Tag Archives: Family

Investing Starts At Home

If you have read many of my past entries, you may have gotten the impression that I am in favor of living in a hovel, huddling in the dark around a bare lightbulb for light and warmth, and eating only room-temperature ramen noodles, while saving every penny for a possible future emergency.

Even my wife would admit — reluctantly — that that’s an exaggeration. The fact is, that just wouldn’t be any fun. I am a strong believer in saving money now so you’ll have it later, and I have been since I was very small. (I remember loaning my mother money when I was nine years old, and insisting on getting interest on it. Not enough — my mother was a very poor risk — but I was young.) I also believe, however, that there is enough misery in this life without inflicting more of it on ourselves than we have to.

As it happens, we live in a nice house in a quiet suburb, have numerous computers, TVs, and other personal electronics, drive good cars, and dine out as often as is practical with a two-year old in the house. It’s not a fancy life, but it’s a comfortable one.

There are, of course, qualifiers to the above. The nice house is in a good neighborhood, but not one of the local ‘prestige’ suburbs. A similar house a few miles to the east would have cost us another $30,000. It wouldn’t have been a better house, just one with a more prestigious address.

I bought a good home theater system ten years ago and it still works great. Someday we’ll upgrade to a big flat-panel TV, but there’s no hurry.

We tend to buy new cars and keep them for a long time. Mine is ten years old now and due for replacement (As I’ve talked about before.) but my wife’s is only a few years old and good for many more. She wanted an SUV, but instead of looking at one of the big, fancy gas-guzzling ones that would have been too big for her to be comfortable driving anyway, we got a modest little Honda CR-V. It runs great, does everything we need it to, and she likes it. All for half the cost of a fancier truck.

Our biggest luxury is probably that we have someone come in every couple weeks to clean, and a crew of guys who come every couple weeks to mow the lawn. No excuses there; that’s pure laziness, paying other people to do things we don’t have time, or don’t want, to do ourselves.

If you are above the poverty line it’s almost certainly possible for you to live a comfortable lifestyle within your means. Simply don’t spend more than you make, and judge the merits of the things you purchase based on how they will serve you, not on what other people will think of them. Bragging rights are expensive and if every month finds you a little deeper in debt, you can’t afford them.

Don’t be stupid in what you spend your money on. My wife was at our bank a while back and one of the bank officers pounced on her, trying to get her to take out a home equity loan. “You own your own home? Why don’t you take out a home equity loan and go on a vacation?”

A vacation? THAT is the sort of thing people are taking out second mortgages on their houses for? No wonder foreclosures are at their highest rate since the Great Depression.

Just to be absolutely clear, borrowing to purchase necessary durable goods, like a house or a car, can be a good idea. Borrowing to finance something as transitory as a vacation is just plain stupid.

People do it, though. I heard a news story the other day claiming that in the past ten years the American consumer has spent $3 TRILLION dollars more than he has earned. The amount of debt that some people have accumulated in order to finance a lifestyle they can’t afford is staggering. Don’t be one of those people. You can only write bad checks for so long before they start coming due, and for a lot of families across the country they are coming due right now.

But, there is no need to suffer either. In THE MILLIONAIRE NEXT DOOR the authors talk about the research they did into the lifestyle of the average millionaire. They go on at great length about how these millionaires are typically working-folks who have simply accumulated a lot of money by the simple method of not spending much. They live very simply and save a great deal of their income.

What the authors don’t talk about, though, but what jumped out at me was why these people are saving. Almost all of them said that they were saving all that money so that their kids could live a more affluent lifestyle. In other words, these millionaires did not see their own frugal lifestyle as something to aspire to, but rather something to suffer through.

My wife and I have a tradition, going back about twenty years now, of going out to eat on Friday night. Sometimes we go out to a nice restaurant, sometimes we order in Chinese or pizza. Sometimes, if we’re sick or the weather is bad enough, we’ll go out for breakfast on Saturday instead. Since our son was born we’ve done more fast food than fancy dining out, but the point is we do something. It’s an expense that the truly cheap would avoid, but I consider it money well spent. Guys, your wives will put up with a lot if they know they’re going to get that night out at the end of the week. Trust me on this.

