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Uncertain About Certainty: Lessons For Your Children About the Economic Debacle

Uncertain About Certainty: Lessons For Your Children About the Economic Debacle

As I write this, I am in the process of melting down the remainder of my gold into portable and quantifiable gold bricks, as well as draining my 401k to buy stock–livestock, that is. No doubt, things are getting exceptionally weird in America, as well as the larger financial world, as we all collectively hold hands in this dramatic economic freefall.

For adults, it may feel like Armageddon time, but for children, it may seem as if adults are just crazy or simply worrying about something well outside of their control. Regardless of what the outcome may be from this financial crisis (either a hasty reshuffling of the financial deck, or a full on Road Warrior scenario) there are undoubtedly valuable lessons to be had (by adults) and valuable lessons to teach our children about this time. I am no economist, but it is apparent to me that a cautionary tale of impermanence and interconnectedness is one bright route through the troubling darkness.

Without getting into the specifics of the current economic debacle, it is common knowledge that systems failed (banks, lending institutions, and the U.S. Treasury Department) that were believed to be sturdy, enduring, and trustworthy, leaving millions of people scratching their heads, or better yet, puling our their hair in fear and frustration. Some people claimed they could see the impending disaster on the horizon, but most people were left angry, frightened and wondering how something like this could happen. The cause, the blame, and the details are relatively unimportant to a child. What is important is the timely, and exceedingly valuable lesson of impermanence.

Like a sand castle defying the tide, or a balloon imperceptibly loosing air and sinking to the ground, nothing is here for the long haul and everything changes, regardless of our wishes and plans. In these times of unpredictable change, we need to remind ourselves, and our children, that not changing was never really an option. Change is inevitable and nothing is genuinely everlasting. The way of nature (and of Wall Street as we have recently come to terms with) is that as things are created, things are broken down, restructured and ultimately destroyed to make room for something new, and something hopefully more evolved and beneficial to all. Ultimately we need to do what is within our reach and ability to protect ourselves, and repair what needs mending or fixing. We cannot wind back the clocks and retrieve lost money, lost years, or lost innocence, we could only direct our attention to what is in front of us, that we can directly influence and transform.

The other lesson we could take away from all of this, and share with our children, is the lesson that separateness is an illusion. Many people (subprime lenders, shortsighted investors, and corporate predators, to name a few) thought their actions of moving money around in unscrupulous ways would not have long-term and far-reaching consequences. People were seduced into following the money, but not the logic behind their actions, and wound up rationalizing their behavior to fit only their perceived short-term needs and desires. Unfortunately we have all learned the lesson that all actions produce a reaction, and that we are all interconnected (as is evidence by the subsequent and synchronized dramatic plunge in the U.S. and foreign markets). Like the popular butterfly effect theory, which draws connections between the smallest action (the flap of a butterfly’s wings) and the largest calamity (a tornado thousands of miles away), we are made aware that, despite our penchant for isolation, we are all linked, and if the ship goes down, we all need to swim the chilly waters together.

So, I am not going to tell you not to worry, or that everything will return to normal, because things are destined to change, and change dramatically. But our attachment (as parents/adults) to what once was, need not dictate our children’s understanding of the world. Things change, and to be uncertain is not always comfortable, but to be certain about anything, other than uncertainty, is just folly.

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

17 comments

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6:48PM PDT on Mar 18, 2009

Yes, I am really also grateful to my parents for encouraging me to save wisely and not to over spend on credit especially if you can't pay it off. Spend and save wisely, recycle, reuse, donate and be grateful for what you have and looking after it as well. Also, when ever I feel I 'want' or feel like I really 'need' something I say to myself a saying 'what you don't have now you don't really need it' if I don't have the money to buy it outright. Only buy or save for what is really a necessity for living a simple life.

