Financial advice to a kid who’s getting ready to be an adult

In talking about education, and many of public education’s failings, the notion that kids simply aren’t taught about real-world, practical personal finance has come up a few times. I know people who are really great at handling money, regardless of how much they make. They make wise decisions in budgeting, spending, and saving, and they feel secure. Then I know plenty of others who really don’t know how to handle money, and it’s cost them, literally. The problem is usually this: no one ever taught them how to do it right. I don’t think many people really WANT to be “bad” at handling their money, but they just didn’t learn basic skills and rules.

I was blessed to be taught by my parents about wisely using my resources. For instance, I am a really great shopper (just ask me about all the dresses and other clothes I’ve gotten for myself and my kids at top-notch stores for totally cheap!). I also have been very careful going into any situation that might require me to take out a loan. My husband and I are now on our third house, and I think we’ve done pretty well each time we’ve purchased a home (with a mortgage, mind you). I don’t follow Dave Ramsay; I do respect the advice he gives when I read it and am thrilled he is a source of basic information for many who just didn’t know any better up until they came across him.

dollar light bulbSo I’ve been working over the years to make sure I consistently talk to my girls about money, with appropriate information at appropriate ages. With the oldest in high school, I’ve definitely given her very specific information and directions. I’ve talked to her about how banks work, about how loans and interest work. I’ve shown her how I budget for the month and how I pay bills. I am not sure how much she remembers, so I need to follow up again. But here I’m going to share a few of the top pieces of advice I hammer home to her.

