A few weeks ago I received a question in the comments section of a recent post that caught me off guard. Not because I didn’t have a response, but because I can’t believe I’ve never addressed this before on this site. A reader by the name of ‘L’ asked:
We have a 2 year old child, and my husband points out that one downside (to his mind) of both of us retiring early is that he wants to demonstrate by example that work is important. We’re older parents, and I can see that we don’t want our son to get the idea that things/money come without work. (My nightmare would be a teen/early 20’s who parties/spends out of control without feeling like anything had to be earned…)
But I also value our time together as a family, so these competing goals are strongly on my mind, these days. I’m interested in your take on it.
When I first started on this journey towards an early retirement, this was one of my primary concerns as well (it was actually the very first question I asked on the ERE Forums). Fortunately, I’ve since come to realize that my concern was not only unjustified, but my early retirement will actually strengthen the values I’m able to teach my kids.
Before I begin explaining my theory, let me clarify that this is my philosophy on parenting, and it outlines how I plan to go through the next 2 decades as a parent. This is not me pushing out some kind of moral compass with how everyone should parent, nor a judgement on those who don’t agree with my philosophy. This post is an opinion piece, not a statement of fact. Parenting is a personal experience, and there are many right and wrong ways to do things.
The Needs Of Children
When it comes to kids, I’ve come to realize that they have very few needs(*), and as long as I can provide these needs then I’m doing my core job as a parent.
(*) Wants, on the other hand, appear to be limitless.
The first group of things that kids need include necessities like food, shelter, and safety/security. I wouldn’t promote retiring early if it put your ability to provide these basic necessities at risk.
The next thing children need is love. I firmly believe that if you smother your kids with love and kindness, then most of the rest of their life will come together just fine. When I speak about love, I mean real love where they know you would do anything for them in a time of need – and you would sacrifice anything for them. Before I had kids, I never knew what it really meant to be willing to give up everything for someone, to feel completely and unabatedly loving. But having this love isn’t enough, you have to show it. And I believe that showing this love outwardly will give them the confidence to succeed in life, more so than discipline, hard work, a good education, or luck.
I’m not the first to come up with this theory on basic human needs, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows the same basic needs in the bottom three rows of his pyramid. I view this graphic of Maslow’s with the opinion that parents are very responsible for the bottom group of needs, and decreasingly responsible as you climb upwards. By the time you reach the top, it is primarily the responsibility of the child. The top category is titled “self-actualization” and I think this is fitting because it really does need to be a personal journey of the self.
Assuming you have the money to retire early, you’re capable of fulfilling the first two parts to Maslow’s hierarchy (physiological and safety). By actually retiring early, it now gives you the face time with your kids to start effecting the top 3 items (Love, esteem, and self-actualization). It gives you time for teaching them in real life, and showing them your love. You can spend time teaching them about nature, science, music, cooking – it doesn’t matter what. You can spend more time (and have more energy) to dance and sing, read books, or just lounge around with them. I do not to be like the majority of dads I see who work all day, and are too tired when they get home to show their kids the love they truly feel. These dads are then forced to supplement their rare times with expensive activities and toys, rather than dancing around the living room while playing the ukulele (that’s our new thing).
Now let’s get back to L’s concerns about teaching kids the value of hard work, and not becoming the spoiled 20-something kid, partying hard and building debt. Is someone more likely to become this way if they see both parents every day, helping them with the gardening so that they can eat their dinner salad, patching tubes when their bike gets a flat, and going on long hikes with mom and dad on a Tuesday morning – or are they more likely to get that way when mom buys the salad with dad’s money from a job they don’t understand or see, gets a new bike out of thin air when it has a small mechanical defect, and plays video games while mom and dad are working on their laptops?
Of course this is rhetorical, but it leads to my next argument…
How Kids Learn
Kid’s learn behavior by emulating what they see. They don’t learn to walk by reading about it, or by having you coach them. They learn it by watching you, and then imitating you. This is why kids end up with similar vocabulary and phrases as their parents. Before you know it, your kids are using verbal expressions you didn’t even realize you use. When my wife cooks, my kids push a chair over to “help.” When I work on my bicycle, my son comes out to “help.” They are learning the actions, behaviors, and values that they observe from their parents – and later their friends. As I see it, there is no better way to help teach them good behavior than by being around as much as possible.
But the concern from reader ‘L’ was that if both parents are retired, then kids grow up without valuing hard work because they didn’t observe their parents working hard. I will argue the exact opposite – kids don’t see “hard work” when you get in a car and drive to work. On the flip side, when you are at home gardening, writing, building, or repairing things, this is all hard work that they see. And this is all important work that the child should see. Furthermore, I think it’s important as a parent to make this work seem fun (because it can be!), rather than a chore. When you go to a job, all they see is a parent gone all day, then coming home exhausted, complaining about the boss, and turning on the TV. Eventually they translate this to their school day: go to school, come home and complain about your teachers, and turn on the TV to veg out.
Is It Really Early Retirement Anyways?
I’m taking a sabbatical now, and frankly, all I’m doing is working!
This was a comment posted on my site about a week ago, and I think it’s relevant towards L’s concern. When I “retire,” that just means I’m retiring from organized paid employment. I don’t picture myself strolling Florida golf courses in between Caribbean cruises. That sounds like the most boring, lifeless existence I can imagine. Instead, I suspect I’ll be working harder than ever before. The difference is that my new work will be work I want to do, when I want to do it, and probably won’t result in a lot of income. Luckily, the kids won’t know what income I’m bringing in and they won’t care either.
Any of us with the drive and self-discipline to “retire” in our 30’s or 40’s is most likely incapable of retiring into a life of laziness. Even now, while I still work a corporate job I have a ton of other micro-businesses. I have begun investing actively in real-estate, I own an online store, I’m actively researching stocks, and I even make a few bucks on this site (I think I make about $100/month these days). My wife has begun selling things for fun on Etsy, and recently we were discussing the idea of selling homemade detergent at our local farmers market in the future. Just imagine what I’d do if I actually had the spare time and excess energy to do it!
Even better is the fact that in my “early retirement,” my kids will actually be able to observe my hard work and sometimes contribute to it. It might be physical – building something in the garage, renovating an old house, planting a garden… Or it might be mental – researching new stocks, writing a computer program, or building a website… Who knows, any one of these things might spark something within them to start their own work!
Back To The Kids
My perspective on children is that we give them bare essentials, we shower them with love, and then we live our lives the way we want because doing anything else would be teaching them values different than our own. After that, all we can do is encourage and enable as many options as possible and let them find their own path.