Small luxuries like our maid service and the weekly night out are important. Having some nice things in your house will make living there more enjoyable, and watching your child play with his new toys is its own reward.

Keeping your family happy is more important than adding a few dollars to the savings account. It’s not an expense; it’s an investment. The most important investment there is.

Decisive Action

My son has what many people would consider a surprising, and probably inappropriate, amount of decision-making power. He is, as likely as not, the one to pick what we’re going to eat on Friday night. He picks out nearly all of his own toy, and always has. He has some say in where we go for family activities.

It’s not a lot, and we phrase the questions simply when asking for his input, but then he is only 25 months old.

From the very start of his life, I have done my best to involve him in what was going on, rather than simply doing things to him or making him do things. When he was only a few weeks old I would explain the diaper change process to him while putting him up on the changing table. “OK boy, what we’ve got here is a toxic waste spill in your diaper area. We’re going to have to open up your onesie, remove the befouled diaper, and send in a specially trained HAZMAT team to clean up the area. Then we’ll get a fresh diaper on you…oh, and a fresh onesie too, looks like. OK? Good, let’s get started.”

He would stare up at me, giving every indication that he was listening intently. I don’t know if he understood a word I was saying, but it helped him stay calm (he hated laying on the changing table).

When he was about six months old, and we started introducing those little containers of vile mushed vegetables into his diet, he picked out his high-chair. We narrowed our selection down to two possibilities and then asked him which one he liked better. He made his selection by grabbing one of the trays and trying to eat it.

That was about the age when we let him starting picking out his toys, too. Or perhaps he was a month or two younger then. (That first year is a blur, a blur probably familiar to any parent. My mother asked once at that time, “What did you used to do before Nathaniel was born?” I replied, “Sleep.”) At any rate, we would carry him over to the shelves of toys and he would grab at the ones that caught his eye. Some he’d put back down again, some would hold his attention. Those, we bought.

Hardly any of his toys sat idle. He played with them all.

Now that he is talking fairly well — well enough to get his opinions across — he dictates most of the TV viewing during the day and is quick to veto any unfortunate music selections while in the car.

He doesn’t have completely free rein, of course. We will most likely ask him what he wants for breakfast, but his choices are limited. If he asks for ice cream or pizza, we present him with an array of options. “No, I’m sorry, we can’t have ice cream for breakfast. How about some toast? Or cereal? Eggs?” And he’ll — usually — pick something from the approved list. If he picks the place for our Friday night-out dinner, we give him a list of places we’d pick from anyway, so what’s the harm in letting him pick? If nothing else, it serves as a tie-breaker between my wife and me.

In short, he gets to make a lot of decisions that are important to him, but which have very small stakes from my and my wife’s perspective. If we’re going to buy a high-chair or toy anyway, why not let him pick which one we get? If he wants to watch DIEGO or SUPERWHY, why not let him? If we have other plans, well, his decision gets overridden, but there’s generally no harm in letting him have his way on these small matters.

(Not that they are small to him, of course. Which cartoon he watches, or which toy cars he takes upstairs at bedtime, for example, is utterly trivial to us, but of tremendous significance to him.)

The point of all this isn’t just to spoil the boy. Keeping him happy is important, of course, but there is a more important issue at stake, a matter of deliberate policy.

I want him to absorb at the earliest possible age, to have rooted deep in the fabric of his personality, the habit of making decisions, and the idea that he has input and influence over the course of his life. To most people, that probably does not seems like something that would have to be specifically cultivated. Perhaps for most people it isn’t. Perhaps my own background is causing me to overcompensate with my son.

My parents took the opposite approach, you see. Any idea that my opinion mattered, that I had any say at all in what happened in my life, was beaten out of me at an early age. I was simply dragged from one place to another and told what I was to do. I didn’t want to be an astronaut when I grew up, or a fireman, or doctor, or President. None of the usual childhood ambitions. The highest pinnacle of accomplishment that I could imagine was simply to be left alone.

