Almost every family that crosses my path has heard my fishing and financial education story. It was such an epiphany (and wild coincidence) that I share it often. But I have an important update. As I use to tell it families tended to break into one of two camps: either you were a family who applied the fly fishing metaphor to money and kids; or you were other kind, the family that thought there was just one way for a child to learn. Usually I know better than to think in such stark, simplistic terms—but I’m flawed. Finally, as you will see, a story came along that reminded me of my error—and heartened me. I hope it will do the same for you.
To be sure, the story of financial literacy in the US, told through available research is discouraging. Though more schools have integrated financial literacy programs into their curricula and more families are intentional about nurturing financial fluency among their children; maxed out credit cards, high levels of debt, insufficient savings, low credit scores, and on-going family financial drama are indicators that we have a distance to go to increase the financial literacy and well-being of our families and our nation.
What’s going on? These two stories offer a clue–and a third offers hope for every family.
The first is the story of the Jones Family. I stood waiting in a sunlit conference room for family members to arrive for their quarterly family meeting. 15-year-old Evan was first to arrive. ”Ms. Godfrey,” he called, “I want to tell you about my latest fishing trip!” His dad was right behind him and before I could respond Mr. Jones piped in, “Oh Evan, there’s more to life than fishing.” I watched Evan deflate as his father minimized a passion Evan carried within his seemingly lonely soul. Other family members were streaming into the room and I had little opportunity to recover that moment–though it weighed on me as a missed teachable moment–for the dad.
Six weeks later, in another part of the country with a different family we’ll call the Browns, an uncannily similar story with a different ending unfolded. Once again, I was waiting for the family to arrive in yet another sunny room. 15-year-old Adam was first to arrive. “Ms. Godfrey,” he greeted me, “let me tell you about my fly fishing idea!” With great excitement Adam explained his decision to “go fly fishing in every state in the U.S. and blog about it!”
I had no idea if that was even possible, but before I could comment or ask a question HIS dad, coming from behind and overhearing him mused out loud, “I bet if you contacted one of the big outdoor companies, they might sponsor your blog.” The two continued to talk, building on the idea. I watched the scene unfold, amazed by the difference of these two, almost identical father/son moments. Fast forward, four months later Adam had started his blog–and having proposed the idea to several companies, met in person with one of them. Soon after he had a sponsor and was on his way.
These two very different approaches to financial mentoring, demonstrated by the two dads, offer a path to effective financial education. In the first story, Mr. Jones had a clear idea of ‘what is important’ and fly fishing wasn’t it. His view was that fly fishing was a distraction from the ‘real importance’ of school classes, the more serious part of life.
Mr. Brown on the other hand, seized the moment with his son and turned it into a lesson on finance. Over the course of the next four months, Adam was coached to turn his idea into a business proposal; he sent inquiries to different companies, had a meeting with one and saw his idea through to an actual paying project. His dad helped him increase his vocabulary, think critically about an idea to hone and present–and nurtured his entrepreneurial spirit, simply by supporting an idea that, on the face of it, was a little crazy.
I’ve told these two stories countless times, no doubt discouraging some families who may have fallen into the habit of the dad in the first story. But recently I got another version of the story—and a reminder we can all change.
I had shared the fly fishing tale in yet another family meeting to make the point that the best financial education is often immersive, building on the passions and interests of family members. A few weeks passed before I saw Max, one of the people in the room that day. Max offered a new story–not of fly fishing, but of snowboarding. “When I was a teenager my dad was frustrated by all the time I spent snowboarding”, he told me. “He wanted me to knuckle down and focus on learning the family business. But I was good at snowboarding and able to get serious sponsorships. I managed my snowboarding like a business. For a long time the tension between us centered on what he felt was a rejection of business and a waste of time.”
“My dad,” Max continued, “started out like the father in the first story. But I was lucky; over time, as he saw I was learning and treating my interest in snowboarding seriously he became more like the dad in story two. He ended up supporting my snowboarding–and helped me develop my own business.”
This last story was heartening. I don’t know what happened to Evan. Not surprisingly, his family did not continue with financial education as I practice it and fell away as a client. I hope Evan, like Max, stood his ground and held on to his passion. I’d like to think the lessons Evan learned from his days fly fishing nourished him with the inner peace and strength of character he would have needed to stay true to what was important to him. I’d like to think that, like Max he used his passion to learn, to explore, to become, in his own way financially fit. I like to think that Evan’s dad, like Max’s dad, eventually saw that his son WAS focused on ‘what was important’. And that, like Max and his dad, Evan acquired financial fluency as he and his father grew closer.
I tell the stories of Evan, Adam-and now Max– often because we still think of learning as something that happens in a room–a classroom, a conference room…somewhere within the boundaries of an outline and walls. Obviously that’s still a good way to learn. But it is not the ONLY way–and when it comes to financial education, maybe it’s not the BEST way.