Children Will Listen (Financial Lessons from Into the Woods)

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I have enjoyed listening to the Broadway version of “Into the Woods” on my way into work this summer. The musical is a retelling of the original stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Rapunzel. It debuted in 1986-1987 on the stage and then was adapted to film in 2014 by Disney. The music and lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim.

One thing that makes “Into the Woods” particularly interesting intellectually are the riffs and motifs that are repeated throughout the songs. Unlike the average story, “Into the Woods” is able to weave its themes from one song to the next by literally lifting the musical notes and/or lyrics from one song and placing them into another. If you recognize these repeated bars, words, or motifs, then you are then able to learn more about the characters and themes than those who do not notice or remember them.

This series explores a few of those repeated themes and some financial planning lessons that we can learn from them.

Lesson 3: Children will listen.

The witch and Rapunzel have a strained relationship. The witch really wants to protect Rapunzel from the dangers in the world, so she has decided to lock Rapunzel in a tower until Rapunzel is savvy enough that she can navigate the dangers of the world. The problem is that Rapunzel is a naive young adult who has never experienced anything. Thus, all the witch’s lessons about the dangers of the woods are only theoretical. When a danger finally comes (the prince), she is inexperienced and unable to defend herself.

When the witch finds Rapunzel pregnant in her tower, she screams and cries the song “Stay with Me.” She bellows, “What did I clearly say? Children must listen. What were you not to do? Children must see and learn. Why could you not obey? Children should listen.”

Then, after Rapunzel’s tragic Act 2 death, the witch gives her heartfelt song of “Lament,” singing, “No matter what you say, children won’t listen. No matter what you know children refuse to learn. Guide them along the way, still they won’t listen. Children can only grow from something you love to something you lose.”

However, the witch still has more to learn about parenthood. At the very end of the play, most of the cast is on stage for the final song. In it, the Baker, frazzled and unsure about how to parent his child, begins to tell the story of what happened to the child — “Once upon a time, in a far off kingdom…” — while the witch sings over top of him:

Careful the things you say, children will listen.
Careful the things you do, children will see and learn.
Guide them along the way, children will glisten.
Children will look to you for which way to turn, to learn what to be.
Careful before you say, “Listen to me.”
Children will listen.

The witch’s journey is one that many parents take, although hopefully most of us parents have less tragedy. Children are notorious for pushing limits so they can learn the boundary lines.

When my own daughter was two-and-a-half years old, she got in a phase where she would say, “Is this okay, Mommy? What about now? What about now? What about now?,” as she did some limit testing behavior like progressively climbing onto the dinner table one slight lean at a time. I would find myself saying, “That’s okay. That’s okay. That’s okay. Ok, that lean was too far. Go back in your chair now.”

On the face of it, it could appear like I should sing the witch’s lament, “No matter what you say, children won’t listen.” However, my daughter was listening and learning. After a week or so of feeling out where the boundary line was, she knew how to acceptably sit at the dinner table and how much of a lean was, although perhaps poor manners, still safe. She was learning the whole time.

Childhood is a time of acquiring lots of behavior that will be useful for the rest of life. Luckily for children, there are many ways to learn it. Unfortunately for parents, your own words, actions, and counsel will be one of the main guiding lights. Children do learn by listening, but they also learn a lot by watching and perhaps even more if they are permitted to practice themselves.

This means, one of the best ways to teach your children to have great finances is to have great finances yourself, bring your children close alongside you, and make time to demonstrate and discuss what you are doing. For better or for worse, much of who you are is who your children will become.

The witch learns the hard way what the cost of keeping your child locked up and ignorant is. Instead of locking your child up in a tower away from difficult lessons like finances, extend to your child the freedom they deserve to explore the world. They will make mistakes, but those are valuable lessons.

Your child may be in the thick of feeling out a boundary line by testing all your limits, but it pays off to be patient and trust that they will learn and they will listen. Trusting that your child will grow up alright is a great gift to your child. It removes from them the pressure and weight of your natural parental fears. It allows them to leave the tower and learn about the world before it is too late.

Photo from 1989 original Broadway cast recording of Into the Woods where Bernadette Peters was the Witch.

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Chief Operating Officer, CFP®, APMA®

Megan Russell has worked with Marotta Wealth Management most of her life. She loves to find ways to make the complexities of financial planning accessible to everyone. She is the author of over 800 financial articles and is known for her expertise on tax planning.