Positive things about the recession

Job loss and financial insecurity can be particularly scary when you have kids. But for these families, the recession has had unforeseen benefits

Chad Lucas used to work until midnight recording rebounds and assists as a sports reporter for The Chronicle Herald in Halifax. But these days he’s in the kitchen creating vinegar-and-baking-soda volcanoes with his two boys, Xander, four, and Oscar, two, or playing Round and Round the Garden with his 11-month-old daughter, Maliah.

For Lucas and his family, these moments are an unexpected upside to the recession. As layoffs loomed, 30-year-old Lucas opted to take a buyout instead of waiting for a pink slip. So now he’s using the time, while living on a severance package and income from tenants, to hang out with his kids and prepare for a growing family (baby number four is due this fall). Library visits and bike rides with his “little whirlwinds” are on the agenda now, says Lucas, who credits a frugal lifestyle and the meticulous budgeting of Shawna, a stay-at-home mom, for helping them weather the job loss.

In Canada, as the unemployment rate reached an 11-year high in May, almost a quarter of all employees, according to an Ipsos Reid poll, said they fear for their positions. And with the reality (or even just the anticipation) of dwindling incomes and layoff notices come sleepless nights and stress about mortgage payments and monthly bills. A report from the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa found that many families, with spending and debt on the rise, are financially ill-prepared to cope.

But amid the worry, some parents are rethinking family values and finding new strengths. “Slow” or “free-range” parenting is on the upswing, with families now spending more time together riding bikes and playing hopscotch, instead of browsing La Senza Girl, shopping for the latest Wii game or racing to the next music class. Some families are learning to make do with less — sharing bedrooms, passing down clothes and buying fewer toys. And money is now out of the closet, with new, sometimes tough, lessons on wants versus needs. Many parents now find themselves talking about the bigger economic picture with their kids, including the value of saving, the need to help others, and the importance of appreciating everything they do have.

Money talks

For Victoria dad Robert Gialloreto, the downturn has meant talking more with his daughter, Megan, aged nine, about how people around the world are having trouble keeping their jobs and homes. Both Gialloreto, who works in the tourism industry, and his wife, Christie, a sports psychologist, have seen friends put off retirement due to the recession, and are themselves preparing for the what-ifs. “It’s been a good opportunity to teach the value of money and that lots of things we spend money on are nice-tos versus have-tos,” says Gialloreto. That means talking about what they can do together, for little or no expense — running, biking, cooking. Gialloreto also sees his daughter learning from decisions he and his wife make — for instance, the cancellation of an upcoming holiday — and sees her making more frugal choices with her own allowance, such as deciding, after 25 minutes of consideration, not to buy a new wallet.

Donna Fradley never really discussed money with her kids until the recession made it an issue. The single mom of two girls, who runs Kibela, a high-end wholesale jewellery business, has taken on a bigger workload to bring in more income. That has meant ramping up business travel and being away for weeks at a time to attend gem shows and jewellery sales. And home-life cutbacks have become necessary, says the Calgary mom, who has had to cash in her RRSPs and is now scrutinizing every expense, from dance and choir classes to annual family holidays in Southeast Asia, where her jewellery is produced.

It’s been especially hard for her eldest, 12-year-old Juliana, who was literally growing out of her wardrobe. “I really was not in a position where I could take her shopping. And as many times as I said it, I don’t think she understood it because it had never been like that before.”

But Fradley says her daughters — even though they’re having a hard time with the changes — are helping her focus on making the most of each day. “When you’ve got two kids, you have to be positive. How can you not?” The new openness has made her think about her priorities, says Fradley. “Hardship really does change your values and the way you look at things. What’s important is my relationship with my kids.”

Jennifer Kolari, a family therapist in Toronto and a mother of three, says that, in times of stress, kids need to know what’s really going on — and learn from your example. “You can show your child: ‘We’re making decisions, we’re doing what we can to get through this. Bad things sometimes happen in life and we’re going to be OK as a family. We’re going to figure it out.’”

Time versus money

Some families are switching to potato-sack-race birthday parties instead of paying for entertainment, heading to the library instead of an amusement park, or having a make-your-own pizza night instead of ordering in — whatever they can do to keep the credit card at home.

Kat Eden’s family has initiated monthly $0 weekends: Eden, her husband and sons JT, seven, and Luc, five, have camped in the backyard, created in-house movie nights and shared picnics on the beach. (And while there are no Home Depot errands or money spent on entertainment, they will open their wallet for the odd necessity, such as sunscreen.)

“One thing they did miss was the chance to eat out in a restaurant,” says Eden, a marketing director for an education website in San Carlos, Cal. “So one weekend we made our own restaurant and we made little menus and the kids were waiters. They really had fun. It makes everybody be more creative than we are otherwise.”

Making do with less

Julie Cole, a mother of six kids ranging in age from newborn to nine — yes, her blog is called The Baby Machine — finds the recession has strengthened her parenting philosophy.

“For me it’s not necessary that my kids have a lot of things, but it is necessary that they do a lot of things,” says the Burlington, Ont., owner of Mabel’s Labels, a kids’ label business. That means her kids still enjoy ski lessons and hockey games. But they don’t have the latest gear.

Cole’s large family has already learned how to share a four-bedroom house. One inspiration? Her mother-in-law, who was raised in wartime Holland and slept in a kitchen drawer as a baby. “She has great childhood memories and turned into a fabulous adult.”

Saying no more often can help our children, says Kolari, the author of Connected Parenting. “Many parents, me included, have Toys “R” Us in the basement and our kids are not happier for it.” Saying no also prepares children for life’s bumps, she says. “Kids need to hear no because life is full of no.”

New strengths

When Karyn and Mohamed Elrafih received news of layoffs at the biotech company where they worked, the Belleville, Ont., couple realized things would have to change. While they weren’t directly affected, Karyn says, “it suddenly hit us — what are we doing to prepare our boys for the real world?” So the family started cutting back on expenses and Mohamed resurrected a pastime from his childhood in Lebanon — making toys. So far, he and Aiman, six, and Keenan, five, have created a slingshot out of sticks and old lab tubing, and a cart out of training wheels, an orange crate and a broom handle.

While the family is trying to get by on less, they are also focused on giving to others. The two boys collect coins in old baby bottles for a local pregnancy and family crisis centre. “Even in these difficult times, it is so important to remain committed to helping others,” says Karyn.

Chad Lucas, the Halifax sports reporter turned nightly storyteller, says he hopes his family’s new situation will teach his kids something valuable: to roll with change, to question the status quo and to live with an adventurous spirit.

“Right now we’re looking at it as an opportunity. We’re not panicking or anything yet,” says Lucas, who is hoping to use some of the time to pursue his dream of writing children’s fiction. “I don’t think the whole economic situation means anything to the kids because they’re too young. It just means Daddy’s home at bedtime.”

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