Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Broke Millennial(s): The Untold Story

I was the last arrival into a large family. I became an uncle at age 12 and by age 18 my nieces and nephews constituted a small tribe.

Babysitting was as natural to me as mowing the lawn. I learned to discipline (much to one of my sister’s chagrin), tell distracting stories to stop tears, bribe when my stories were ineffective and to shamelessly use my cute charges as a conversation starter with girls (they were better than a puppy but I digress). I have always been comfortable around babies and little kids.

Despite my comfort level with children, becoming a parent was a sobering event. Our first daughter’s (Erin) birth in 1989 was a seminal moment in my life. It went quite smoothly for me but required substantially more effort from my wife, Connie. Like many new parents, I think I had FOSU (fear of screwing up). Time passed, Erin seemed to be pretty normal when her little sister Cailin arrived three years later.

Day 1 as a parent: trying not to show my "FOSU"
I blinked a few times and Erin was starting school. Connie was a force of nature as a parent. The girls were busy: school, play dates, sports, homework, parties, etc.  Our kids were strategically placed for photo ops so often at community events that the editor of the local paper issued a temporary ban via memo to her staff on “those Lowry girls” picture being in the paper. True story - I know because the editor’s husband worked for me and “fessed up" in a moment of weakness.

My role as Dad was pretty simple – be a good playmate, read bedtime stories/say prayers, settle an occasional dispute over the last piece of candy, help put a tutu on our 70lb dog before an impromptu play. Pretty basic stuff. That is not to say I didn’t take my role seriously, Connie just excelled at doing the harder stuff leaving me to ponder where I could “add value”.

Erin sharing another "life lesson" with her father

The girls were in elementary school during an era when many parents spent more time worrying about “protecting” their kids from reality rather than helping them learn how to deal with it. If I screwed up at school in the 1960s and 70s, I expected that a little “muscular Christianity” would be dispensed to help me see the error of my ways. By the time I reached adulthood, teachers could get into trouble for giving a child a “stern look” or somehow “creating a hostile environment”. Of course, we wouldn’t want to “crush” junior’s spirit or lower her self-esteem. A bit of overstatement is intentional but the emerging trend was clear. That was one reason our daughters never entered the public school system. The catholic school where our kids spent their first few years of education still believed in discipline.

Not spoiling the kids was a theme in our house. We saw that happen with many of their peers. We wanted the girls to develop solid work ethics. From an early age we used “market principles” to try to accomplish this goal. For example, when the kids asked for something that was a “want” rather than a “need”; they were expected to pay for a percentage of it from their “piggy banks” which included money they earned from various modeling and acting gigs arranged by their mom. “Of course honey, you can have that $12 teddy bear, you just need to give me $6 for your share when we get home”. We caused the homelessness of many stuffed animals with this policy. Were the girls emotionally damaged? I don’t think so. A few years later, Erin would build a brand in part by telling stories about her parsimonious father.

We spent much of the girl’s childhood living in Asia. Most of their pre-college education was in schools in Japan and China. Nothing like competing in schools with the progeny of Asian “Tiger Mom’s” to help hone a child’s work ethic. Compared to the Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Singaporean, and other Asian parents we were “pikers” with no academic standards. The occasional “B” that hit the report cards in our house did not cause an emergency parental summit meeting like it would in the home run by a “Tiger Mom”. Silly me, I didn’t even know that taking the SAT a dozen times was a “thing” until we lived in Shanghai.

Despite living abroad, the girls still worked odd jobs – pet and babysitting, being the “English voice” on language tapes. As an eight year old, Cailin modeled for a Japanese clothing catalog. You can imagine how thrilled I was to find my baby’s picture was in a catalog that said “PENTHOUSE” on the cover.