  1. Learn how to make a budget, at least a fairly simple one. First, figure out what you have to spend monthly or yearly or at other regular intervals, and then break those things down to per-month units. If you don’t know how much you spend on food or incidentals or entertainment, keep a little booklet and write down every time you spend in whatever category you want to track. After a month (one that’s an “average” one, ideally, and try two, even, to get a better idea), tally it up. Enter that into your budget. You can use just a list in a Word program; you can use Excel or any other kind of software that makes you happy. You can have a paper list in a file folder. Doesn’t matter the type; just do it, whatever you like the best. And then — ONLY SPEND WHAT’S IN THE BUDGET (or less).
  2. Do not get a loan for anything you don’t absolutely need. Houses, cars, and education qualify. Pretty much everything else does not. Whenever someone gives you the option of paying for something on an installment plan, just firmly say “no, thanks.” If an appliance is more than you can afford with cash you’ve saved for a certain amount of time, for example, buy a simpler one or start with a used one. When I was first in a rental townhouse that provided washer/dryer hookups, for instance, I was thrilled just to not have to go to a laundromat. But I didn’t go and buy a new washer and dryer. I bought used ones at a local store that sold used appliances, and they worked great. In fact, I had used washer/dryers for probably a decade.
  3. Going along with point 2, if you’re buying a big-ticket item, do not allow the salesperson to give you numbers broken down according to “installment thinking.” If you have the money to pay for the item up-front, just say so and buy it. If you do need a loan, negotiate on the full price of the item (let’s think “used car” here, because that’s an acceptable option for something you can buy with a loan) and get the lowest possible interest rate. Shop around for this: there are plenty of options, like local credit unions, your bank, or even sometimes the credit available through the sales place (car dealership, for instance). Don’t let the person sweet-talk you by using monthly payment numbers. Tell him firmly you want interest rate deals and settle on the price of the item. If after all that, you find that the monthly payment is too much, you need to get a different car, one that costs less. Sorry if it has to be kind of a junker.
  4. Used cars are almost always the best deal. Even if you’re far enough along in your adult financial life that you have cash to pay for a car up-front, buying one that’s just a year old will likely be your best bet over the long haul. Homes generally hold their value or go up in value. You can buy one for $100,000 and sell it later for a profit, especially if you’re in it for a long time and there’s no recession. Cars automatically lose their value. New cars lose value the moment you drive them home. You can’t turn around and sell a car you bought new on the lot a month later for the price you paid for it, or even close. You’ll lose a lot.
  5. Don’t feel you have to have the newest of anything, particularly technology. Like cars, which depreciate immediately, brand-new technology immediately is eclipsed by better models. You can shop around and compare and figure out just what you need in a new TV or computer, and a month later you’ll wish you’d waited because technology evolves that quickly. But it’s OK. You don’t NEED those improvements. In fact, you’ll be fine without them for a good number of years. Unless your paid work is in the technology field, you don’t need to have or use the latest stuff at home.
  6. Watching money pile up in savings is a thrill. Spending can certainly be a thrill, too. But consciously socking away money you could have spent on something you didn’t need, for a particular purpose, whether it’s saving for something fun like a vacation or something necessary like a newer, better-running car or a newer appliance, is long-term satisfying. Nowadays, it’s easy to just go online at home and transfer money you were thinking about spending from your checking account into savings. And just enjoy watching your own dollars do a little work for you. That’s where interest comes in. …
  7. Interest can be your worst enemy. Or it can do your bidding. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that today, you don’t get paid much in interest for savings accounts. But at least you’re letting it work for you rather than being its slave. Loans always come with interest attached (unless you’re buying a brand-new car with a deal of 0% interest, which might sometimes be OK, but in general let’s stick with used, shall we?). And that interest keeps building the longer you have the loan, the longer you draw it out by paying the bare minimum or as little as possible. The concept of “compound interest” is essentially this: over time, a $1000 loan (let’s say) accrues interest, which then is added on to the original $1000, and then interest builds again over that sum that’s greater than the original. If you pay the tiniest amount (this is the worst when it comes to credit cards or consumer loans such as those at stores rather than banks), your $1000 will only decrease by that small amount you pay, even while interest is adding back onto it. Then interest is calculated on that. And on that bigger number. And so on. (Note that I am not a financial expert and am not trying to explain this from that kind of viewpoint. This is just basic advice.)
  8. Make sure you learn how to balance a checkbook/checking account/savings account. Whenever you write a check or take money out of the account by debit card (which are linked to checking accounts, by the way, and are not like credit cards except that they are the same size and shape) or transfer (hopefully to savings!!), WRITE IT DOWN and do the math. Subtract right then and there, or do it every evening if you make purchases/pay bills regularly during the day. If you get a deposit, then add! (Even better!) But then every month you need to do the double-checking. Your bank will give you a statement. Make sure you check off your own register, comparing it with the items on the bank’s statement. Sometimes you might have forgotten to write something down, you might have made a math error, or the bank might actually have made a mistake. So check as soon as you get the statement and compare and “balance.” You can avoid a lot of problems this way.
  9. Buy used for big items when you’re getting started. But in certain cases, when you have to buy something new, buy a good-quality (even more expensive) item. Then shop for a deal. Certain items are cheaper over the long run, when you have a little more money available in your budget, if you get a higher quality item now and then you won’t have to spend again to replace the item too soon. Shoes work this way; some kitchen items and technology work this way. It might be worth paying double or at least 50% more to get a really good-quality item that will last and perform better in the meantime than a cheaper one that is less well made and will need to be replaced sooner (and more frequently).
  10. The shopping strategy of buying higher quality goes along with this advice that might shock a lot of people: it is often cheaper to shop at nicer department stores that run regular sales than at cheaper all-purpose stores that don’t run sales. For example, I am a huge fan of Macy’s. It’s long been my go-to store for clothing and shoes. I’ve been able to come out of Macy’s with some nice-quality dresses or shirts for a quarter or less of their original “regular” price. (That leads to another note: most “regular” prices are just listed as a way for people to think they’re getting a great deal when the item is discounted, so don’t go too crazy.) What’s more, the final price is far less than I would have paid for a similar item at a store like Target or even discounters like Marshall’s or Ross. Sure, the latter stores are “always” discounted, but if you pay attention to sales, you can get a nicer item that’s not been run through the mill or was destined for a discounter from the beginning. And you have a much more pleasant shopping environment! 🙂 (Let me also note that I very rarely shop outlet stores for this very reason: the “discounts” aren’t any better than what you’d get by good shopping at the regular store, and often the products have never actually been in the real store; they’ve been made cut-rate specifically to sell at outlets.)
  11. When buying any item, keep track of the regular, everyday prices for things you buy on a regular basis (I just know in my head the usual prices for everything I buy regularly, but if you can’t do this, write it down!). This mostly applies to food and toiletries and cleaning supplies. But it works for clothes (note No. 10 above). This is important because when you’re shopping and see something you use a lot and can stock up on (pantry items, cleaning supplies, for instance) on sale and discounted significantly, you already know it’s a good deal and can buy a bunch and save yourself money in the longer run. I find this is far simpler than keeping track of coupons. Most coupons anymore don’t apply to my regular purchases, so I end up clipping very few coupons from the newspaper and mailed flyers.
  12. Credit cards aren’t necessarily bad. But this really depends on your personality. If you know you’re going to go crazy and just spend because it’s easy when you have “plastic,” then don’t use them. If you are pretty careful, though, they’re a valuable tool. They are (somewhat unfortunately, in reference to those who aren’t careful with their use) a vital part of building credit, which is important if you do need to take out a loan (for house or car or education…) in the future. They are also pretty handy for emergencies, traveling, or other situations where you need to pay for something but didn’t expect to need to do so. But don’t let “exceptions to the rule” become the rule and mess up your budget and/or credit. Make sure you budget a certain amount for the items you get regularly and can use a credit card for. Then pay that balance EVERY MONTH IN FULL. I do this. I have a budget with my couple of main credit cards and know I will buy certain things with them (toiletries and cleaning supplies and some food at places like Target and Wal-Mart; gasoline for the cars; online purchases; gifts, etc.). I know what I need to buy and how much I spend monthly on average, and I stick within that. Then, I get points for my purchases, and I can get cash back. I’m not paying any interest but I get extras. I also can keep my check register from being full. I really like simplicity in there. But that’s just me.

