Was I High WASP with my children about money? In how much I had? In my attitude towards it? In what I tried to teach them? My first reaction is to say no, simply because I haven’t had the quantities that I grew up with. But I think that’s wrong. I had money. Enough money to buy a house in the San Francisco Bay Area on low salaries and no savings. Enough money to stay home with my children until my little guy was 18 months, and even then only work part-time until he turned 7. Enough money to send two children to private schools on still lowish salaries and no savings. Enough money to take my family to Sweden and stay on a private island in the Swedish Archipelago where one night we took a motorboat to another island and ate grilled fish sitting at wooden benches while a string trio played a mix of Norwegian folk songs and the soundtrack from The Godfather. (Of course my Swedish stepfather and my mother’s perspicacity in marrying him helped with that moment…) Most of all enough money to give my kids glimpses of privilege without having parents doing the type of work that would have afforded that privilege. Even though I don’t have a private art collection that has been gifted to a museum after my death. (Another true fact).
My own attitude towards money has been absolutely classic. High WASPs really really really didn’t use to talk about money. It was worse than pornography, though carrying the same illicit frisson. To this day I remember a conversation with my father, so much unsaid, where he was trying to give me some kind of financial overview before I went off to college. We were living in the house with 35 rooms at the time, where the attic alone was the size of a barn. My parents had for some reason decided to have an award-winning architect build them a garden shed in the yard. Yes, I said garden shed. Dad and I were walking by the shed. It was the special kind of shed that has two stories. And windows. I found myself blurting out, “Dad, so are we millionaires?” He just looked at the ground and made a noise, some kind of noise of affirmation. I was 17 years old and I hadn’t known.
My inheritance, once it arrived, went to live in lalaland. The land where money you don’t make lives. The land governed by your cousins, and banks with strange names that merge with other banks with strange names, and account statements that follow you all your life. That land sends you a checkbook. When you need money you write a check. At some point, actually frequently, you will write checks that would bounce if you were normal. But since you have money in lalaland, someone calls you and says, “How about if we sell XYZ?” Since you didn’t earn that money, and in fact know nothing about investments or banking or stock markets or bonds, you always say “OK.” Eventually they stop asking you, and lalaland becomes lala and fala and falalalala.
Did I impart this attitude to my children? I do not know. I don’t think so. It is true that in many ways, I have replicated how I was brought up. I didn’t make my kids take jobs in high school. Or work at home to earn their allowances. Because my High WASP family values education above all, to my way of thinking their jobs were to do well in school. I indulged them repeatedly. We stayed at fancy hotels when I took them on college tours. Can you say the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago? OMG. Just LOVE LOVE LOVE the panel by the bed to adjust the room controls, and all that honey-colored silk, and the little dressing room outside the bathroom…. But I digress. Bad High WASP. We are being serious here and not hanging our tongues out about the props of money. I bought my daughter a cashmere coat at Bergdorf’s when she started Princeton. Which in fairly short order was stolen from an eating club. After having had beer poured all over it the year before. I sent my son to Australia for a month with his best friend for his high school graduation.
But. In more ways I took a different approach. Most glaringly, my house does not have 35 rooms. We’re pushing it to say 3 bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, kitchen+living room, den. Oh yeah, and a hallway. And I have always told my kids they would have to work. I started saying to them early, when we were out to dinner and enjoying a restaurant with candles and tablecloths and large ravioli, “Now aren’t you glad Mom has a job?” I have made very clear to them that they can go to college unencumbered only because their grandfather in his infinite wisdom funded trust accounts to pay for it. And when they entered college, I began the process of talking to them about how they would support themselves upon graduation. Certainly no inheritance showed up in my daughter’s bank account last fall.
I have tried to teach them how to find a financial path they want to take. Not that I know from direct experience. No one ever talked to me about a career. As in, I don’t think the word was ever said. Not once. I want my children to understand in a way I never did the importance of choosing a way of earning money that you can live with. Whether that means doing what you most love and letting the money come if it will, or whether it means building a lucrative career and doing what you love as a hobby, no matter. But some degree of thought has to be put into the question. Because careers grab you by the scruff of your neck and shake you until you are dead and you might as well die for something you love and/or believe in.
There are values, which may be related to money, which I have hoped to pass on. Excellence and a degree of honor. Excellence, a degree of honor, and some avoidance of ostentation unless we are only with ourselves and no one will be offended. Or we are inviting people in and sharing. How well we realize those values, who knows? We are all humans and humans are subject to a multitude of flaws. But my mother and my father both believed in integrity, doing the best job you can, and good manners. At least they said they did. And so do I. At least I say I do. But values are a question for another day.