6:06PM PST on Nov 18, 2008

Oh I forgot to focus on the kid and lessons and stuff. My daughter held her homemade flatbread sandwich aloft today at lunchtime and announced to her friends that she was really really grateful for her sandwich. Her friends, of families with considerably more means than her, were confused by her random announcement. I asked her if she explained to them why she was expressing gratitude and she shook her head. "There's no point, Daddy. You cannot explain what it's like to live without to someone who's never experienced that. And they don't care anyway." This is a child who has watched her parents take turns fasting so they could eat consistently because a teacher's paycheck doesn't quite cover the basics these days.

Kids do learn from grownups' crises. Lots of parents around us want to shield their kids from this or that financial thing. We have never been of enough means to do that. They see everything. We explain as best we can and we show them our strategies to cope. My MIL was stunned when our daughter called her up to ask, knowing she lived through the Depression of the 1930's, "is this where we're headed, Grammie?" She wasn't sure how to answer. My wife told her to tell our daughter how it was, unpadded, unedited. When she hung up our daughter informed us, "Well, I think this one might go worse, with peak oil, global warming and all that. We just have to stick together and be smart. Right?" Indeed, babe, indeed.

5:56PM PST on Nov 18, 2008

Arriving late to this piece. It's interesting how many people talked about living within one's means. It's a very owning and middling class thing to say. For people like us at the bottom end, "living within one's means" usually means just doing without; without food, without gas, without energy, without basic school supplies, etc. The current crisis was created by the owning class and now they're being bailed out. Those of us at the bottom understand very well what that means for us, even less than the pittance we already were scrounging together living hand to mouth. I'm not looking forward to forced migration when the water is cutoff due to crumbling infrastructure, petrocollapse/petroshock, whatever. Some of us have begun guerilla food cropping in public landscaping around town, just in case. In our working class neighborhood, everyone knows the score: when the bigger crash comes we'll have to rely on each other because the uber-classes will be fine. We're always on our own. That's life in a hierarchical social system. It's tough to teach cooperation to rugged individualists and in a Republikaan town we have far too many of those. There's a very deep anger building, a rage even that we at the bottom feel rising up towards the middling and upper classes. A lot of people won't say it out loud but it's there, in subtle things, in public discourse even. Should be a wild ride.

1:24PM PDT on Oct 28, 2008

I absolutely love you for writing this!!! Muawww. xoxoxo

4:57PM PDT on Oct 23, 2008

We live in a rural area of Arizona and have just hooked up solar cells. We offer retreats in Sedona, AZ and the tourism industry has been hit hard. I grew up in Tn. with parents who lived during the depression and I too was taught to pay as you go. We are not rich but do have money to fall back on until our economy revives. It is a time of uncertainty and yet a time when we are being reunited as a family and country.

12:04PM PDT on Oct 19, 2008

These times are all the more reason why we should stick together as a people and not in our separate corners.

5:40AM PDT on Oct 19, 2008

i agree that things are certainly getting weird in the financial world for america. i had heard that we are heading into another recession.

to me, not. i remember the stories that my grandparents and great-grandparents told about the days before Black Tuesday, 29 Oct 1929. my dad and they told me what life was like during the years of the Great Depression up until the time of WWII and after.

I listened to these stories very closely and remember them whenever i can. when my children were old enough to listen to stories. when my children were old enough, i repeated the stories the best that i could with my dad confirming it.

these stories are very similiar to what we had heading for now. i am that my dad and his relations are now here to see this chaos. they would say "here we go again"

my husband i may not be rich to be secure for what is coming but we are prepared for what will happen if this country does have another depression. we were taught how to survive by making to do with what we have and to barter trade goods when neccesary.

4:47PM PDT on Oct 18, 2008

I will be always be greatful to my Parents for teaching me to use a credit card wisely. My Father always said, "If you can't pay it off in a couple of payments, then you can't afford it!"

9:39AM PDT on Oct 18, 2008

Lived in Holland during world war 2 , learned a lot , never did throw out anything edible or otherwise useful!!

12:42AM PDT on Oct 18, 2008

I had no expectation that my retirement account or social security would be there when I retired.
I have been telling everyone that when it comes time for me to retire, I will move to a small trailer park somewhere throw out my shingle and start delivering babies in trade for chickens.

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