Last, when in doubt, ASK FOR HELP! Ask your parents if they’re good at finances. Ask someone you know from school or a church or community group. If you have enough connections, it’s highly likely you can pretty easily find someone who’s willing to give you some input before you make, particularly, a big decision.

Safe, healthy food a must for everyone

I wrote recently about how we as individuals and families need safety nets and support from extended family and society around us. What’s on my mind the most is that of all the issues we as families (and in my case, being the mother and “home manager” of a family of six) face, it’s impossible to fix them all or deal with them all on our own.

As just one example, I have many concerns about public education, but I can’t change them alone; I can only try to speak up when I can and get involved in the big picture (higher levels) in what are fairly limited ways at this stage of life. I also have decided I am not capable (mentally, mostly) of home-schooling my kids, so I send them to public school and try to be involved and aware at the school level.

Health is another big topic. Health care and health coverage systems are a part of that. I’ve written a little about that and found one book really a great overview and resource: Catastrophic Care, by David Goldhill. Another issue we face that is part of our health is that of our food supply. Obesity in the U.S. and in other developed nations is a huge problem, and one I’ll admit I personally struggle with. (And might I point out that I exercise daily and cook healthy meals at home almost daily, and I’m STILL significantly overweight. What about all those out there who don’t exercise at all, who don’t cook, who eat junk food, etc.?) Yes, there are some “obvious” issues, such as the easy availability of food that’s bad for us, sedentary habits, and the heavy marketing and research done by large food corporations (just read Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss: Yikes!). But there are also more insidious things going on with our food supply that are affecting everyone: hormones and antibiotics and other fatteners being fed to the animals that we eat for meat, pesticides, and even sugar substitutes (just to get a taste of these problems, read a recent article on Salon).

If we’re having a hard time as a country educating individuals and families about healthier ways to eat, just putting together balanced meals at home with vegetables and lean proteins, etc., as well as getting people to just move more, it’s going to be a pretty hard sell to get everyone to eat organic and/or locally produced food, including dairy and meat, which either costs more money and/or takes an extra trip (or two or three), to get to farmers markets or specialty stores. Again, I consider myself to have the motivation, interest, and time (as well as a decent income) to be able to shop well and cook well on the first count. But I admit I balk at spending three times or more the amount on produce and meats and dairy to get foods that supposedly come without coatings of pesticides or added hormones or antibiotics, though that would certainly be ideal.

I'm working on being more involved in our backyard garden and learning more about it. This way, we get fresh, healthy food we like right from our own yard.
I’m working on being more involved in our backyard garden and learning more about it. This way, we get fresh, healthy food we like right from our own yard.

There are possibly some alternatives to the above pricey/time-consuming options for me and others who might have the time and at least a little extra cash to put towards them, such as growing your own food (if you have the time, the space, the know-how, etc.), contributing to raising a community garden, or just shopping local. But these options, again, are ones that are going to work when education efforts get past just the simple things of getting people to eat better, cook, and exercise.

