“A man had two sons. When the younger told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now, instead of waiting until you die!’ his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and took a trip to a distant land, and there wasted all his money on parties and prostitutes. About the time his money was gone a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve” (Luke 15:12-14).
Many of us are familiar with this text, most often known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. There are great lessons in this story about grace and forgiveness, but I’ve never heard it used in the context of warning about giving children gifts before they are emotionally or spiritually mature enough to handle them properly. We aren’t told how old the prodigal was when he made his disrespectful, audacious demand of his father, but clearly he wasn’t ready to handle money responsibly.
When I heard that scripture read some time ago, I couldn’t help but wonder if the story could have been different if the father knew what we now know about human brain development. What was the father thinking? Could he have had any idea how poorly equipped his son was to handle the premature inheritance?
Science has taught us that even in well-adjusted people, it can take up to age 25 before the prefrontal cortex is fully developed. That’s important because this part of the brain helps people appreciate the consequences of their actions. In her book Payback–Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, Margaret Atwood argues that knowing what we now understand about brain development, giving people access to credit cards too soon could be considered a form of child abuse.
Similarly, parents should consider whether allowing their children to potentially inherit more money than they’ve ever had before, as soon as they attain the age of majority, would be a blessing or a bane.
About 15 years ago, I was trying to make this point in an end-of-life planning seminar at a church in a small town. I was shocked to see a young woman stand up in her pew and say that she agreed with me completely.
Later I heard the sad family story. Her father died when she and her brother were 19. Their mother had passed away earlier. They each inherited $60,000. It was way more money than either of them knew what to do with. Her brother chose particularly poorly, burning through all the cash and ringing up considerable debt in only 18 months. She is now determined to ensure her children have a better understanding of money.
Another scripture relevant to the topic of inheritances is Proverbs 13:22: “A good person leaves an inheritance for their children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous.”
At first glance, this passage may seem to focus on skipping a generation and leaving everything to the grandkids. But when taken in context with other advice in Proverbs, we see that wealth can only be successfully transferred between generations if a values transfer comes ahead of the money.
Part of me wonders if we might have fewer prodigal sons and daughters, and fewer prodigal grandsons and granddaughters for that matter, if we were more explicit in modelling generosity and explaining our beliefs and habits. We can transfer good values to our children by educating them about responsible spending, good habits, and about giving throughout our lives.
We can also model generosity in our estate plans by including charitable gifts as if they were an extra child in the list of beneficiaries. Let your kids know what values are important to you and how you hope they will continue them with their inheritance.
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