What heritage are you leaving your children?

Baby Boomer parents are confused about what to leave their children when they die. It was the goal of pre-war parents to leave their children as hefty an estate as possible, but Boomers are questioning the wisdom of such a proposition.

Selfishness – the “I’m spending my kid’s inheritance” mentality – may account for some of this reticence, but not all. A survey of Boomers suggests that one in five fear their children will squander their inheritance and one in four worry that their children will become lazy.

The way to overcome such fears is to give more thought to, and place more emphasis on, your kids’ heritage than their inheritance. An inheritance is what you leave to your kids. A heritage is what you leave in them. An inheritance might include real estate or stocks or mutual funds. A heritage might include faith in God, courage in trouble, compassion for those in need, or dedication to improving the community.

A mother who leaves her family a rich heritage needn’t worry about how her children will handle their inheritance, however great or small it may be. They’ll do fine.

When asked what kind of heritage their parents left them, people usually respond by mentioning positive traits: “My dad left me a strong work ethic.” Or “My mom instilled in me a robust sense of personal responsibility.” But the heritage a parent leaves may be positive or negative, or a mixture of both, just as the estate a parent leaves may include assets and liabilities.

The biblical book of Second Kings contains an important reminder that one’s heritage can be injurious: “And to this very day their children and grandchildren continue to do what their people before them did” (2 Kings 17:41). In some contexts that might be good, but not in this one. The children were mindlessly following the harmful syncretistic practices of their parents.

Parents instill within their children a way of seeing the world around them and a way of acting in that world. This way of seeing the world can (and often does) conflict with the way their parents actually talk about the world. When that happens, children may or may not accept what their parents say, but they will see what their parents saw.

Early in the nineteenth century, a prosperous middle-class family moved within the Prussian Kingdom to a new region, where the head of the household promptly changed his name from the Yiddish Herschel to the German Heinrich. He also converted from Judaism to Lutheranism, a move some say was based on economic rather than religious considerations.

Heinrich’s son Karl went to London to study, often relying on his wealthy maternal uncle for material assistance. Karl visited the British Museum almost daily, formulating ideas and composing a book, Das Kaptial. In it he ridiculed religion as an “opiate for the masses” and taught that it – like everything else – could be explained in terms of social and economic theory.

Karl Marx rejected his father’s religion but accepted his father’s world, a world in which economic “laws of motion” govern society. That was the heritage his father bequeathed to him. Moms and dads may or may not pass on an estate to their children, but they will pass on their values.

Many people give a great deal of thought, time and money to organizing their finances and planning their estate. They consult financial advisors and have lawyers draw up their wills. Not nearly as many people give thought to the heritage they will leave their children, even though it will bring them far greater satisfaction and an enriched personal life.

The good thing about a heritage is that a person can begin to build it at any time in life, though of course sooner is better. What is it you want to instill in your children? Confidence? Tolerance? Perseverance? Generosity? Fearlessness? Since you can’t pass on what you don’t have, go to work now to accrue these riches, so that you can pass them on the next generation.

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