Anyway – you get the picture. Had we stayed in the US our parenting style would have seemed “severe” but by Asian standards we still qualified as “shiftless” Americans. Truly a “win – win” situation for us. When we told Asian friends at parties that we expected our kids to contribute to paying for college (hopefully by getting scholarships) smiles eroded into icy glares. What kind of human being didn’t “sacrifice everything” to ensure their offspring attended “an Ivy”, Oxford, MIT, Stanford, etc? For the most part, an Asian “safety school” was an “aspirational” choice for 98% of US students.  It always seemed ironic to me that success for a Korean mom who looked down on “weak American standards” was for her child to attend a top ranked US school. American universities were the "the educational promised land". “Call us shiftless if you must but our colleges are still the gold standard” – I never said that but I thought it often as I listened to many a stressed out Tiger Mom opine about her child’s college entrance prospects. “Harvard just sent a rejection note, and he is waitlisted at Princeton, so far he has only been accepted by Duke – where did we go wrong?”

Our standards were a joke to "Tiger Moms" 
Fast forward a few years……………………… Erin, our elder “bundle of joy” is out of college, packing to move to NYC with her drama and mass communication majors (from a school that didn’t make many Asian “safety school” lists) to join the “working poor”. I could hear the distant Tiger Mom’s virtual giggle – “what is mass comm? - is it math for white people?” “I am so glad MY daughter graduated with honors in advanced math from MIT and is going to NY to work at a boutique hedge fund”. Blah, Blah, Blah.

You can read about Erin’s “working poor” years on her blog: The “happy ending” (the American kind not the Asian version….) was that while being “underemployed” and working three jobs; Erin’s creativity and work ethic kicked in.

The "donut" story became a book and a business
The success of Erin’s blog that morphed into a book deal thrilled her parents and her little sister. Her blog cast me in the role of the evil father that made her pay for things she wanted as a little girl and contribute to her college expenses. I am glad the girls are too old to be taken by "social services". I became of big fan of her blog wondering how she was going to make me look like a “financial fascist” on an almost weekly basis.  

Erin came up with what she called her financial epiphany aka “origin story” where I helped stake her donut selling business during a community garage sale day but then had the nerve to teach her about net profit at the age of seven by taking the cost of the donuts out of her pile of cash from the sale and making her pay her four year old sister a living wage. I did not insist she pay for Cailin’s health care.

Week after week, month after month, I waited for Erin to tell the tale of my proudest moment as her financial mentor.  Yet four years into the blog, the most valuable lesson I felt I imparted on her impressionable mind was yet untold. She loved the Krispy Crème donut tale and her angry assault on my Halloween “candy tax” but how, I pondered could she have forgotten the “TCBY moment” as I liked to think of it. I scoured the advance copy of the book she sent us – a black cloud descended as I pondered the improbable – the TCBY story was long forgotten.

A couple weeks ago there was a Broke Millennial “book launch” party in New York. The hostess of the event asked me to say a few words. I smiled and thought to myself “quite a few words, the TCBY story needs to be told”. So, microphone in hand, I launched into my favorite Broke Millennial story but since Erin forgot it maybe I should leave it for another day. The lesson here folks is you never know which lessons you try to teach will actually “take” with your child.

If you haven't bought the book, it makes a great graduation gift
As a parent you don’t get a report card for many years. Erin went through high school and college without showing much evidence that the financial lessons we tried to teach the girls had made an impact on her thinking. Perhaps it required the stress caused by having a low paying job while living in a high cost city to activate the dormant “life lessons”. In any case, I will not try to take any credit for the creativity Erin showed in morphing from Broke Millennial to a published author with her own successful business. I am just glad it happened.

Cailin is claiming the Broke Millennial mantle from Erin
According to Erin’s younger sister, Cailin, she is the new Broke Millennial in the family. Cailin works in the rough and tumble entertainment world in LA. Cailin is the proud parent of our “grandhamster” Thelma. Thelma starred in a recent Katy Perry lyric video that Cailin produced. The video has over 70 million views on YouTube. We don’t expect Cailin’s Broke Millennial status to last long.