No, this goes back to our society as a whole, including how our government is involved in regulating (or not overseeing) our food supply. It’s becoming more clear and more substantiated that these pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, plastics, etc., are contaminating our food and introducing all kinds of chemical problems into our bodies, making us fatter and just less healthy, maybe causing cancer. But government is slow to regulate and corporations are certainly not going to change of their own accord unless we as consumers really get educated and speak up with letters/phone calls to these companies or at the very least speak with our wallets by not buying their products. But that latter option leads again to this issue: what are average Americans going to buy if most of the big food producers aren’t providing healthy food? Most can’t afford organic or specialty stores.

As a mom and home manager, I am daunted and sometimes overwhelmed by all that is wrong and all I have to “protect” my family from, all that I need to “fix” or address in some way. What about all those others who don’t have even the luxuries of time and some extra money that I have? I feel a responsibility to do all I can not just to make life better for my own family, but for them. But I don’t have THAT much time or extra cash.

Yes, government can and must do better. Companies can and MUST do better to be responsible to consumers. Those with greater wealth and time to do good can do better to help those who don’t have what they have. Each of us can do a little something to spread the word, to raise awareness about whatever issues we’re facing, and to just speak up and let our voices be heard: voice our discontent, ask for specific things to be changed and improved. It comes back to my starfish post: I can’t save everyone, but by doing a few small things, they might add up to saving at least a few others. Give back by doing just a little, just whatever you can do.

It’s true! ‘College isn’t for everyone.’

Just as I happened to be thinking about education this week, I came across an excellent article on Slate called “College isn’t for everyone.” For me, this wasn’t a new idea or a revelation, though it may be shocking or weird for other readers. My parents have been saying this for years. My father was a college professor and lamented for ages the push to get everyone to college. Here’s what happened from what I remember him saying (and mind you, he’s no longer around to correct me if I’m wrong, so hopefully I’m remembering right): having students at the university level who weren’t prepared for it or weren’t “college material” dumbed down the classes for everyone. A university education isn’t necessarily job training; it’s further education. Many people who ended up being pushed to go to college would have been better off in a good job-training program.

Since this idea is one that my parents have talked about for ages and ages, and I’m just now seeing more about it in the media, maybe it means it will finally get some attention and traction and we can start rethinking what’s turned out to be a bad idea. I’m just going to throw out a few of the bad consequences I’ve seen coming from this push: since college classes have to accommodate many students who are ill prepared or simply not able to handle them, they’ve been “dumbed down” and don’t teach or expect from students as much as they used to. Cumulatively, this means a university degree isn’t worth what it used to be. Interestingly, I just saw an article today talking about a study from employers want college grads now for jobs that used to just need high school grads. Companies also are requiring more degrees, so master’s are necessary where bachelor’s used to do. I’ve noticed this, ironically perhaps, in the school systems: teachers are more and more required to have master’s degrees. Has this improved education for young students? I think not. So we’re requiring more and more degrees, perhaps because lower degrees mean less. This is simply degree inflation.

And think about how much, then, it costs to go to college now, let alone finish a degree, one that is then not worth what it used to be! We have a huge problem with tons of college grads out there holding huge student loans. And many aren’t being able to find jobs. College costs are definitely too high, while at the same time university degrees are worth less. Yeah, that makes sense.

This has all come to pass because of studies that show that college grads on average make more over their lifetimes than those who just graduate high school. OK, so yes, if we want people to be more prosperous, then it seems like a simple solution: send them to college. But the writer of the Slate article makes some excellent points: we’re not doing any favors for those who are just not ready for a university education. As he says:

Imagine that you’re finishing ninth grade at a large comprehensive urban high school. The year hasn’t gone very well; because you are reading and doing math at a sixth-grade level, much of your coursework is a struggle. … A rational system would acknowledge that, with just three years until graduation, the likelihood of you getting to a true “college readiness” level by the end of 12th grade is extremely low. Even if all the pieces come together in dramatic fashion—you get serious help with your basic skills, someone finds you a great mentor, your motivation for hitting the books increases significantly—you probably aren’t going to make it. … To be sure, your long-term earnings will probably be lower than if you squeak out a college degree. But that’s a false choice, because you’re almost surely not going to get that college degree anyway. The decision is whether to follow the college route to almost certain failure, or to follow another route to significant success.

