Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The best thing I've done for my son

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
updated 10:26 AM EDT, Wed April 18, 2012
Should teens have debit cards? LZ Granderson thinks so.
Should teens have debit cards? LZ Granderson thinks so.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • LZ Granderson accidentally engaged in good parenting by giving his son a debit card
  • LZ's son, in control of his money, compared prices, went to sales, returned stuff
  • Now LZ's son understands how you must conserve money and spend wisely
  • LZ says parents need to speak truthfully to their kids about household finances, money

Editor's note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter: @locs_n_laughs Watch him on Tuesdays on CNN Newsroom in the 9 am ET hour.

(CNN) -- We do a lot for -- and to -- our children in the name of parenting. I know when I get it kinda right, I know when I get it mostly wrong, and I know when I've been lucky. I will tell you that giving my teenage son a debit check card last summer was the best thing I've ever done for him. I will also tell you that move was pure luck.

I didn't plan to give him the card in order to teach him some grand lesson about life. I'm not that clever. Truth is, I was dropping him off at a monthlong summer camp and wanted to make sure he had some money in his pocket for pizza. So when I picked him up and he told me he had money left over, I was confused.

"Whose child is this and where is mine?"

This couldn't be my son because my son claims he can barely get by with $50 on a night out with his friends. Clearly I had picked up Suze Orman's kid by mistake.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

Intrigued, I decided to see if he was really frugal or if he had just misplaced his card for a couple of weeks and didn't want to tell me. So I deposited the money I had set aside for shopping for his school clothes into his account and told him to make it work.

And man, did he ever.

My son was comparing prices -- hitting the sale racks -- and he even returned items he later deemed too expensive or unnecessary. All on his own. It was like the Hunger Games in a mall.

Since then, pizzas only need one topping, chai lattes are few and far between and he packs his own lunch instead of hitting the fast food places down the street from school.

"The first few times I blew it," my 15-year-old told me. "I'd have all of this stuff and the cashier would be, like, 'I'm sorry, sir, your card has been declined.' I'd stand there and look surprised, my response was normally something like 'Whaaaaat? Or 'Really? Hmm, one moment. I need to call my dad.' But you wouldn't always pick up, so I'd have to take stuff back. Now I've learned to keep up with my balance so I can save myself the embarrassment."

In other words, he's gotten cheap. And not because I made him do anything, but because he's figuring life out for himself. It was the first time in my life I knew I was doing a good job. Grades, opening door for strangers, saying thank you, those are all signs that he listens to me. Making good decisions as an independent free thinker, that's a sign that he gets it.

Seeing my son's relationship with money transform in less than a year provided me with a snapshot of what his behavior might look like when he's an adult, and all I could do was smile and exhale, thinking "He's going to be all right. "

Growing up, I didn't know anything about money other than we didn't have any. In retrospect, it would've been helpful if my parents had told me why. But as the research shows, most parents have the money talk in the same way they have the sex talk, and that is to say, they don't.

T. Rowe Price released a study last month that found 77% of parents don't always tell their kids the truth about money matters, and nearly a third of parents surveyed said they don't talk to their kids about family finances at all. I guess part of the reason is that the picture isn't always very pretty. In 2007, U.S. household debt was equal to the GDP. But just because the money talk isn't comfortable doesn't mean we should avoid it, and a debit check card is a good way to bring it up.

I have found since my son has started to feel the pain firsthand, when I talk to him about the bills around the house, he listens with empathy. When I remind him to turn the lights off when he leaves a room, he has an understanding of why that goes beyond "because I said so." I still run him to track practice, the movies, anywhere he wants to go, but he gets why I plot out the errands ahead of time so I can use the least amount of gas possible.

Best of all, when he asks for something I think is unreasonable, I don't lie and tell him we can't afford it -- as nearly 33% of parents do. Rather I tell him the truth: It's not worth it. And I tell him why.

You know for years, I've heard financial experts stress the importance of teaching your kids about money, but it wasn't until I saw my own son's perspective change that I became a true believer. So, I encourage all parents out there to give it a try with their kids. I promise, even if you open a checking account for them and only deposit $10, the return in their lives will come back a hundredfold in wisdom.

Over spring break I read him the story about Warren Sapp, the former NFL star who recently filed for bankruptcy. I didn't mean to laugh at someone else's misfortune, but we both couldn't help but crack up when I told him among Sapp's listed "assets" were 240 pairs of Jordan athletic shoes worth an estimated $6,500.

"How is that an asset?" my son asked.

"It's not," I said.

And then we started laughing again -- him because the story was funny, me because I know I just got lucky.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT