This article was originally published in Sword & Spade magazine.
A financial advisor notices how many men have gained the world but lost their kids.
by Justin Biance
Raising children is an adventure, to say the least. A more appropriate description might be to say it is an ongoing experiment. Whether it is discipline, education, or the various “projects” a parent is constantly focused on, most days are filled with challenges and surprises. My kids are young, so I have a growing understanding of the challenge that is fatherhood, but in my profession (financial advising), I have seen that the other end of a family’s history has its own challenges to face. That is when kids become heirs to something built over a long time, and the questions come: have we formed our kids and cultivated the relationship with them so that they are open to inheriting our legacy? Or, from their perspective, is the “legacy” of our work a message of an absent and busy father?
Or, from our perspective, did we fail to cultivate character in them so that they are prepared to continue a legacy? In other words, is there a living, real, and meaningful link between who we are and our work? Or, to put it another way, are we passing on more than material wealth?
This past spring my 4-year-old son, Fulton, received a valentine’s day card and five dollars from his grandmother. When he opened the card, seeing a new five-dollar bill, his face lit up. His wheels turned hard as he looked up at me with a big grin. I knew he had been learning to count by fives and I knew he already had five dollars in his room, so I asked, “Fulton, you have five dollars in your room and you just received five dollars. So, now how much do you have?”
He thought for a second and then said,
“Are you sure?” I replied, wondering how he arrived at his calculation. “Yes, daddy.”
“But Fulton, if you already have five dollars and now you have another five dollars, and you add them together, wouldn’t you have more than five dollars?” As I said this I thought I was giving a good lesson in math, but as it turned out, other lessons were needed.
“Well Dad, I did have five dollars, but Monroe [his brother] sold me his pillow last week for five dollars so now I’m back to five dollars.” Trying not to laugh, I excused myself and went looking for my 11-year old son, Monroe, who as of late had been very focused on saving for a new pocket knife.
I understand having an intense focus, and I even know the temptation to do things like, well, sell a pillow to your brother. My wife tells me that sometimes I have tunnel vision. If you are a Type-A, somewhat driven person, I bet you can relate. Men are often focused on goals, and, “tunnel vision” helps reach them. But tunnel vision can also block your sight from things more important than your goals.
That is the interesting thing about “focus.” Maintaining attention requires blocking some things. But too easily we can forget that some things are infinitely more important and need just as much attention and focus, or more. I think for us men the most obvious thing we focus on is work, and the most obvious thing we forget is our obligation as the father of our home, a place filled with real people that have a need to receive
“That is the interesting thing about ‘focus…’ you potentially block out things that…are infinitely more important and need just as much—or more—attention.”
more than our money, but our love and teaching as well. If we have tunnel vision about anything, a vision so intense it blocks from sight lesser things, it should be that.
Trouble With Heirs
As a financial advisor, I primarily work with pre-retirees and retirees. Every day I sit down with couples who have worked more than 30 years and are now hoping to “finish well.” This is often a solemn moment in the life of a retiree, especially for men. The men I work with now have plenty of money and plenty of time. Noting this as an “accomplishment” (because retirement seems to be the focus of all economic activity) they look back over the last 30 or 40 years and reflect and are, in a way, forced to consider their decisions, because they have finally “stopped” to consider. In most cases, the object of their time and money turns towards their children and grandchildren. They have worked hard, and it is now time to enjoy the fruits of their labor and focus on the more important things.
It’s then they get their head out of the tunnel and look around.
The sad thing is for some, when they look at their family, their grown children specifically, they don’t like what they see. Often their tunnel vision was really a head in the sand.
I have a client who epitomizes this. We’ll call him Bill. Bill spent the first year of his retirement working with attorneys and me to design his estate in such a way that his children, his “heirs,” will receive nothing. So, in fact, they are not heirs at all. Of his children, one has been in and out of jail, one has a serious drug problem, and one is “clean” but is living a life in complete contradiction to the morals and values of his parents. My client knows his children make their own decisions, but he also blames himself. Just consider the gravity of what is happening with Bill. He has worked hard, but now the fruit of that work will not go to its natural place, to his children. He’s estranged from them. And although he might have some shame about them, he’s really more ashamed of himself. He missed being a good father by being a good boss.
Bill was a successful executive when he worked. His staff and partners could always trust him to “never miss a beat.” But at home he missed thousands of formidable moments with his children —a sad side effect of tunnel vision. Bill built a solid reputation and a bank account that he will not outlive. He built a “kingdom,” but for what? He now has no one to give it to, and if we understand the maturity of a man to be in fatherhood, his work cannot “mature” toward its natural and good ends. In a way, not prioritizing his role as father has left him childless. He is trying to carry out his role as father through being a grandfather, but that is also proving difficult. Bill tells me his heart breaks when he is at a social function and everyone is talking about their children. He doesn’t talk about his.
Doing My Job, Remembering My Duty
As a man and father of seven children I can only imagine how Bill feels. We all have commitments and relationships; the question is are we committed to our relationship? It’s easy to gloss over those “tiny” relationships with our children. It is tempting to think they are in a good school, participating in healthy activities, and they have what they need. All is well. But if we reflect on our time and interactions with our children, are we focused on them, eyeball to eyeball, or are their questions muted in the background of our noisy lives? Bill raised his children before smartphones, so he might have had an easier time than we do to focus; we often carry our work into every room. With phones the way they are today, we don’t even go to the toilet without work.
The scary thing is, through my work I know that (a) people with tunnel vision (and workaholics in general) can forget the most important things, and (b) I have a tendency to have tunnel vision. I have always known the presence of a father is irreplaceable, so I’m fearful of taking time with my young children for granted, so recently I decided to take action…like any Type A driven man would do.
At the beginning of the year I started “Quarterly coffee date with dad.” On a quarterly basis I take each of my children on a one-on-one early morning breakfast date. The only real rule is I leave my phone at home. My kids are so excited about their dates with dad they would tell you it’s like Christmas four times a year. I also purchased a journal for each of them. After our date, when I get back to my office, I make journal entry about our time together in each of their journals. I’m not sure when I will give them these journals, perhaps at their high school graduation or on their wedding day (or ordination), but regardless I am glad I am capturing these moments.
Whether it is regular breakfast dates with your children or some other routine, I encourage you to build up a reservoir of moments and experiences with your children. As a father, making this a priority will end up nourishing your family for generations to come. That reservoir of love will have a value well beyond any worldly inheritance.