Why don’t we actually give high school students more options for careers, rather than saying, “OK, go to college and you’ll be fine”? We’ve had a French exchange student this year and learned that France gives students more choices when they start high school. The Slate writer references Germany, which seems to be similar (don’t quote me on this; this is an educated guess). Why not provide really useful vocational training, with a true variety of real-world choices, earlier in school? Basically, now all we have is maybe a few very limited choices for voc-tech. And it’s frowned upon because we really want kids to all get to college; we don’t want to discourage any from not going. But why can’t we set kids up with vocations they’ll enjoy, have natural aptitudes for, and will still earn them a good middle-class living? Plumbing, electrical, food service, what-have-you? Our exchange student chose the hotels/hospitality industry and is going to a high school that already is leading her down that path. I think that’s pretty smart, actually. Here, she’s learning English so she’ll be better equipped to deal with foreigners who visit her at work there in France.

I understand why we got where we are today. We were trying to give disadvantaged young people a leg up and options. But we’ve doomed many of them to disappointment, failure, and student loans they won’t have college degrees to go with. As the Slate writer said so well:

But our system isn’t rational, and it doesn’t like to acknowledge long odds. Perhaps it used to, but this sort of realism was judged to be deterministic, racist, and classist. And for sure, when judgments were made on the basis of ZIP code or skin color, the old system was exactly that. Those high school “tracks” were immutable, and those who wound up in “voc-ed” (or, at least as bad, the “general” track) were those for whom secondary schooling, in society’s eyes, was mostly a custodial function.

But making sure that there are real options for our young people—options that include high-quality career and technical education—is a totally different proposition. We shouldn’t force anyone into that route, but we also shouldn’t guilt kids with low odds of college success—regardless of their race or class—to keep trudging through academic coursework as teens. 

So here we are, a nation full of college graduates, whose degrees are worth less and less, who will be paying off huge loans for decades, as well as plenty of college dropouts who went, didn’t have success, and who STILL have loans to pay off, with no degree to show for it. How about we really help people find the work that will suit them, that will be cost-effective and will target their skills and interests? Crazy idea. It might just work.

Education system leaves kids behind left and right

I haven’t been a fan of “No Child Left Behind” since it started. It’s clear to me that essentially saying, “We’re going to make education the same for all kids and make them all perform well” isn’t going to work. I have two major gripes, addressing kids on both ends of the spectrum — and I know whereof I speak. I have a child with Down syndrome whose IQ and certain academic abilities are far below normal. Yes, she is a bright, alert and involved girl who’s eager to work and do lots of things, but she will never grasp certain concepts, at least not well enough to pass a test on par with her non-disabled peers. Though I do want to push a little to see where my daughter’s boundaries (and full capacities) lie, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some real limits to what she can do compared with people who don’t have her intellectual disabilities.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have daughters who do not have that genetic limitation, and they are very intelligent and talented. Problem is, though they have been tested and shown to have high capacities (IQ, academic abilities, creativity, what-have-you), there are no active programs to encourage them as they develop those skills. Our school system in this city has what’s called a Gifted and Talented program (GATE), but it’s essentially just a pretty, shiny sticker to put on my girls’ academic folders. It means absolutely nothing because it has no funding and no activities besides maybe a field trip once a year to see colleges or something similar.

I have to chuckle when I think about the contrast here with my experience in the great gifted program I enjoyed in my middle school years. Here’s why: it was in Mississippi, which many basically consider the educational laughing-stock of the country. But despite the truths and/or misconceptions in that assumption, it provided for the gifted students. We spent a good part of one day per week exploring other parts of our brains, creating and thinking differently. It was challenging, interesting, and lots of fun.

My oldest daughter has enjoyed the fun and creative challenge of the Odyssey of the Mind program.
My oldest daughter has enjoyed the fun and creative challenge of the Odyssey of the Mind program.

Now I find it extremely frustrating to have children who have the need to explore, create and “think outside of the box” but have no program that addresses those needs. My oldest has been lucky the past two years to get involved with a program called Odyssey of the Mind — but only because she had a friend who was already involved at another school. She was allowed to participate in the program by special arrangement, because she attends a different high school in the district. Thank goodness that was allowed to happen. This is a really neat opportunity for her to create, stretch herself, think outside the box, and so on. Now I would like to see my younger daughters involved. But I’m thinking the only way that’s going to happen is if I pay for the program and take charge of it myself. (I may very well do that.) It fits very nicely into what I envision as being a perfect GATE program. Why doesn’t our district use it?

