I didn’t go looking for the kid. He found me. Of course, it stood to reason, with what’s been happening on Wall Street, that the children of Greenwich, Connecticut, must be taking a serious financial hit.
The end of cash bonuses, the ramping up of financial regulation, the shrinking of the Goldman Sachs analyst pool, Chelsea Clinton’s confessing that she quit her Wall Street job to find meaning in life: Wherever you turn, you find signs that an era in which a lot of children were paid to keep quiet is grinding to an end.
Maybe the game is over; maybe it isn’t. But one thing is certain: If you are 12 years old, and your dad works on Wall Street, it’s a lot less likely Beyonce will be singing at your 13th birthday party.
At any rate the 12-year-old child who texted me out of the blue simply wanted to pass along a few tips. I’m not sure if he was doing it out of the goodness of his heart, or testing the market for a book deal. But he says that he knows a lot of other kids just like him, who have at least one parent who used to make a lot of money trading bonds on Wall Street, and now, instead, were being handed a lot of illiquid bank stock of dubious value.
For kids traumatized by the Wall Street downturn, he had the following advice:
-- For starters, you need to make a point of actually meeting your dad -- or your mom, but most likely it is your dad who is the problem.
He’s the one who controls the money flows but up till now he’s been a total ghost. Out the door at 5:30 in the morning, home at 11 at night. And no matter how tired he is on weekends, your mother always makes him take her out to parties, so when you do catch a glimpse of him he’s hung over and distant. You will need to take the initiative here. Set your alarm early, or, even better, stay up late. Park yourself at the front door and when your dad walks through it, stick out your hand and introduce yourself. He needs to know who he’s dealing with.
-- Accept that you are the real victim in all this.
The moaning and groaning your dad has been doing about his bonuses won’t actually change his lifestyle. He isn’t the owner of the first-loss piece of the family collateralized-debt obligation: You are. Everything from summer sailing camp in the Bahamas to the smoking-hot Scandinavian nanny is probably now on a list of possible cutbacks. As totally unfair as these cuts are (you aren’t the one who lost all the money), you shouldn’t fight them. You don’t want to come across as “spoiled.” If you complain too loudly, your dad might use it as an excuse to rationalize his failure. He will start saying things to your mom like, “It may actually do him some good not to have everything he wants.” The smart first reaction is to accept that you will be making some pretty horrible sacrifices. Pretend you don’t feel a thing. Even though, inside, it’s killing you.
-- Study the way your dad’s mind works.
If you are at least 12, it’s easy to tell yourself he’s kind of dumb. I mean, even back when he was making a lot of money he didn’t notice very much about life around the house. But -- trust me -- he is really smart, especially about money. It’s just that he isn’t like other dads. He thinks emotions are stupid, for example, because emotions cost him money when he’s trading. He spends his day trying not to feel anything, so he sort of gets used to it.
Up until now he could afford to do this. Whenever he didn’t feel something he was supposed to feel, he just bought his way out of trouble. That’s why you scored the sailing camp in the Bahamas in the first place. Now it’s different. He still doesn’t feel what he is supposed to feel, but he can’t afford to buy his way out of trouble. You can exploit this. But first you need to turn up the heat on him, by creating lots of situations where he is supposed to feel something. The easiest emotion to make him feel he should be feeling is guilt. To that end...
-- Make lots and lots of new demands on his time.
Kids who don’t play the tuba or something should consider joining a travelling sports team or acting in a school play or, really, anything that requires your dad to be there to watch you do it. In theory, your dad should have more time for this kind of stuff. He isn’t making as much per hour, so his hours should be cheaper. But he doesn’t think that way. He’s trying to “get back to even.” He’s still trying to make as much as he did three years ago, which means working even more. This is tricky because you don’t want to discourage him from doing it. At the same time, his longer hours are just a huge opportunity for you. Because no matter what instrument or sport you decide to play, there is just no way he’s going to show up to watch you play it.
Like I said, he won’t tell you that he feels bad he missed your performance as the mule in “Fiddler on the Roof.” He might not know it himself. But when you see that look on his face -- it’s like he just remembered he left his credit card at the restaurant -- that’s when you strike. Make the ask. Which brings me to...
-- Always ask big.
Your dad may be smart about money but he has no idea about size. When he makes money, he doesn’t make thousands, he makes millions. When he loses it, he doesn’t lose millions, he loses billions. His scale is totally off; keep it that way. For example, you just finished your first traveling lacrosse game that your dad didn’t see, and you want a couple of little things (a new flat-screen TV for your suite, or an ATV) and one big thing -- say, to go one-on-one against LeBron James on your private court. Obviously, ask for LeBron first. If you feel you have to ask for the small stuff, too, find some way to bundle it into a single big package -- say, after he’s just forgotten your birthday.
These are hard times for Wall Street kids. It might never again pay you what you need to be paid to do the job. Down the road, if this bonus drought is more than just a temporary blip, you might need to consider quitting. Breaking up with your dad isn’t as hard as it seems. You can’t just do it yourself but your mom can -- and it isn’t like she doesn’t also have a lot of needs that suddenly aren’t being met. Encourage her to get to know some private-equity guys. If you are really ambitious, introduce her to one of those Facebook dudes who have so much money they have already retired. Your mom can figure it out. After all, you shouldn’t have to do all the work.
(Michael Lewis, most recently author of the best-selling “Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World” is a columnist for Bloomberg View. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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