When will "parents" stand up to their "children"?

by Alan Hosking: Publisher of HR Future, South Africa's human strategy magazine, and a Leadership Renewal Coach for senior executives.
A country’s leadership problems could also be described as a parenting problem. Here’s why I say this...

Many years ago, I was a guest on veteran broadcaster Tim Modise’s radio talk show on 702. We were discussing my book on fatherhood, What Nobody Tells a New Father, and the challenges and issues that parents have to deal with.

During our conversation, a woman from Lenasia, a suburb to the south of Johannesburg, phoned in and the call was duly put through to us.

After a few quick pleasantries, Tim asked her the reason for her call. She said that her husband had run his own business for many years and, for all his working career, had carefully put money aside each month so that, when he retired, they would have more than enough money to live on. Sadly, she said, her husband had unexpectedly passed away and ever since his death, her eldest son had been spending all this money that her husband had worked so hard to set aside “like there’s no tomorrow” (her exact words).

“What can I do?” she asked, her voice raw with distress.

I looked at Tim. He looked at me and then ever so smartly he leaned back in his chair and flipped it my way. “What do you think she should do, Alan?” he asked.

“How old is your son?” I asked the desperate-sounding mother, trying to get some context.

“He’s 41,” came the reply.

Now, you tell me... What do you say to the mother of a 41-year-old man who’s spending her money with no thought for her wellbeing? I offered her some practical suggestions that could possibly curb her son’s actions but have no idea whether they helped her at all. Sadly, the damage had been done a long time ago.

This story came back to me as I reflected on the fact that South Africa, as a country, has the same problem as that mother, and here’s why I think so.

Because of my work with families and parenting, I tend to see many parallels between family dynamics and civic life. For example, if we compare a country’s citizens to a family, who would be the parents and who would be the children in this comparison? My sense is that the taxpayers (the Business community and personal taxpayers) would be the parents, and the adult children – like the 41-year-old son – would be ... government. The reason for my answer is that parents provide the money that children use and, whether government likes it or not, like the parents in a family, the business community and the nation’s personal taxpayers provide the revenue that government spends.

“What about State Owned Enterprises?” you ask. Yes, what about them? Who’s busy suffering the consequences of their actions and inaction? The “parents” – the taxpayers.

So, clearly, like it or not (and most children don’t like it) parents with financially dependent children (all governments are financially dependent on their respective taxpaying communities) provide the finances for their “children”.

In the case of a country’s national family, taxpayers are the breadwinners of the family who provide all the revenue for the family’s needs and wellbeing.

Surely it makes sense for those who provide the finances (the parents) to have a say in how those funds are used, particularly if they are being abused? Ever heard the saying, “He who pays the piper calls the tune”?

Most countries are therefore no different from the mother with the 41-year-old son who was spending, wasting and in fact stealing her money.

Right now, the money that our nation’s collective “parents” have worked so hard to earn is being spent by a number of “41-year-old sons”, and we as “parents” are doing nothing about it.

Business has only once, to my knowledge, stepped in to prevent government from making a huge mistake when they pressured then President Zuma to have Des van Rooyen removed as Finance Minister. They displayed very short lived courage, though. Why have they remained silent since then, despite further disastrous decisions?

It’s time for us, as the “parents” of our national family, to find our collective courage, find our collective voice and start finding ways to stop our “41-year-old sons” from spending all of our hard-earned money like there’s no tomorrow. If we “parents” fail to do this, we will have failed the family.

When delivering talks to prospective or new parents, I tell them that, despite a few exceptions, parents generally get the children they raise. In the same vein, it’s said that countries get the governments they deserve.

It won’t help pointing at the children and complaining about what they’ve done with our money. We all know that children who have not had to work to earn their own money don’t treat money they’re given with the same respect as if they had had to work for it. While no accountability is required by taxpayers as to how our money gets spent, do we think those who haven’t had to work for that money are suddenly going to apologise and promise never to waste it again?

If we as “parents” don’t do something soon, those who have been taking the family’s money for themselves will simply continue to do so.

I will never know what happened to the mother of that 41-year-old son all those years ago, but she really got me thinking.

You know the old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me”. How many times are we prepared to be fooled before we do anything to save the nation’s “family” from financial ruin at the hands of those acting irresponsibly?

Useful resources:
HR Future
HR Future is South Africa's only independent, most forward thinking human resource magazine with the richest content wealth of HR related issues on the continent of Africa to help executives recruit, manage, train, reward and retain the best talent.
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