So this has been on my mind for years, literally, and for the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about how to improve things a bit just here in my younger girls’ schools (middle school, elementary). But, again, this is a much bigger problem that’s not affecting just my kids; it’s affecting all the high achievers throughout the country. I read a great piece in the Boston Globe on the topic today, and I sat here nodding my head, shaking with frustration. Why can’t we actually tailor education to different kinds of students with differing natural abilities? Why do we have to act as if students all can be equal if we just say it’s so or should be so? (That’s another topic as well….)

Here’s a great excerpt from the article:

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which penalizes public schools that don’t bring the lowest-performing students up to grade level. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act regulates special education and provides schools with more than $11 billion annually. A provision of federal education law called Title I allocates some $14 billion to schools that have a higher proportion of students from low-income families, to pay for programs designed to keep them from falling behind.

The smartest kid in class, by contrast, is not an expensive problem. A boy or girl who finishes an assignment early can be handed a book and told to read quietly while the teacher works on getting other children caught up. What would clearly be neglect if it happened to a special-needs child tends to look different if the child is gifted: Being left alone might even feel like a reward, an acknowledgment of being a fast learner.

Not surprisingly, programs oriented toward gifted children get barely any federal funding.

Once again, we see a problem that affects kids from varying economic and social backgrounds. There are bright, capable kids from immigrant families, from families that are poor, from families that aren’t well educated. But they could really over-achieve and give back to society in a big way if given extra attention. Problem in our current climate is this: if they were underachieving, they’d get more attention. ISN’T THAT INSANE?

I am lucky to be able to give my daughters lots of enrichment because I’m college educated and well-to-do enough to have the funds to introduce them to museums, good classic films, art, books, etc. I also have time to spend with them. That’s great for my girls. But, as I said in my previous post, it would sure be nice if I didn’t feel I HAD to provide all their enrichment because the schools are shorting them. Given these issues, again, Why can’t education be tailored to kids with different abilities? Why can’t we say, Yes, these kids could use some enrichment and encouragement in their naturally gifted ways? And other kids who have disabilities need special help and concessions, and we need to help them reach their highest potential, but not expect that potential to necessarily be the same as kids who don’t have those intellectual disabilities?

Gah! It’s enough to make a mom and concerned citizen scream.

Safety nets and support systems

A few weeks ago, an outspoken acquaintance was ranting about public education, among other social issues. The married man in his mid-30s (who has no children, mind you) said, “Anyone who sends their kids to public school is a neglectful parent.” Bold — but undeniably hyperbolic — words. And while I appreciated the kernels of insight (far) below them, with many frustrations of my own about public education, I had to disagree for a number of reasons, aside from the obvious point that there are plenty of us very good parents who still are sending our kids to public schools.

Then I was talking with my mom about my grandma, who’s 97 and in probably better health than I’m in, and living in a nice retirement community. She recently fell a couple of times and got an infection, so she spent a few days in the hospital and now is in transitional care and needing a bit more attention, rather than being pretty much independent. My mom has been with her there (visiting from the town she lives in about a 6-hour drive away) and has been outraged at the lack of attentive care she’s been witnessing — and this is with my mom there near her, at a highly ranked facility, and my grandma has very good insurance and financing. We’re not even talking about a not-so-great facility paid for by Medicare.

I won’t go into all my concerns about public education, about health care, about elder care. They’re each deserving of thousands and thousands of words. What strikes me, though, is that as a 40-something woman who has children at home, one daughter about to attend college, and a mother who’s retired and a grandma who’s quite old, I am in that spot of life where there are plenty of people to worry about and take care of on some level. And as much as I’d love to be the kind of person who could home-school my kids, I’m just not. Plus, I still want them to have the opportunities for learning about the world that exist outside my home. And I wish my mom and grandma could live with (or nearer to) me and I could help watch out for them.

We all need safety nets.
We all need safety nets.

Here’s the thing: none of us in our society today is capable of doing it all. In fact, no one ever has been able to “do it all” as we see it in our contemporary society. We have so many opportunities for self-actualization and fulfillment (which can be “bad” or “good,” depending on to what lengths we go to achieve them) and for involvement in the world around us today. But we depend on our public-sector system to provide certain services to take care of our wide and varied needs, like education and health care. Decades ago, extended families lived either in one home or very close by, and they worked together, sharing all the duties. Communities were truly communal; everyone did something to take care of someone else, essentially. Today, extended families are often distant. My mother is 2000 miles away from me, as well as most of my siblings. It’s my job and my husband’s to take care of my children; he provides most of the money from his 40-hour-a-week job to buy what we need, and I carry out many of the functions at home (another blog post entirely, too…). I feel we’re actually blessed to be able to have that setup (I am pleased with it, let’s make a note of that, too); I have flexibility to be able to be there for my girls when they need me throughout the day and to be involved in educational and extracurricular activities. I also am able to pursue some of my own interests, which makes me feel “me” and better able to take care of my family.

