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I Miss My Son (And Giving Him Money)

Do you ever feel like a parental ATM?

I suspected that I would become my son’s Fort Knox when his first two-word utterance was “Happy Meal.” As a single dad with no one else to decline his withdrawals, my son quickly trained me like Pavlov’s dog to reflexively reach for my wallet whenever he wanted something. I was transformed from a father to a walking, breathing, automated cash machine.

I knew it was pointless to resist the transformation. Kids, after all, are expensive. Also, any frustration I felt as my son’s personal banker vanished after he gave me a hug and a kiss and said, “You’re the best dad ever, and I love you!”

As my son grew older, we had common parent-child monetary discussions, such as “Do you really need to buy school lunch every day?” and “Why should you have a better phone than daddy?” I usually lost the debates, yet I didn’t mind because he was always appreciative. Parenting might be the world’s hardest job, yet a child’s loving gratitude is the world’s best compensation when it comes to teens and money.

When my son started college last year, I needed to upgrade my financial services.

Anything and everything associated with higher education significantly exceeds the cash withdrawal limits of a parental ATM. I transformed once again—this time from an ATM to an e-bank. And the university granted me a new title, “authorized user,” which is a lovely euphemism for “person who pays the bills.”

My vocabulary expanded to include unfamiliar terms, such as flex meal plan, waivable fees, and bursar. I learned to navigate payment options—eCheck, personal check, cashier’s check, credit card, money order, wire payment, and school ePay. Once I got a brief thrill, thinking that if I paid by credit card, I would at least get some serious mileage points. After reading the fine print and learning about an outrageous service fee, I concluded that I’m not traveling until my son graduates.

In addition to payment options, there were fee plan choices. I realized, “Do you want to pay in full or enroll in an installment plan?” really means “How would you like the college to drain your retirement plan? All at once, or steady and slow?” The process is so maddening that my new favorite cuss word is “bursar.”

My angst isn’t about the money—it’s a privilege to pay for my son’s education.

I’m distressed by the virtual nature of the process. Instead of opening my wallet and handing over cash or a credit card to my son, I now click a button to approve a money transfer. With college students and money, the transaction is simpler and faster, but it feels so impersonal. I get no sense of satisfaction from it. None.

The appreciation I now receive from my son is a text message with a cute emoji and one word, “thanks.” There’s often text silence, and I must text him repeatedly, “Did you get the money?” until he eventually sends back another word, “Yep.”

This virtual relationship we now have is unrewarding. It leaves my heart feeling empty, which is more painful than draining my retirement account. Worse, I’m acutely aware that the physical and psychological distance between my son and me is increasing. I worry about how our father-son relationship will change as he becomes a more independent adult.

I love my son, and I dearly miss him. Now, when he asks for money, I fondly remember our hugs and kisses. Sometimes I long for those daddy ATM days.

Dr. Mark Shatz is a single dad, psychologist, and author of Comedy Writing Secrets (3rd ed). His favorite pastime is watching his son outsmart “proven” parenting techniques.

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