Sunday, October 22, 2006

STOP ME BEFORE I CHARGE AGAIN!

Ethical concepts differ greatly from person to person and from culture to culture, but there's at least one that practically everybody can agree with: Parents have an ethical responsibility to protect their children.

How far that obligation extends changes as the years pass, however. When a little boy is learning to walk, for example, it's a parent's responsibility to make sure that he doesn't tumble down ungated stairs. Long before the boy becomes a teenager, though, the responsibility for recognizing the potential danger of those stairs has passed to him.

The same is true in financial matters. Parents are obligated to teach their children how to be financially responsible, and if a girl runs into financial trouble by, say, keeping poor records for a paper route, her parents are responsible for helping her resolve her mistakes.

Many college students are still maturing financially, so it is reasonable for parents to step in to try to help their children when they fall into financial trouble. That's what A.M., a reader from Orange County, Calif., did six years ago, when her daughter ran up credit-card debt that she could not pay off.

A.M. and her husband hoped that their daughter would learn from that experience, but apparently not. Now married and expecting her second child, she and her husband are so burdened with mortgage and credit-card debt that they may lose their home.

"While we want to offer help," A.M. writes, "we don't feel that it should be in the form of financial aid. They are adults."

A.M. is absolutely correct. Now that her daughter is in her 20s, she is obligated to take responsibility for her own financial well-being. Bailing her out would prolong her daughter's immaturity and rob her of the chance to do the right thing for herself.

There are no set rules about where to draw the line between stepping in and standing back, between fixing things for your kids and teaching them to take responsibility for their own actions. Some teenagers will recklessly tumble down stairs and some 20-somethings will get into financial trouble. Continuing to fix every mistake a child makes does the child no favor. It runs counter to the ultimate ethical responsibility of parents: letting their children, once grown, live their own lives.

A.M. does not want to lend her daughter the money to get out of the financial mess she has gotten herself into. This is a reasonable decision.

The right thing for A.M. to do is to let her daughter's family resolve their own problems, and to be ready with advice if and when her daughter turns to her for help. If asked, A.M. can steer her to a credit-counseling agency who can help her devise a repayment plan. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling, the umbrella organization for credit counselors, is reachable at www.nfcc.org and can point A.M.'s daughter to a reputable, nonprofit credit-counseling agency in her area. These agencies receive a cut of the repayment plans they devise.

A.M.'s primary parental obligation now is to treat her daughter like an adult. This means allowing her to make her own mistakes and to correct those mistakes for herself -- no matter how painful it may be for a mother to watch her daughter stumble.

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