“It takes a village” has now become a bit of a trope, but it’s still true. Individuals need systems around them to allow them to live and thrive. Nuclear families best provide individuals with what they need, and extended families best support nuclear families.

So what’s wrong now? I am positive much of it is the breakdown of nuclear families; we have so many single-parent families today. Extended families are just as broken in many respects; some aren’t broken, just distant because of necessity. The basic solution is twofold: do all we can as a society to support the nuclear family, helping and encouraging the formation and permanency of families, and then to make sure the public-sector services are good and dependable. Everyone, every family, needs to know that education is well funded and well run. And families who are responsible for their elder members need to know they will be supported in those vital endeavors as well.

I’m not “for” government running everything. I am “for” programs that will provide help to families, who are the backbone of our society. I am “for” making sure there are safety nets and support systems in place, not to replace the work of families, but to help them do their work better. Because if our families are struggling, our whole society is in a real pickle.

Words DO matter

For the second time this week, I’ve come across a “campaign” to ban a word. Today, it’s the “Ban Bossy” movement, asking people to stop calling young girls “bossy” when they assert themselves, so we can better encourage girls to be leaders. Earlier this week, it was the campaign to ask people to stop using “the R-word.”

I can heartily get behind not just the idea of cutting the overuse and/or misuse of these words, but with the overall goals of the campaigns themselves. As a woman and the mother of four daughters, I am happy to support encouraging girls in their desires to make a difference in whatever community they’re in, whether it’s a classroom, a school, or a group of some kind. And as the mother of a delightful daughter with Down syndrome, I HEARTILY support the request for people to pledge to stop using the word “retarded.” I have never heard someone use it as a neutral descriptor of someone’s development, which is what it was intended to do: it simply means being slower or stopped in intellectual or emotional development or academic progress. What people always use it to mean is “stupid” or “beneath” or “outrageous.” It’s used as an epithet, as a put-down, a derogatory descriptor. I flinch whenever I hear someone use it in casual conversation.

Some may say that language is constantly evolving and that some of these movements are just about semantics. But words have meaning, whether that meaning is different today than it was one year ago or 50 years ago. They pack a punch. I absolutely adore words. I love their power to express thought and feeling, to communicate what sometimes is difficult to translate from abstract notions in one’s head and heart. Their accurate and precise use can feel like a miracle.

The problem is this: many people do not know their own language sufficiently well to be able to articulate correctly what they want to get across. They get by on a pocketful of vocabulary words when a stuffed backpack would do the job much more effectively. They do not understand that their careless use of that limited pocketful can end up coloring a picture in someone else’s mind that does not match at all the picture that originated in their own. That breakdown in transmission of understanding can create hurt feelings at the very least; it can change actions (not in the intended way); it can change attitudes (not for the better).

Since our language currently has evolved to use the word “retarded” to mean the colloquial “lame!” or “stupid” or “ridiculous,” the cat’s out of the bag now and we can’t force it back in, for the word to go back to meaning just its “neutral,” “unloaded” version. It is now a loaded word and will cause people to cringe. It will continue to insult those who have disabilities and those who care about them. So, yes, it’s time to take that loaded word out of our pocket or backpack and just toss it in the trash.

When it comes to empowering girls, who are growing into future women leaders, capable of contributing a great deal to society, we can stop belittling them with words like “bossy.” We can talk to them using words that express our confidence in their abilities, that don’t compare them negatively with boys, that don’t show some underlying expectation that they are lesser. We can value them as females and acknowledge that there are differences between the sexes but not fall back on easy gender stereotypes. “Bossy” may very well be already a loaded word with too many associations attached that we can no longer un-attach. At the very least, we need to be much more careful of how we employ it and in what situation.

Yes, words matter. They’re the building blocks of how we share our opinions, our feelings, our ideas. We need to choose them wisely and assemble them effectively.