I remember the moment, in 7th Grade, when I realized that at some point in the future no one would be dictating my schedule, requiring me to be in school for X number of hours five days a week. Yes; I was about twelve years old before I realized that I would ever have any say in what happened in my life. It would be years more before I really absorbed and internalized that concept. Even now, thirty years later, I tend to drift, pushed by events rather than taking charge of them, unless I concentrate on taking control.

Parents, involve your children in the decisions that affect them, no matter how small they are. Let them decide. Let them learn from the earliest possible age that they can act on the world around them, and not only be acted on by it. Teach them that they have choices. You may be doing them a tremendous amount of good. Order their lives for them, and you may never know how much harm you have done.

Freedom is choice. Teach your children to be free.

Let’s Do The Time Warp Again

It’s that time of year again, when most people in the United States waste time resetting clocks. I always get a reminder the day after the time switch; my two-year old son’s sleep schedule is thrown all out of whack. He sleeps late and is cranky in the morning, and doesn’t want to go to sleep in the evening. This makes me and his mother cranky as well. It takes about a week to get him settled back in.

Daylight Savings Time is one of the greatest boondoggles ever put over on the American Public, right up there with trickle-down economics (which was at least honest; Reagan pretty much came right out and said that the rich would trickle all over the poor). It is supposed to save energy, though everyone knows it doesn’t, and now there’s proof. Hell, DST kills people, when an already sleep-deprived American public takes to the roads the following Monday.

Daylight Savings Time. It actually causes people to use more energy, it disrupts people’s sleep schedules, causing traffic accidents and an incalculable amount of misery and grouchiness. (How many more mistakes do workers make on the Monday following the ‘spring forward?’ Would you want to buy a car built on that morning?) So, then, why do we stick with it? Who benefits from all this extra expense and misery? As near as I can tell, only one group. Only one group of people is wholeheartedly in favor of Daylight Savings Time.


Yes, golfers. No matter what price other people may pay, they have an extra hour of daylight and can get in an extra hole or two of golf.

Keep that in mind as you blunder your way through the day, wishing you could take a nap. If you happen to meet a happy golfer do all of us a favor. Kick him in the balls.

Golf balls, of course. What did you think I meant?

Toddler Lockdown

Having a baby limits your personal freedom more than just about anything this side of a prison sentence. It’s a life sentence too, with the possibility of parole after eighteen or twenty years. If you’re lucky.

Those of you with children know what I’m talking about. For the benefit of the rest, I will elaborate.

Your first few weeks with a new baby are a blur of diaper changes, howling, and being covered in disgusting bodily fluids. Your baby will probably sleep for most of its first week on the outside and you may begin to think that this is not so difficult. Don’t fall for that. It’s a trick. Once the baby wakes up she or he will, it seems, not sleep again for several months.

Infants have only one means of communication. Crying. It’s your job to try and figure out what the problem is. You’re as likely as not trying to solve that riddle at 2:30 in the morning, after having only slept for a total of three hours over the past two days. Good luck.

Things that were very easy before, like jumping in the car and running over to the store, suddenly become major productions. Not only are you tethered to a baby that may, at any moment, start howling like a fire engine, but there is a whole caravan’s worth of support hardware that you have to haul around. At night, someone always has to be available to cover nighttime feedings and other crises. (After the first few weeks I had, much to my wife’s disgust, learned to sleep through the routine nighttime wake-up crying. A few times, though, our son managed to get his leg caught between the slats of his cradle and woke up with an entirely different “Daddy, daddy, something’s got me!” cry that would snap me out of bed instantly.)

In short, your entire life now revolves around providing support to a tiny, helpless, human being who is entirely dependent on you. It affects everything, down to taking time to use the bathroom.

It gets a little easier when he begins sleeping through the night, but there is another trap out there waiting for you. Not long after that your helpless little baby becomes mobile.

The one saving grace of the early months is that the baby will stay where you put him. Lay him on a blanket on the floor for a few minutes while you go to the bathroom and he might start crying, but at least he’s going to be there when you get out. Once he becomes mobile, though, you have a whole new set of problems. Now the whole layout of your house might have to change, especially if you have stairs. (Our boy could climb stairs before he could walk.)

