You Can't Take It With You

Roberta says her husband was downsized from his $500,000-a-year job to a $75,000 job. Their 17-year-old daughter feels detached socially from her friends because of the new financial situation.

QUESTION: Roberta in Los Angeles says her husband was downsized from his $500,000-a-year job to a $75,000 job. He started a business, and they’re at the three-year mark. Their situation hasn’t changed much at all. Their 17-year-old daughter feels detached socially from her friends because of the new financial situation. Dave doesn’t think these are real friends.

ANSWER: If her friendship is based on a social interaction that is a ridiculous amount of spending for a 17-year-old, A) these aren’t real friends and B) thank God she’s being extricated from it. That’s not going to do her well. How is she going to function as a 32-year-old wife if her friendship is based on her getting her nails done? You ought to have friendship based on something else.

What this amounts to is it’s very difficult for a 17-year-old girl. I’ve raised two daughters. We live in one of those neighborhoods too. It’s a constant battle against the demon of materialism for lack of a better term—this idea that somehow stuff defines us. You can say that all you want, but when you live in the middle of a bunch of people that it does … man, it’s tough. You’ve got to battle against it all the time. Really, it’s a spiritual disease, and it’s an emotional maturity disease.

What we’re talking about here is correct definitions of value as a person. How am I valuable? If I’m valuable only to the extent I can do things with you and spend money with you, then I don’t have value when I can’t do that? Well, that’s what we adults call “shallow.” And yet there are adults that way too.

I think that probably you’re doing all the right things. That is my guess, having been a dad of this. Number one, let’s just put on the table that when you’re dealing with a 17-year-old daughter, normally you’re dealing with high levels of drama anyway. Then, let’s add this mess to it and this particular situation, and the drama goes into exponential mode. Then what are you going to do? You’ve just got to be this retainer wall that holds back the flood. Does that mean you’re not going to get wet in the process? What I’m trying to say is, you are making a dent that you won’t know you made a dent for three more years. Lots of hugs and reminding her she’s valuable as a person. If you’re involved in a church, this is a thing to sit down and talk with your youth pastor about, or your pastor with a kid—somebody she trusts spiritually to talk these things through. Where does your value as a person come from? If it consists in the things that you own, then you don’t have value.

He with the most toys when he dies is dead. I never saw a Ryder truck following a hearse. You’re not taking it with you. I can relate. I’m an old guy who’s been through enough to have most of that burned off of me, but I think we’ve all got some of that materialism in us. We’re Americans. That’s the downside of this much prosperity that we live in the middle of. I think, Mom, that you’re doing a better job than maybe it feels like you’re doing because you want all this pain to go away. Really, the pain is causing growth, and it’s not going to go away today. Keep being and doing and saying the things you’re doing, and that’s probably all you can do. Truthfully, looking in from the outside as a dad, I’m kind of thinking this is good. You’re put in a situation where you’re no longer allowed or no longer able to define your value improperly. If everything had been okay and you just let her run this course, where would she be at 32? This is setting her up for a much better life than the course she was on. There’s got to be some kid somewhere in a 20-mile radius whose parents also don’t give them every-freaking-thing they want. Somewhere. I mean, I know it’s Los Angeles, but there has to be one.

I think you’re doing a great job. You are the right kind of people to walk a kid through this. But if you called me up and you were personally freaking out over these exact same issues, then I don’t know how you’re going to help your 17-year-old because you’re so deficit at that point. But I think you’ve got the right stuff. Working with teenagers and loving teenagers is just a challenge.