The election of 2012 is supposed to be all about the money. We've heard about Mitt Romney's tax returns (he paid 14 percent in taxes on hundreds of millions of dollars in income) and Paul Ryan's budget plan (which calls for a 16 percent decrease in spending on the poor, for instance) and President Obama's "socialism" (based largely upon his support of universal health care). Although the rhetorical jabs lobbied at both sides should probably be dismissed as caricatures of what these men actually propose when it comes to economic policy, this focus upon the economic health of our nation has led me to wonder who I should vote for in November. And one way for me to try to answer that question is to consider what I want to teach my children about the intersection of work, money, and ethics.
Our kids aren't old enough to think about money on an abstract level. They know that money buys things, but they don't really know that it comes from a paycheck. In fact, they've more often been the recipients of money that comes from gifts--a twenty dollar bill from a grandparent on their birthdays, the man at the local coffee shop who always gives them a few coins, the tooth fairy who leaves a dollar under Penny's pillow (until she decided to stop that strange practice by writing a note: Dear Tooth Fairy, Don't come. Ever.).
But I know that the practical and daily decisions my husband and I make about money could make a lasting difference in our children's understanding of the value of work and the role of generosity, not only in their own lives but in our culture at large. On the one hand, I want them to understand that working hard, by which I mean persevering at a task even when you don't feel like it, is a worthwhile enterprise. I want them to understand that when Dad gets up and goes to the office in the morning, or when Mom hires a babysitter to sit in front of her computer and type an essay, those hours provide the income that allows for new shoes and piano lessons and lunch at the food court at the mall. But then I think about their grandmother, my mother, who worked at a paying job for only a few hours every week. And I want them to understand that her "work" in raising a family without direct financial compensation is just as valuable as their grandfather's work sitting in a desk and taking conference calls at the office.
To make matters more complicated, I want my children to understand that hard work isn't all it takes to create economic success. Our oldest daughter Penny has Down syndrome. And although there are times when she's as recalcitrant or lazy as any of the rest of us, I can generally say that she works harder than her brother and sister to learn just about anything. She's had some triumphs--she is this close to tying her shoes after months of practice, she can read any children's book put into her six-year old hands after years of poring over those pages, and she experienced the joy of performing after she worked hard to memorize her routine for ballet class. But at the end of the day, her hard work will never produce the same results as William's, at least not in the eyes of a culture that measures individuals according to their economic productivity.
I not only want to instill in my children the value of hard work, but the importance of forming a community that recognizes the inherent worth of every individual independent of economic productivity. I want to teach them to give generously to others without judgment, without assuming that the recipient needs the gift as a result of negligence or laziness or moral failure. Quite frankly, I want to teach them to be generous even in the face of laziness or immorality, and I want to teach them that even their own hard work comes in part because they have been given so much to begin with. My kids are growing up with economic stability that not only provides them with their material needs but also offers me the freedom to work part time and spend lots of time with them. They have the benefit of two married parents who love each other. They live in a "language-rich environment" with a host of immediate and extended family members who have been to college and speak English. Whatever hard work they do will begin from a position of strength that has little to do with ethics and much to do with the circumstances of their births.
My dual hopes--that my kids would believe both in the individual responsibility to work hard and to care for others in their community without judgment--leave me somewhat at a loss when it comes to the current crop of political candidates. It leaves me wishing that President Bush's "compassionate conservatism" had translated into a thoughtful and thorough economic policy. It leaves me wishing that the Obama administration promoted an economic policy that did more to support marriage and stay-at-home parents (see my fellow blogger Suzanne Venker's recent post for more on this topic). It leaves me wishing that Paul Ryan would admit that Ayn Rand's ideology doesn't translate into day-to-day governance.
When it comes to our family, I think I know how to teach my kids about both hard work and generosity. Our government doesn't seem to have room for both, which leaves me wondering where to turn in November.