The Family Farm
Listen to “The Family Farm” by Fred Smith
I’ve had many conversations over the years with friends about the dangers of leaving wealth to children only to ruin them. It’s taken for granted that “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” is immutable law. The first generation makes it. The second generation is corrupted by it and the third generation loses it. Lately, in reading about farming in America I have been thinking about the way we define wealth today compared to 100 years ago. Today, wealth is almost synonymous with money and other financial assets. While it might once have been tangible as “hard cash” it is now electronic digits dashing around the globe at the speed of light. While we might interrupt the flow for a moment and trade it for real items like art, houses, or physical gold, it is mostly invisible and we are detached from it. It resides virtually in accounts and portfolios.
One hundred years ago it would have been the family farm. Leaving that wealth to the children was always the plan and there was little thought about “ruining” them in leaving all the wealth to them. What was different? Parents started the children out early in their lives with genuine responsibility. They had chores when they were young. They had animals to care for – not just pets. They had associations with others living on farms through FFA and 4-H clubs. As they grew up they had genuine ownership of the wealth. I know today we talk about the stewardship of wealth as if it is not actually ours but we are managing it for God. But words, like land, are leached of their meaning and vitality when they are overused. Maybe stewardship is one of those words that needs to lie fallow for a time until it recovers. Perhaps it was a reaction to a sense of grasping and selfish possession or simply the way we read the Parable of the Pounds to mean the wealth is being held in trust until the Master returns from his trip to a far land. Either way, I think we need a new word that gives value to the creative work of ownership and family wealth.
The Work of Wealth
Children had responsibility for it because they were owners. They knew everything about it their entire lives and were prepared from birth to inherit. The thought of not inheriting would have been foreign. Not so today. We isolate children from the responsibilities and “chores” of wealth. We might give them an allowance or something to donate but for many they have no idea where those come from. They simply appear. There are no official clubs and associations for them to learn about wealth. They associate through private schools, summer camps and family vacations with others from affluent families but they don’t learn about the “work” as they would have on a farm. Wealth is not tangible to them. It is a lifestyle. They don’t see or feed or plow it or contribute their labor to it. They are separated from the risks for the most part. The constant realities of drought, flood, freeze and the natural cycles of what affects life were a natural part of growing up on the farm. You had to understand and be resilient to survive.
They are the beneficiaries of wealth but not connected to it and so inheriting becomes a completely different issue. Many have no way of knowing how to tend it as part of their responsibilities and so we worry about their being ruined by wealth. We didn’t worry about being ruined by the family farm because children were brought up and trained all their lives to inherit it. What if we did the same now? What if we included our children in the care of wealth from early in their lives? What if we thought of our children becoming more like farmers of their wealth and less like detached managers? What if we thought of their becoming craftsmen who love and appreciate the legitimate work of wealth in the same way an artist, a craftsman or, yes, a farmer thinks of their work? It’s not the love of money but the love of caring for something that matters and that will be passed down – not simply used to purchase other things. Eric Gill says, “every man is called to give love to the work of his hands. Every man is called to be an artist.” We don’t think that way about wealth being an art or the work of our hands, do we?
If we did raise our children to be prepared to inherit by teaching them to tend and take responsibility and, yes, ownership early on perhaps we might see fewer parents talking about the fear of ruining their children and more having the joy of their children inheriting what they had been taught to care for.
Art by Thomas Hart Benton