Remember when the hardest situations you had to explain to your children were related to matters of the heart or bedroom, or both, like why sweet old Grandma and Poppa were getting divorced after 50 years, or why Uncle Tim had to go to California to get married to his nice friend John, or why the big, famous governor of New York had to quit his job?
These days—this week, in fact—the parenting gig just got a whole lot harder. Suddenly, parents have to explain to their children why the stock market is falling, what made it happen, who will fix it, and what might become of us all. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the “Where do babies come from?” conversation.
I had my first go at the challenge this morning, walking my 13-year-old daughter to the bus stop. “So, is the market going to get better today?” she asked me hopefully. “I don’t know how much longer I can stand that freaked-out look on your face. And Jack is so distracted at dinner.”
Look, it’s not like my kid understands what a “cash society” really means. She’s too young to imagine what it would feel like to see your hard-earned life savings evaporate, along with your dreams for a different, bigger life.
“I don’t think the market is going to get better for a long time,” I sighed. “I’m sorry that news upsets the grown-ups, but that’s the way it is. The grown-ups are dealing with some very serious stuff.”
Then she dropped the big one: “Well, what’s the worst thing that could happen?”
All I can say is I’m glad no economists were present to hear my answer. It was, to put it mildly, a gross simplification of the mechanics of a total global bank run and how such a scenario might impact day-to-day life. But the explanation seemed to work, because when I was done, Eve seemed more philosophical than panic-stricken. “You know, Mom, I actually don’t see anything wrong with a ‘cash society,’” she said, using my term for the final result of a financial Armageddon. “It’s the way Nana lived, isn’t it?” she added, referring to my grandmother, a fierce, twice-divorced Sicilian immigrant who built a thriving knitwear business in Rochester, N.Y., back in the 1940s and ’50s. Nana managed to send four kids to college and own a home—quite a feat for a single, somewhat scandalized, largely uneducated female entrepreneur in those days. But in my family, Nana is most revered for her wildly verdant garden, her gorgeous, impeccable taste, and her wicked, wicked sense of humor until the end.
“Remember Nana’s beautiful tomatoes?” Eve asked simply. “And she laughed a lot.”
Then she hugged me and got on the bus.
Look, it’s not like my kid understands what a “cash society” really means. She’s too young to imagine what it would feel like to see your hard-earned life savings evaporate, along with your dreams for a different, bigger life. But she did seem to understand the oddly comforting effect of staring the worst-case scenario right in the face. Even if the markets go to zero, and all people can do is live in the present tense, life will go on. There will still be gardens; there still will be laughter.
And there will still be kids making us struggle with the hard questions, pushing us to confront what we really fear, and what we really know.