Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The best thing I've done for my son

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
April 18, 2012 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
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
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT