Thursday, February 18, 2010

Parenting through Hard Times: Sharing the Load

Almost a year has passed, and times are still tough here in the Midwest. The foreclosure crisis has caused a strain that is still toppling families. Our dollars buy less than they did a year or two ago.

The good news? We've adjusted. And the changes we've made to our family finances have made our household budget a lot healthier. So, for us, the outlook is better.

But there are still jobs disappearing and families out there who are struggling. So I thought I'd resurrect this one from the files for the readers who need it most. It was originally published in April 2009.

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Yesterday I read the latest economic statistics, and the news wasn't happy. What has me most concerned was the number 8.4%. It's the number of home mortgage payments a month or more late in the state of Illinois. I can't stop the mental calculations.

Foreclosed Homes = Families in Trouble

Our children are smart enough to see the pensive look that sometimes crosses our faces. They know enough to ask questions of us when our heads are close, leaning over the newspaper, discussing friends and family members who have lost their jobs. They notice that we are buying less from the grocery store and the department store. When we schedule family fun, it is not a costly affair.

So far, when they ask, we have downplayed our inner worry; children should not have to bear the brunt of adult responsibilities. But we have shared tidbits here and there about the troubled economy. The question facing many parents right now is: how do you share the full reality of hard times with your kids? And should you?

I can't answer for every parent or every family, but I can share the approach we've come to.

Be Honest: Parents' first instinct is always to protect their children. But, when a bad economy threatens to change life dramatically, the best way to protect them may be to prepare them. In our case, we talk about work and expenses realistically with our children. We allow them to ask questions, and we answer those questions the best that we can. Often, we steer the conversation away from everyone's worst fears. But we make room for our children's fears to be expressed. We reassure, but we don't spin a fairy tale. It's a fine line to walk, being honest without scaring your children, but we do our best to walk it nonetheless.

Educate about Trade-offs: We have a birthday coming up. It won't be an all-out bash like we've had in the past. I will give my oldest some choices about how he would like to celebrate. If he chooses a bigger party with more people, the trade-off is that he will get smaller gifts from us, because the party itself will be more expensive. It is important to us that we explain the reality of our budget and leave the choices up to him. That way, he retains some control and learns to prioritize.

Emphasize Gratitude: When families don't have as much money in the household budget, it can be tempting to give in to self-pity. Sometimes it can be helpful to take time together to enjoy the simple things in our lives -- a long family bike ride, a hike in the woods, splashing in mud puddles, cooking together, planting a garden together, watching a beautiful sunset, visiting with Grandparents, watching the stars. These things are free. So is the fact that our family is together. Changing focus from what you are giving up to the blessings you have can be a gift to your children. And setting aside time each day to talk about what you're grateful for can foster a sense of peace in troubled times -- for parents and children.

Pray Together: Our family moved from Chicago to the Washington, DC metro area when I was about seven. It was 1979 and the housing market was very slow. My parents carried two mortgages for about 18 lean months. It was a hard time for such a large family -- my parents and six of us kids. My parents made the decision to put our worries in God's hands by adding a small prayer to our grace before meals. We just said, "Dear Lord, thank you for our house and please help us to sell our house." After the house finally sold, the prayer changed to "Thank you for our house and thank you for helping us sell our house." I think I included that prayer of gratitude in my private prayers for at least a decade afterward. Now that I'm an adult and shoulder the burdens of our family finances, I understand why my parents chose to pray the way they did. They were sharing the load of their worries with us and with someone infinitely more powerful. They were giving voice to their concerns and also handing over control. When the time was right, a buyer emerged and my parents worked with that family to make our old home their first home. Theirs was a great example to me, and now I draw strength from prayer, putting worry in its place so I can take care of my responsibilities.

Share the Plan: Being honest with your children about how the economy will effect your life is an important step. Possibly more important is sharing the way forward. Parents can tell their children why they will be working more hours or set and talk about family goals to put more savings away or to pay off debts. The goal is always to show your children what action you are taking to make life more secure for them. If your family will be moving, get your children in on the planning. Make it an adventure if you can. Give them a chance to plan a little bit too. It will help the whole family to feel more in control.

Find Strength in your Family History: We know and tell our family stories. My dad has told my boys about his mother's victory garden. This year, my oldest has planted a garden of his own. My mother's family vacations as a child were simple: camping at a local park and swimming in the river every day with kids from the neighborhood. We can easily keep up the tradition at our own 'swimming hole'. My husband's grandfather owned a store with his brother during the depression. They lost it because they extended credit to families who needed food. It was something he never regretted doing, and he went on to live a long, full, joy-filled life. Grandpa Kelly's story has given us perspective, teaching us that situations change, jobs change, and the best we can do is to be as kind as we can. In the end, what matters is how we live, not where our paycheck comes from. So, tell your family's immigrant story, bring your children to visit the home where their grandparents grew up, visit older relatives and ask them to share their memories. It will give you context and perspective.