Toddlers become very mobile. They won’t even stay with you in the store. They’ll hare off to the other side of the store, where they remember finding toys the last time you were there. They’ll hide on you, or run around obstacles in a deliberate attempt to lose you. Elevators and escalators are fascinating new toys.

They are also endlessly curious. Any sort of container is liable to be opened and dumped out, just to see what’s in it and if it’s any fun. Or tastes good. A cup of water is almost as likely to be dumped on the table (splash, splash!) as to be drunk. A moment’s inattention to what the little imp is doing might cost you twenty minutes in cleanup.

As of this writing, my son, Nathaniel, is two and a third years old and our life revolves around him as much as it did when he was one month old. Getting him dressed is usually a tag-team wresting match and shopping is a major expedition (and likely to result in the purchase of more little toy cars, regardless of what it was we were originally shopping for). He can climb like a monkey and has to be watched carefully to make sure he isn’t getting into something dangerous that he couldn’t reach the week before. He is as demanding as ever of our attention and has a broader vocabulary with which to tell us what he wants. Even what kind of car I buy is determined primarily by the fact that a toddler is going to be riding in it. Now, though, instead of crying endlessly he’s scampering around the house, or demanding to watch Wow Wow Wubbzy one more time, or pushing me down behind the couch with instructions to “Hi’n’see’.”

Being the parent of a young child is, in many ways, like being a prisoner. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I am luckier than many parents in that I am self-employed, which means I have some flexibility to set my own hours. I try to make a little time every morning to play with him before I leave for work, and I try to be home every evening not later than bath time. Sometimes I am lucky enough to have a day when I can work from home and spend much of the day with him. He loves that.

Most days, though, I leave in the morning and get back around suppertime. When Nathaniel sees me getting ready to leave in the morning he knows he’s not going to see me all day and he gets quite upset. He will run to me and throw his arms around my legs and if I pick him up he will wrap his arms and legs around me and resist any effort to get him to let go. Eventually we get him pried loose and I drive away, with him still sobbing, “Da’y, Da’y!”

Under the circumstances, it is hard to work up any enthusiasm for heading off to work.

The last couple of months have been very busy ones for work, with me frequently working six out of seven days a week. I have very mixed emotions about that. On the one hand, of course, the money is very welcome. On the other hand, I hardly saw my son at all.

Toddlers are toddlers for such a very short time, and watching them discover the world, all bright and new in their eyes, is such a joy, that I begrudge any time away from my family. Right now, I am still a superhero to Nathaniel. It won’t be very long before he’s a teenager and I’m a public embarrassment to him. As far as I’m concerned, every hour is precious.

But the bills still need to be paid.

It’s an irreconcilable situation and I have no particular words of wisdom for anyone else who may be struggling with the same balancing act. We all have to set our own priorities and find our own paths.

I’m sleep-deprived and my house looks like it’s been carpet-bombed with toy cars. I’m giving up my two-seater pop-top roadster for a sensible family car. My library is still mostly in boxes because we don’t have money to spend on expensive bookcases and Nathaniel would just pull all the books off the shelves anyway. We hardly ever get to go anywhere because by the time we get out the door it’s his naptime and he falls asleep in the car. If we’re lucky. With all the germs the kids pass around on their playdates, I’ve been sick more times in the last two years than in the whole ten years previous.

And I’m a superhero. Da’y, da’y!

For The Children

I was knocking around the web last week, hitting the usual variety of sites that I read to keep up on what is going on in the world and came across a link to a WSJ essay by Peggy Noonan. It was a good essay, about how America’s political leaders are out of touch with the common people and the indignities that are regularly heaped on them. The actual content doesn’t matter much, though, particularly as it has since rotated off the WSJ’s site. What really struck me was the picture accompanying the article. This picture.


I know it’s probably a staged picture. That doesn’t matter. It was the thought of my little boy being in that position that got to me.

