When should I talk to my children about their inheritance? 

How much is too much to give? 

How do I know if they are ready?  And what if they aren’t?

If you are like most of our wealthy clients, questions about the impact of financial inheritance on future generations weigh heavily on your mind.  In our work with hundreds of families across the country, we have asked people how they would define “success” in their parental role and invariably we have heard some version of the following:  “We want to raise our children to become thriving adults, capable of living fully in the world with the confidence to pursue their own dreams.”

We believe that the support parents can provide to their children for this kind of success falls within nine basic categories, which we call the Nine Essential Gifts.  Access to substantial financial resources can create predictable challenges in each of these categories, for both parents and children, at various stages of development.

The important thing to keep in mind is that all gifts to our children must be understood within a developmental context. If they are to grow into their own power and become thriving adults, they need opportunities to test themselves, to fail and to learn from their own success and failures.  Our love for our children naturally motivates us to give to them; however, our giving must be tempered with appropriate restraint in order to respect our children’s maturation and their changing needs each step of the way.  Our generosity and good intentions can either support or do harm to the natural development of initiative and self-esteem.

When reading through the list of gifts, keep in mind an interesting experiment done by one young lover of butterflies.  Watching a caterpillar finish weaving a cocoon, her excitement to see the butterfly that would emerge led her to cut off the end of the tree branch holding the chrysalis and bring it inside for safekeeping. When the time for the magical transformation drew near, the chrysalis began to shake in what appeared to be a mighty struggle.  With good intention, the girl reached a pair a scissors into the glass jar containing the chrysalis and made a small slice, helping the struggling wonder escape its binds.  To her delight, a butterfly spilled out and attempted to stretch its wings; but unfortunately the wings would not fully unfurl. The butterfly walked around the jar trying in vain to flutter its wings but in the end never took flight.

With sadness, the girl asked a teacher what went wrong and the answer surprised her.  It seemed her compassionate act had robbed the developing butterfly of an essential struggle, which would have strengthened the tissue that supported its wings.  By providing this well-meaning, but inappropriate help, she inadvertently crippled the butterfly, leaving it unable to take flight.

The Nine Essential Gifts*

  1. Nurturance: Provision of basic physical needs (nourishment, rest, appropriate touch), emotional needs (inclusion, attention, comfort, reassurance, affection), and intellectual needs (adequate and appropriate information, instruction, stimulation)
  2. Protection: Safety from physical and psychological harm.
  3. Support: A solid foundation from which risks can be taken to produce growth (understanding, empathy, patience, appropriate advocacy, encouragement, approval)
  4. Limits: Clear and appropriate behavioral expectations, with consequences that are reasonable, understood and consistently applied.
  5. Place: Physical shelter (adequate space, warmth, cleanliness, privacy) and an emotional environment appropriate for age and developmental stage (as a child rather than a pseudo-adult or friend, as a male or female)
  6. Permission: Both overt and covert permission to be or become successful, productive, healthy, assertive, a child, a teenager, a male or a female, an adult, and to express opinions, ideas, true emotions.
  7. Respect: which ensures that the first six gifts are provided in a way that can be received by the children.
  8. Acceptance: Acceptance of the child as a member of the family (as an individual and a male/female), of the child’s traits (strengths, limitations, needs, special challenges) and of the job of being a parent (as role model, guide, and giver of the “gifts”).
  9. Love: As a birthright, love is to be given freely to children, not demanded of them. Parents are filled from other sources so that love can flow down to the next generation. (When this did not happen in previous generation, parents are strongly urged to seek additional support.)

These gifts ensure healthy development and create the conditions for a child to mature and, in turn, provide the same gifts to the next generation.

*This brief synopsis is based on the work of J. Edward Lynch, Ph.D.