You just gotta love any book that has a picture of a seven-year-old boy cleaning a toilet on the cover.
Merrilee Browne Boyack’s new book The Parenting Breakthrough: A Real-Life Plan to Teach Your Kids to Work, Save Money, and Be Truly Independent focuses on teaching real-life skills, particularly those relating to personal finance. I probably don’t need to say that many LDS parents seem to be doing a poor job in this department. I’ve been in the home of an LDS teen who, despite not having a job, had fifty-one (yes, I counted) Clinique lipsticks on the bathroom counter. I’ve known returned missionaries who have been tempted to steal toilet paper rolls from the Institute building because of the financial pressure caused by credit card debt. So I’m pleased that Boyack, a mother of four almost-grown sons and an estate attorney with a degree in Finance, has put together a plan for teaching basic personal management skills to kids.
Her idea is simple but profound. In a nutshell, here it is: sit down with your spouse and write a list of all of the skills necessary for independent living. Then, assign each task to an age and be sure that your child learns that skill at that age. She provides a sample chart in the book, and while I’d quibble with some of her specifics (What’s the point of teaching a nine-year-old to pump gas? And don’t wait until sixteen to teach a child how to understand advertising!), the idea is sound and should prevent the proverbial scene of a mother teaching her son to iron the night before he leaves for the MTC. She write, “the real problem with doing everything ourselves is that we end up always doing everything ourselves. And our children don’t grow up; they just get bigger.”
Boyack’s emphasis on training children to be self-sufficient also provides an important theoretical underpinning to counter the tendency for LDS moms to want to do everything for their children as a mark of their devotion. That alone makes this a worthwhile read for anyone who is buffeted on one side by the current push toward hypermothering and on the other side by the sad current in LDS culture to be the perfect Mormon mom, evidenced by having a countless multitude of startched, shiny, smily–and did I mention quiet–kids in the pew next to you. Boyack strongly argues that it is better to have self-sufficient, long-haired, and fiscally responsible kids than to present the perfect public image by having assembled the children yourself. Her story of allowing her three-year-old to make a PB & J on the floor while the other members of the Relief Society Presidency (whom she’d nicknamed Martha Stewart I and Martha Stewart II) watched in horror is a worthy tale indeed.
In addition to strongly making the point that parents should teach their children the basics of independent living, she provides practical hints for accomplishing this. I can’t wait until my sons are a little older. The first time one of them lusts over a big-ticket item, I’m going to suggest that he take out a loan from the First National Bank of Smith. We’ll follow Boyack’s suggestion and agree to a contract with a 20% interest rate and collateral. When my sweet boy falls behind in his payments, I’ll sell his collateral on ebay. I’d rather he learn that lesson on a 300$ stereo as a teen than a 30,000$ car when he’s trying to support a family.
I also appreciated her gender-neutral approach to teaching children: she emphasizes that both sons and daughters need to think about the impact that their career choices will have on their familes and that both need to learn to save. (I sometimes feel that this is only emphasized for the young men for their missions.) She earns high marks in my book for castigating a father who didn’t want to teach his daughter how to change the oil in her car. She also recommends that fathers teach some ‘girl things’ and mothers some ‘guy things.’
But when Boyack covers spirituality and discipline, the book loses its luster. While her information is good, there’s nothing that’s new if you’ve read a few of the more popular parenting books. Because the previous chapters do cover topics that are rarely discussed and have innovative suggestions, it makes these ones all the more disappointing by contrast. And I object to her ‘because I’m the Mom, that’s why’ approach; I’ve had quite a bit of success with children obeying freely when they understand the reason behind my request.
I have to admit that I found her chummy tone offputting at times. She introduces herself this way:
I’m also an attorney. I heard that–you just went, “euuwww.” I knew you would. But I run my law practice part-time from my home, and in the meantime I do lots of stuff just like you. I’m not a psychologist or anything like that.
I’m not entirely sure what tone I want a parenting book to take; I don’t want to hear the disembodied voice of unquestionable authority, but I don’t want to be chatting on the playground, either. Boyack veers a little too much to the latter, but it isn’t insufferable. Her tone does get her into trouble, however, by creating a climate where humor can run amok. Sometimes she’s spot-on (I won’t try to recount the story of the woman who dabbed at her tears in sacrament meeting with a feminine hygiene product; you’ll need to read that one for yourself for full effect, but I will tell you that I admire anyone who describes a large fight erupting during Family Home Evening as “the activity portion of our home evening”), but other times it borders on the blasphemous (I don’t think the Lord does anything to us for “sheer entertainment effect”). At its worst, it mocks:
Another preparation tactic is as follows: We see people doing horrendously menial work (like holding up a sign on the road for construction workers) and we say, “Gee, no one could make him go to college!”
Yikes. For someone who is very, very convincing when she writes about the ability of parents to shape their children’s behaviors, she seems unaware of the message that comment will send her children. (How much better it would be if she handed her kid the classifieds and said, “Pretend you have a GED and are looking for a job. What can you do and how much will you make? Now pretend you have an MS in Electrical Engineering. What jobs are available and how much will you make?”)
Despite the flaws, the practical suggestions for teaching personal responsibility make this book a worthwhile read for LDS parents who want their children to move out of the basement someday.