Set Goals and Stay Positive: Find ways to think positively about the future. Even though times are uncertain, focus on the things that are certain. Make family goals and work to keep them, even if the goals are simple. We will go fishing with Grandpa. We will be brave enough to go off the diving board. We will learn to fix your bike together. We will grow our own vegetables. We will volunteer every week at the food bank. We will help our elderly neighbor with odd jobs. The goals can be big or small, but setting them, working toward them, and meeting them can be a great way to build something for the future. Taking positive action is an important part of maintaining a positive outlook. It helps both parents and kids look at a problem and think, we can lick this.

Our basic view is this: God put us in this family for a reason. We have to find the strength to get through when times are tough -- together. That means being honest, making good choices, forming a plan, setting goals, and staying positive. Our family is the most important bond we have been given; we hope it is a source of love and understanding, even when our patience and endurance are being tested. And our family is only complete with every member.

So, we choose to share the load. We show our children they are valued when we share with them. Even when the news is not good at first. As parents, we can and should assure them that we will face life's challenges together. When we do, I truly believe there is nothing we can't accomplish.

- Midwest Mom


  1. It's definitely very scary times. I try to share with my kids some of what's affecting us, but it's hard.

    You have great tips here.

  2. Your tips are wise ones - as usual. We were a lot poorer when my kids were little than I think they realized. They just saw what they didn't have, compared to other kids in the neighborhood - the stuff. But I spent time, not money, on them. We went more places (parks for picnics, field trips to the airport to watch planes take off, doing a bazillion art or craft projects) and the kids in the neighborhood were jealous of THEM.

  3. This is all very sound advice!

    We also have a birthday party coming up. We saved a lot of money by buying the character themed table cloth and banner but stuck to solid napkins, plates, and cups instead of the character ones. We are keeping it low key with homemade play doh, bubbles, and backyard games for the kids. I printed out character coloring pages and put a pack of crayons in the goody bags as well as a couple treats from the Target dollar bins. Now I just hope the weather is nice so everyone doesn't have to cram into our house..

    Ps-Thanks for the expert tips on growing corn as well!

  4. I thought your article you posted was very good. I work at at church and would like to use your basic outline for our families. Would you mind? I would be glad to give you the credit.

  5. Mom24 - Thanks. You're right that it's a scary time, and since you have at least one grown child, I'm sure it's doubly tough. Don't discount the strength you can draw from your children, though. Sometimes mine have a way of seeing very clearly what is important and what isn't. They can be great teachers.

    Suzen - It's great to see you! And what a lovely comment. I never thought that all these little things would make our life coveted by others, but you're right to point out that parental involvement isn't as commonplace as it once was. Maybe we can't afford to go to Disney, but we can have tons of fun on our camping trips instead. And the best part is, we're together.Laurie - It sounds like you're going to have a *great* party. I bet your little guy will have fun, indoors or out. (And anytime you need a corn guru, look no further than your friendly neighborhood Midwesterner.) :D

    Debra - Thank you so much for coming by Midwest Moms. Material from this site is under copyright, but we can make arrangements for your church to use it if you like. Please email me at midwestmome @ yahoo dot com. I hope to hear from you soon!

    Have a great day, everyone!
    - Julia aka Midwest Mom

  6. These are great tips. Luckily, my guy is still too young to really have to worry about explanations.


  7. What a great post!
    Great ideas and great advice.
    I think more people need to remember that family is a glue that holds life together. That and serving a God that loves us, knows our needs and has a perfect plan for our lives.

  8. Amen. I think there's much to be said for forthrightness and kids learning NOW to budget!

  9. When Sept. 11, 2001, left our nation and country in turmoil, my daughter was in junior high school.

    Within a couple of days, I took out the family scrapbook that showed the years of World War II. There were photos of her great-grandfather in uniform, someone else in college, someone else showing off a new baby.

    "Life went on," I told my daughter.

    So if you have any family stories and photos that correspond to our economic turmoil, this is a great time to pass on those stories.

  10. All good advice. Thanks for sharing it.

  11. I love your post! Very inspirational :)
    Sometimes it gets really worrisome. But somehow with our families intact and with the support of loved ones, we always manage to go through the toughest of times. What's important is love, trust, and of course, we must never lose hope that better things are ahead of us.

  12. Thank you for your post is really important to me ... it is very good information about
    Parenting through Hard Times: Sharing the Load ...


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