We haven’t had to travel by plane since he was born. We haven’t traveled much by plane since 9/11, for that matter. Everyone in America knows what it’s like, though. Even if you haven’t flown you’ve heard the stories. The long lines, the pointless indignities and silly rules, supposedly in the name of security but we all know better. Is there anyone who doesn’t realize that taking off your shoes and only carrying very small bottles of liquid doesn’t do anything at all to make air travel safer? At best, it’s a big humiliating dog and pony show all so the government can say they’re Doing Something. We all know how silly it is. We all know one other thing, too.

We know that you’d better not say anything about it. Keep your eyes down, don’t do anything to be noticed, don’t talk back to the security people. Be quiet and obedient or things will go very very badly for you.

Be afraid.

Much of what passes for public policy in the United States these days is based on fear. Fear that the terrorists will get us. Fear of losing our jobs, and our home. Fear of not being able to keep up a middle class lifestyle in the worsening economy, and slipping down into the terrifying abyss of the poor.

Fear of what will happen if you tell that cop or TSA guard what you really think.

When did we Americans become so afraid? Is this really what we have been reduced to? Shuffling along in our stockinged feet, obeying the silliest rules, not out of fear of what some terrorists might do but out of fear of what the people who are nominally there to protect us will do.

When did our own government become more frightening than the people they are supposed to be protecting us from?

And, more to the point, how do you, as a parent, pass that fear along to your children? How do you explain to that small child, who looks up to you as a superhero, that daddy (or mommy) has to do whatever these people tell him to do, no matter how demeaning, or they will take him away?

How do you tell your child that he or she must do whatever the people in uniform say, or something bad will happen? Stay in your place, obey orders, or the men in uniform with the clubs and guns will take you away.

Is that what we want to teach our children?

People around the world are afraid of America. Not just our enemies — it is good for our enemies to fear us — but our friends too. Fewer tourists still visit us from overseas than seven years ago, before 9/11 and the subsequent hysteria, despite the fact that our currency is now practically worthless and we’re a bargain for rich foreigners. It’s not terrorists they are afraid of. It’s our government. It’s us.

The United States is not, for all of our problems, a terrible place. There are many worse countries in the world. But neither are we the place we once were. Once America was a place where nearly everyone wanted to go, a place where you could be free and your children could have a better life.

There was a time when we said to the world, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Now we say, “Papers, please.”

Look around you the next time you are in an airport, or standing in line at some government office, or waiting to go through some security checkpoint. Look in a mirror. Look within yourself. Ask yourself, “How did we get here? Is this the kind of country I want to live in, my children to grow up in?”

Is this the best we can do?

Happy Thanksgiving

A few weeks ago, I had to make a brief stop at a client’s office on the weekend. Nathaniel and I were going to go on adventures that day, so I brought him along. He likes going to the office he calls ‘the snacky place.’ I took care of what work I needed to do while he had some cookies in the break room, and we were getting ready to go when he asked me, “What’s that?”

‘That’ was a food-bank box, with a few cans rolling around forlornly in it. I considered for a moment how to explain this to a three-year-old, then said, “There are some families out there who don’t have enough food to feed their little boys and girls, so other people give food to help them out.”

Then I thought about what I’d said, while Nathaniel stared at the box and munched on a mini fudge graham, and said, “You know, daddy complains a lot sometimes, but I guess we don’t have it so bad. Whatever else, we always have food in the house and never have to wonder where our next meal is going to come from.”

Then I tousled my little boy’s hair and said, “Let’s go have some adventures, little guy.”

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Be thankful for what you have, and not just on one day each year.

What Everybody Knows

There’s a good article over on the Washington Post about what happens when a successful adult tries to take a 10th grade standardized test. He concludes:

“It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning.

“I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test] in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”

Well, of course. The public education system isn’t about preparing kids academically to be successful adults. It is about keeping them out of the house for 13 years so their parents can work, conditioning them to accept performing dull, pointless work under conditions where rigid conformity is required, and churning out adults who are ready to do pointless scut-work for low pay in the service of their corporate overlords.

Everyone knows that.