This past weekend, I asked my 10-year-old daughter Lucy to help me do our family's taxes. She read off from my W-2 and our 1099 forms as I filled in the boxes on the tax prep website we use. This meant, of course, that she got to see exactly how much her parents earn.
I expected that this was going to feel like the Big Reveal of a closely guarded secret. As I probably should have known, the numbers at first meant nothing to her. Annual incomes are an abstraction to a kid who has never written a rent check.
The real talk came a couple of days later, when Lucy and I had a chance to look over the actual 1040 I sent to the IRS, and I could show her how it all fit together. I'm glad we did that.
Before I get that to that conversation, though, a word about why I decided to do this. I was inspired in part by New York Times columnist Ron Lieber's case for telling your children what you make. As Lieber points out, kids have a knack for figuring this out anyway. And showing them how you handle money—even when (believe me) you are far from perfect at it—can be a first step toward showing them how to be competent with it themselves.
I was also motivated by a more cranky-old-man impulse: I've been surprised by the number of young adults I meet who don't know how to do their own taxes. To me, knowing how to fill out a 1040 is a just a basic life skill everyone should have by 18. I know this is more sentimental then reality-based. After all, I also put driving a stick shift in this category. And for years I've been farming out the hard work of my own taxes to the H&R Block website. (Thanks, AMT.)
Still, I remember that I was in the eighth grade, our teacher Sister Loretta had students fill out 1040s using mock W-2s as a math exercise. She was cracking the door on the adult world a little bit wider. Kids are always eager for those peeks, and when they get one, they seem especially open to learning. And talking.
For me and Lucy, the tax talk turned into one of the most impressively grown-up discussions we've ever had. She saw what we make, and I tried to put that in the context of what other Americans earn. She also saw what we pay, and so then we turned to where that money goes and what it's used for. I tied the conversation in to a news story I read that day, about legislation in Kansas that would bar families on public assistance from spending that money on a long list things, including casinos, but also movie tickets and trips to the swimming pool. We talked about why some families need financial help, and why people have such strong opinions about that.
Lucy doesn't need me sharing her nascent political views with the world, so I'll just say that she surprised me (the way kids do) with her insights about what's fair and about the choices people should have. Her ideas seemed too thought-out for her to just be parroting back what she guessed I'd like to hear. So I learned something about my daughter. And my wife and I also had a chance to articulate some of the values we are trying to pass on to our kids.
Lucy also asked a simple but very good question about our own money: "So this is how much you made, but how much do you have?" The distinction between making money and actually having any is an important one, and these days in our family we are frankly doing better on the former than the latter. Turning from our income tax forms to our savings, I was able to at least hint at some of the tricky choices her mom and I are trying to juggle.
Lucy didn't get a "wow" moment of understanding from this, but I think I laid the groundwork for future discussions of things we have to be realistic about. Like how we'll pay for Lucy to go to college, and where she'll be able to go. And why (to hit on a question that's really on her mind) she still has to share a room with her little brother.
I was able to have this conversation from a standpoint of some comfort. For a lot of parents, opening up about money means talking about losing a job, or how they're dealing with a foreclosure, or how they're going to buy the groceries this week. Those are much tougher things to talk about. But starting from where we are, and knowing we'll have some ups and downs in the future, I think I'm glad that for my daughter this part of real life is already a little less mysterious.