I can recall growing up just how eager I was to finally get “grown”. In my parents’ house, “grown” wasn’t a calculation of candles on a cake but instead a series of measurements assessing maturity and mindfulness, a fusion of their intercultural views on parenting. My parents had no problem reminding me just how not so “grown” I really was, well into my early 20’s at that. My mother’s justification, my behavior, my father’s justification, my bank account. But between the two of them, they agreed that until my idea of grown matched my simulation of it, that they would afford me the protection I so desperately needed from my adult realities. And in doing so, allow me to focus on preparing for adulthood as opposed to being punished by it. My parents provided a safety net for each of their 5 children as we stepped out on our own at our own paces. And each of our nets were fitted to our individual needs, each offering differing levels of support according to our weak areas, gently guiding us towards adulthood, despite what the world would have us do.
My parents, born oceans apart, were bound together by the experience of poverty. Although they couldn’t birth their children into a bigger budget, they could provide us the cushion necessary to build one for ourselves. As I grew into my responsibilities, meeting other young adults along the way, I realized just how fortunate I was that my parents afforded me the luxury of the extended adolescence most young adulthoods in America need, but didn’t have. And with the added layers of race and gender compounded onto the realities of capitalism in the West, my parents knew that their support, or lack thereof, could truly make or break me. They chose to make me.
Psychologists say there are five aspects to adulthood that every teen making the transition should be equipped to navigate: Financial Independence, Health, Work Ethic, Survival and Social Skills. And of these five facets, the most important being Financial Independence, the formation of financial literacy and the ability to make informed and effective financial decisions. Where I’m from, most parents, my own included, would agree that preparing a child for the financial complexities of adulthood is one of the most important things a parent can do. Now how exactly to go about that is where the responses would start to vary. The reduction of adulthood to the responsibility of paying bills demonstrates just how narrow the scope is for many Black parents. And the notion that adult responsibilities should be plopped down on teenagers simply because they’ve reached legal cigarette buying age makes it appear as though some parents view adulthood as punishment, one they’re eager to share.
Sure, gifting your minimum wage earning 16 year old with a household utility bill may seem like an obvious way to force feed them responsibility, and it may even be the way bills were introduced to you as a child, but it turns out that not only is this a highly ineffective way to teach “adulting”, it hardly teaches it at all. While experts say openly discussing finances and expenses with your child or having them watch you pay your bills is a great way to introduce them to the responsibility of budgeting and managing expenses and discretionary spending, they completely frown upon children being responsible with the actual paying of those household bills for multiple reasons. The most damaging being that it creates a pathology that says a child is a financial burden, which is not the same as saying capitalism makes parenting burdensome, because it does. And when parents see their children as the issue for their economic distress, not the systemic orchestration of their socioeconomic status, they spend 18 years anticipating the relief of an issue the child has very little impact on, creating a frigid living environment in the process. When the reality is that people who struggle to pay bills and household expenses after they have children likely struggled to pay them before. And therein lies the problem.
Financial hardship creates hostility, whether it be between business partners, romantic pairs, or family members. And children who grow up in households where money is consistently amiss can be made to feel at fault for the financial shortcomings of their family. It’s confusing to be barred from financial planning and discussions while simultaneously being faulted for financial dilemmas. Is it plausible that leaving lights on, opening doors repeatedly and taking indulgent showers can result in bulky utility bills, sure. But if a slight increase in usage makes a once affordable bill unaffordable, the line between the two was likely being towed all along. And there are ways to communicate that reality to our children that don’t involve guilting them for life happening to us. In an ideal world, we would all be able to afford to raise our children. That means we wouldn’t have to choose between enjoying parenting and enduring parenting, which is often the difference between one income bracket or another. But if we choose to become parents despite the added challenges our socioeconomic situations may present, we do so knowing the sacrifice it requires, both from us and from our children, to be frank. And because we do so knowingly, bringing our children into situations they don’t ask for, we have to be the ones taking the brunt of the sacrifice that accompanies that decision, not splitting it with our children. And doing so is a bigger lesson in adulthood than any bill could ever be.
Young adults who have the physical and psychological wherewithal to step out into the world without the support of their parents or caregivers will undoubtedly experience the repetitive nature of monthly billed expenses. It is the American way, making it an unavoidable aspect of life in the West. And while teens and young adults should be educated on this aspect of adulthood, it’s neither the most important nor the more urgent for them to learn. Not nearly as important or as urgent as budgeting, saving, the credit-debt cycle, investing or financial security. The role of a parent is to shield their child from the realities of adulthood until confident they have the tools to tackle that reality on their own, and until they do, all decisions should be made with that as the goal. Because what good is learning to pay your parents’ bills when you haven’t been taught to write a resume, file taxes, balance a check book, save towards a goal or any of the other things that make paying that bill possible.
It’s unfortunate that some children inherit handouts while others inherit hardship, because all children should inherit handouts, especially Black children who will receive very few, if any, from the rest of the world. Every child should step into adulthood with the contributions of their parents or caregivers and we should challenge any assertion that says we make our children ungrateful, shiftless or unambitious by doing so. We complain about starting our adult lives in deficit but do very little to ensure that our children don’t, evidence of those invisible parental pathologies that we deny in our backgrounds but admit in our behaviors. And when people inherit negative parental pathologies, they unknowingly pass along their wounds as though they were rites of passage. Not wanting their children to have easier upbringings not just because they attribute their strength to their ability to survive, but also because they haven’t healed from their hurt (and we know a thing or two about hurt people).
Black children deserve a leg up, they deserve every advantage at adulthood in a society that all but wills them to fail, and the responsibility of providing them that support falls squarely on our shoulders, particularly as members of the community that expects their acknowledgement and their allegiance should they succeed. Our community is full of examples of people who’ve gone through it and “turned out ok”, we don’t need anymore unnecessary survival stories. If we can’t bestow upon our children the ability to benefit from our financial decisions as they transition from adolescence to adulthood, the least we can do is not be the reason their children are unable to do the same.