By Bill High
At the time of our nation’s founding, the family stood front and center as the core pillar of society. The family was the place where values and economic livelihood met. Americans saw no distinction between family as the primary means of teaching values and as the primary means of economic sustainability.
Eventually, our country outgrew that notion. With the Industrial Revolution, families became separated. Children became something to support rather than an integral part of the family farm or business. Life was hard and tough, and over time, families became increasingly smaller. It costs money to raise kids.
In many cases, we are outsourcing the creation and teaching of values to public schools and churches—if we even attend church. The goal has become to raise children to independence so they can stand on their own two feet. I call it the “up and out” theory: raise them up and move them out.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying our children shouldn’t be independent. A certain amount of independence is healthy. However, when independence becomes the primary goal of parenting, that’s where I think we’ve gone wrong. The idea of raising our children and moving them out sends the message that when they are age 18, they are to go off and start their own story. We act as if they are starting over—brand new stories disconnected from the past.
It’s just not true. Their stories are connected to our stories, and they always will be. Our kids are not just their own independent novels. Indeed, they are part and parcel of the larger story of our own family and the families we’ve come from. They are not independent from our story.
That’s where we as parents need to change our outlook. Instead of raising children to independence, we must raise our children to be interdependent. We raise them to realize they are part of a bigger story. They should draw value from that story, appreciate it, and learn from its imperfections.
I’ve got four children of my own, two sons-in-law, and two grandkids. I remember the moment the first little grandchild came home. It was such a joy to hold my grandson. At the same time, it was a sobering moment as I realized that I held the future in my hands—even generations to come. My children’s and grandchildren’s stories will long outlive mine, as will their children’s stories to come.
When we learn this lesson—the idea of interdependence—we gain the most powerful insight. Family legacy is not just about what I’ve created but about the story that I’m a part of and share.
There are five key areas where we as parents must be intentional about passing on our legacy and investing in future generations:
1. Values Psalm 78:5-6 says, “He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children.” God wants your grandchildren to carry on your faith and the faith of their parents for generations to come. When you’re gone, will they still believe in Jesus? Will they still walk with God? Be diligent in sharing the gospel with your grandchildren.
2. Stories According to Jewish tradition, the Passover celebration is to start with the youngest child asking: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” It is essentially the request to retell the story. Part of values transmission is helping them know and understand your family stories. Tell them how you met your spouse and what it was like when their mom or dad was born. Share what it cost to arrive at this place in your life. Be intentional, and record the stories that will keep the legacy going. A good tool for this is familyarc.com.
3. Planning Make sure you’ve planned your estate adequately so you can avoid unnecessary taxes and pass your estate on to your children and grandchildren with wisdom. Make sure you have the right tools in place, whether that’s a will, a trust, or transfer on death provisions. Life insurance, IRAs, and 401k plans should all have the proper beneficiary designations. If you own a business, make sure you’ve planned properly for succession. Decide whether your children or grandchildren are the right ones to lead it into the future.
4. Wealth Ask yourself, “How much should I pass on to my children?” Be wary of leaving them a windfall, and consider whether the money you do leave them will harm them or help them. Will it lead to an attitude of entitlement? As David Green, CEO of Hobby Lobby, says in Giving It All Away ... and Getting it All Back Again: The Way of Living Generously, “If I would lose one child or grandchild over wealth, then it would be better if Hobby Lobby never existed.” I’ve always heard it said that the best way to know if your children are able to handle an inheritance is whether they need it or not. Stated differently, the more our children and grandchildren have character capital, work ethic, and spiritual foundations, the more capable they will be to handle financial capital.
5. Generosity Perhaps one of the most profound values to pass on to children is a heart of generosity. Generosity is a great reflection of a person’s ability to handle financial wealth. A generous person is a joyful person and reflects the character and image of Christ. In the book mentioned above, David Green describes how their family, including grandchildren, meet once a month to practice the art of giving. They review requests they receive and talk about the merits of those requests. Furthermore, the grandchildren have their own donor-advised fund through The Signatry (thesignatry.com) where the grandchildren give as a group. This practice of generosity helps cement values and promotes discussion about what matters.
Why is this work of intentional legacy so important? Unfortunately, in too many families the task of raising children is often delegated to the schools, the church, or youth groups. The real responsibility of raising children should rest with the parents and the grandparents. We cannot and should not leave the future of our families to chance.
The Scriptures tell us that a foolish son is a grief to his mother (Prov 10:1). On the other hand, John wrote, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 1:4). Passing on values is worth it. If we are to experience our children, grandchildren, and generations to come continuing in faith, we’ve got to put in the hard work to pass on these values to them.
William (Bill) High is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Signatry—A Global Christian Foundation. Prior to starting The Signatry in 2000, Bill was a partner with Blackwell Sanders LLP, an international law firm. Bill has helped found two technology companies: iDonate.com, the only integrated online donation platform serving the non-profit community, and FamilyArc.com, an online personal and private family legacy platform. In addition, he is a published author and sought-after conference speaker. Bill is married to Brooke, and they have four children, two sons-in-law, and two grandchildren.