“Work and save, work and save, work and save…” I heard my father repeat that phrase so many times during my childhood and adolescence I thought my head would explode! Yet, it is one of the most valuable lessons he ever taught me. My parents began their marriage with virtually no savings. They liked to tell the story of how they had no money to open a bank account after their wedding because they spent their last nickel on my mother’s wedding bouquet. They met and married while my father attended graduate school and eventually taught at Cal Tech. He went on to launch a small company with several colleagues after World War 2 ended. My mother kept a home that was immaculate and consistently placed the needs of her children ahead of her own. Both were very hard workers. My father often began working before dawn. My mom joked that painting was one of her hobbies. Of course, she was referring to painting our house rather than landscapes. She died in 1985, and my father passed away in 1988. During their lifetime they purchased three homes, paid for their children’s college education, and helped us out financially along the way. Their homes and cars were purchased without loans, and they never carried a balance on their credit cards. They lived comfortably within their means, and died with a surplus that they passed along to us.

As I reflect on my youth, I realize how consistently my parents modeled fiscal responsibility for me. Our vacations generally involved visiting relatives. They did not waste food and for the most part maintained or repaired their home themselves. They used coupons when they shopped and purchased items on sale whenever possible. I watched them entertain at home rather than dine with friends at restaurants. During my adolescence, I worked part-time for my father during the summer. My parents insisted that I save most of what I earned, as well as any money I received from relatives for my birthday or Christmas.  I worked part time while I attended graduate school, and my father encouraged me to contribute to an IRA. He firmly believed that I should plan for my own retirement because Social Security was doomed to fail. As an adult, I have worked hard, lived within my means, and remain debt free. I attribute both my work ethic and my desire to care for myself and my family to the lessons that I learned from my parents.

How different those patterns I observed were than what most of America’s youth witnesses today. The ease at which credit has been granted to members of my generation, as well as the generations which have followed, has led to staggering amounts of personal debt and a housing crisis. Many people continue to live beyond their means even though unemployment rates soar, and the threat of inflation looms before us. They continue to spend impulsively rather than saving for their children’s college education, retirement, or even the rainy day which we all experience. They feel they are owed maximum levels of income for minimal amounts of work. On the macro level, children witness governmental entities on all levels that seem unable to trim budgets and unwilling to decrease spending levels. Omnipresent regulation impedes business start-ups and small business growth. A significant portion of the population is dependent upon entitlements. Perhaps most disturbing are cries resonating at all levels from the Wall Street protestors to the president of our county. They argue that economic redistribution should occur because it is “fair,” and they seek “change” which would further damage our economy. 

My dad’s “work and save” mantra is the embodiment of the American spirit of rugged individualism. It is the articulation of the idea that because of our liberty we are free to work hard, achieve success, and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Any American can achieve greatness no matter how humble his or her beginnings might be. Steve Jobs is the archetypal example of that possibility. It is also a reminder that once success is achieved, it is our responsibility to care for ourselves and our children. Each individual who takes personal responsibility for his or her own success and financial stability increases the likelihood that our will continue to enjoy the liberties that we take for granted. How can you teach your child(ren) about the opportunity that we, Americans, are fortunate enough to enjoy? How can you instill a sense of personal responsibility within your child(ren)? Think of the role model that you provide and the expectations that you create within each child in your family. Consider these questions:

Do you model a strong work ethic for your child, or do you teach him that he only needs to do the minimum of what is expected?

Do you strive to improve your level of success each day, or have you thrown up your hands and decided success somehow accidentally happens to others?

If you are struggling, lost your job, or are experiencing other difficulties, what is your child learning from your attitude? Are you confident that things will improve somehow, or is your anger preventing you from seeing a way to move forward?

Do you talk to your child about the importance of working hard and being self-reliant as an adult, or is that a discussion you will have someday?

Are you teaching your child the skills necessary to achieve that self-reliance, or are you counting on the school or someone else to do it for you?

Are you taking responsibility for your health and well-being, or do you think your health has no impact on what you can achieve in the future?

Are you living within your means, or are you spending impulsively?

Do you believe it is ultimately your responsibility to provide for yourself and your family, or do you anticipate that you will always receive assistance from elsewhere?

Are you moving toward a self-sustaining future one step at a time, or do you expect that you and your family will always be reliant upon governmental support?

As individual citizens, you and I cannot control what happens at the federal, state, or even the municipal level. However, as parents we are very powerful indeed. We can model a strong work ethic and fiscal responsibility for our children. We can educate them about past successes of their fellow Americans, and the country as a whole, and instill within them the mindset that they too can achieve success. We have the opportunity to internalize that American spirit of rugged individualism within our children. It is not “fair” to send them into the world with the expectation that the government will care for their every need when it clearly cannot. The “change” that we need is for every child in this country to be trained to strive each day to be responsible for himself or herself, to work hard, and believe that self-reliance is the key to success.

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© Copyright 2011 Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D. All rights reserved.