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Special section: Family Life

If they can do without, they’ll have it all


As a parent and grandparent pulling this NCR family life issue together -- and as a member of a parish and a community in a major metropolitan area -- I kept bumping into the same bothersome fact about today’s young parents.

They don’t know how to say no.

By not accentuating the negative along with the positive, they’re not providing their children with much sense of real-life options -- that they cannot have everything. Either this or that but not both. Sacrifice doesn’t exist. The children are growing up, as some of their parents seem to have done, with the expectation they are entitled to -- and will get -- everything they want.

’Tain’t so.

The only reason young parents have what they have now -- jobs and hard work to one side -- is that they, like their children, have existed in a period of unprecedented (for many, not all) national prosperity.

Can’t last. And won’t.

So when the downturn comes, neither parents nor children will have much sense of how to set priorities.

My generation (I’m 62) and my parents’ generation, grew up differently: First the Depression and then the genuine privations of World War II -- particularly in Europe where the privations lasted well into the 1950s.

We had jobs and rising expectations, too. But we were vehemently anti- consumerist because, coming out of nothing, we understood the trap. And we’re anti-consumerism’s agents when it comes to television’s cheap advertising and the notion that fads matter. Hard on the kids, true. But believe it or not, parents our age who did the same know what the feeling is like when the children, now raising their children, say, “Thanks. It worked.”

It worked because we preached don’t get into debt. And as a family we didn’t -- except for a home mortgage and a car.

It worked because we didn’t need to be surrounded by baubles to have fun. Whenever the “William Tell” overture came on the radio or was played on the record player, everyone stopped what he or she was doing, ran to the kitchen and grabbed a pot and a spoon, and raced around the house banging the pot to the rhythm of: da-da-da da-da-da dadda-da-da-da.

Whenever I traveled, which for a while was frequently, there was a homemade musical or drama -- complete with a hand-lettered program -- to watch and applaud upon my return.

And any time there was excess money, we all traveled. We used it up seeing things together. It helped that we lived abroad as a family and come from two cultures.

We prayed together -- invented our own grace before meals -- and we’ve stayed together. We’ve had crises and sadnesses, setbacks and wrong decisions, tears and heart-tearings and concerns like every other family.

We told the kids that we’d try to give them a debt-free college education. After that it was up to them. It worked, because if we couldn’t afford it we bought used or did without. We got our first living-room carpet for this house when our oldest graduated from college.

And in those crucial teen years, when others’ kids were spending freely and had nice cars to boast of, ours made do with rattletrap VW bugs and ancient Opels.

At college we said you don’t have to have all A’s. B’s are fine. No C’s. And we made it through, a bit hairily at times, with no debts.

For five years the children’s experience of church was a pacifist center with a liturgy downstairs and homeless men upstairs. They’ve no concept of church that doesn’t involve the poor, no concept of society that doesn’t have looking out for the least as a priority.

When they came of age and could choose whether they’d attend church or not, we reluctantly accepted that as adults they would find God in their own way. For one, God exists in Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.”

We have three children, kind and compassionate, who because they could live simply -- could buck the trend -- were able to pursue their dreams.

Being able to live without, they’ve been able to live in Europe for years on end, go on the road with a band or pursue a career that was not on the A-list of lifetime pursuits in America then -- though it is now.

One child refuses on principle to own a car and lives only where there’s public transportation. One made a hand-me-down VW Jetta last for 183,000 miles and then sold it for $300. One boldly tried to survive as a freelance musician, writer and cartoonist. We’ve always said: Try it, do it.

At various times they all buy into the system that pays their way -- we all have to. They toe the corporate line in order to survive in it, but they’ve got rich lives not dependent on identification with their jobs.

They are not what they do. They are who they are.

My wife and I were lucky, too. We raised kids in a climate easier than today. One of us -- my wife for most of those years, but me for some -- was always home. After 12 years of married life we blew our savings. I stayed home a year, doing the cooking, cleaning and caring for kids (and writing a book with no cash advance involved) while she finished her academic work.

We stuck to our values no matter how much it irked the children. And, by God, irk them it did. We still hear about it. In our house, when one parent said no, it meant no for both -- though as in any family, there was always a court of wheedling appeals and playing for sympathy.

Our kids might give a different version of this tale. We’ll see.

But as the first one begins to raise children, in values shared by the spouse, we hear echoes of some of the old refrains repeated.

There’ll be no great “transgenerational wealth transfer” -- that latest national buzz phrase -- when we pop off. Fine. We got none either.

As grandparents we’re as tough and loving and as silly as ever. And the little ones adapt. Do they like the stand-firm bit? Heck no. Do they love us anyway? Heck yes.

So what else did we want from kids and grandkids? Frankly, nothing.

Love. Thank God. We’ve got it all.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large.

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998