I feel I’m being pressured. If it really springs from my heart and there is no expectation on the part of my child, then it’s genuine and I’ll go with it. Very tricky stuff!

  4. I’m a backbone-style parent all the way. I won’t say I never buy my son anything, but now that he’s 9, he has to spend his own money on goofy things if that’s what he wants to buy. I recently started paying him a regular allowance and his chore chart is posted where he can see it every day. He’s doing pretty well with meeting his responsibilities. This weekend we got him a wallet for his cash 🙂 and when he wants to buy something, I make him physically hand over his money by himself. He thinks long and hard before buying things now, which is so fun to watch.

    Even if I fail at everything else, I am hoping to teach him that if you don’t work, you don’t get. Period. I don’t want him to grow up to be a lazy leech like his father (my ex-husband – and no, I don’t say these things in front of my son).

    1. I’m with you on allowing children to buy “goofy things” according to their choice – and on letting them live with the natural consequences of that choice if it happens to be unwise. It really does sound like you’ve set things up well with your son. Allowance, wallet, cash, chores, choice – well done! I know you’re not asking for advice, but bear with me as I offer some. Avoid raising your son to be unlike his father (though of course you hope that he won’t end up with those negative qualities). Raise him to be the good man you already see in him. Instead of nurturing away from, you’ll be nurturing towards – and it will probably look a lot like what you’re doing already. There. You can just ignore that last bit if you like : ) (And I don’t buy the “even if I fail at everything else” segue.)

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