My 12-year-old is making a mint in the entertainment biz

He's an unusual child, and he wants to give his money to his older brother. Should I let him?

Published September 13, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a single parent of two boys, one a young adult, the other a 12-year-old. We have no available family or other resources. I worked for many years to achieve a career to support my children, and had been pretty successful. When my older boy started college, I was able to pay enough toward his education so that he would not have to take out loans. My own student loan debt had weighed us down and kept my son from having many ordinary opportunities as a child. I didn't want him to start his adult life burdened with debt. My son is a senior at a very intense small college this year, where many students fail out. He has kept his head above water academically, has learned much, and has held leadership positions at the school. He works two jobs to pay for his books and incidentals. I am proud of him and want him to feel his family supports him.

My younger son has always been a boy who marches to his own drum, to the dismay and anger of adults around him. As a tiny child, he would hold his ground with authority figures until they would snap and resort to harsh recrimination or even physical harm. There is a strong history of bipolar disorder in our background, and it has been suggested that he has shown early signs. He has, however, always found kinship with adult artists, who seem to "get" him. He is extremely creative. In the past two years, in an odd twist of fate, he attracted the attention of the entertainment industry, and has been working steadily and making a large amount of money. He is getting constant positive feedback from the adults who direct him, and from his fellow performers. It does my heart good to see him valued by someone other than me or my older son. In order to support my younger son's efforts, I have scaled back on my own work.

Because of my drop in income, my older son has had to accept loans for the past two years to pay for his expensive college tuition and fees. My younger son recently overheard me on the phone with a private scholarship agency, explaining how I am concerned about my older son going into debt. He later came to me, and told me he is planning on gifting his older brother a sum of money, about half of his own savings from his work, about half of his brother's debt. He feels that if it wasn't for his work, his brother would not be in debt. His brother would probably accept the gift. My younger son will probably earn quite a bit more money before he retires from acting to focus on his education. I am the custodian of my younger son's money.

I wonder, then, if it is a good or bad idea. I wonder if my older son would bear an undue burden from the gift, or if my younger son is too young and immature to make such a decision. Over the years, it is clear the two have a strong bond, and support each other emotionally and spiritually. I don't know if supporting each other financially is a good idea. I don't want any one of us to feel overly responsible for the rest of us. I'm not sure I know where the line between mutual support and too much support lies, and this feels to be right in the space between love and guilt.

Thank you for your thoughts,

Conflicted Mom

Dear Conflicted Mom,

Thank you for your eloquent letter.

This is a fascinating question. My inclination is to allow your son to act on his love and generosity, but to exercise some pecuniary oversight so that it is done in a way that is orderly and not excessive. Kids can do crazy things, you know. They'll give away all their money and then they'll want it back the next day. He's 12, after all.

So there must be a way to make all of this work. It must be said that, in a way, yes, your younger son is too immature to make such a decision. And yet ... he is not too young to be kind, generous and full of love. He is not too young to help out. It is a noble gesture from a pure heart, and it would be a shame to thwart it.

He wants to help his brother and he ought to be allowed to help his brother. Just find a way to manage it, and to distribute it in some reasonable and proportional way.

How would you do that? How would you make it proportional?

Well, one way would be to establish a college fund, formally, and say that a proportion of what your 12-year-old earns will go into the fund. And the fund is for college for both of them. And you administer the fund as you see fit, using it to ease the burden on your older son but perhaps not gifting it to him in a lump sum. That way your 12-year-old gets to donate his money, and yet there is a steady hand on the till, and matters such as taxes can be taken into consideration.

And although I do not think the older son will be unduly burdened by the knowledge of what his younger brother has done, you are of course wise to think about what emotional effect this money might have on your older boy. I'm sure it would be subtle and complex. You know him well. Think about it. Think of ways that he can perhaps return the favor to his younger brother -- that is often the thing about receiving gifts: We want to reciprocate and if we can't, we feel burdened. I have the feeling that you can handle it well. And if it is handled well, it will be more a gift than a burden.

All told, I must say that this story just warms my heart.

I will go to bed tonight secure in the knowledge that everything does not suck.

What a blessing!

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