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Lessons From Wealthy and Wise Parents

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, July 9, 2006; F01

No doubt you've heard that Warren Buffett, investor extraordinaire, has decided to give most of his wealth away to charity.

Buffett's billions of dollars will be donated largely to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Buffett and Melinda Gates are directors of The Washington Post Co.)

What's also extraordinary is that Buffett won't be leaving his vast wealth to his three children. As I read reports about his gift, I was struck by Buffett's explanation as to why he's not transferring his riches to his kids.

In a Fortune article, Buffett was quoted as saying: "Certainly neither Susie nor I ever thought we should pass huge amounts of money along to our children. Our kids are great. But I would argue that when your kids have all the advantages anyway, in terms of how they grow up and the opportunities they have for education, including what they learn at home -- I would say it's neither right nor rational to be flooding them with money. In effect, they've had a gigantic head start in a society that aspires to be a meritocracy. Dynastic mega-wealth would further tilt the playing field that we ought to be trying instead to level."

Buffett is as wise about how to parent his children as he has been in amassing his wealth.

I thought about Buffett's comments as I was reading "24-Karat Kids" by Judy Goldstein and Sebastian Stuart (St. Martin's Press, $22.95), the July pick for the Color of Money Book Club.

This isn't my typical recommendation. Not a single budget sheet in the book. No tips on picking the right mutual fund. You won't get any help with retirement planning.

Nope, this is a delightful book that deliciously dishes on rich, overindulgent parents. Goldstein is a prominent New York pediatrician. Stuart is an author. Together they have written a fictional account of the life of Shelley Green, who has just landed a job at Madison Pediatrics on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the epicenter for wretched excess.

"Dr. Judy Goldstein and Sebastian Stuart are writing about a milieu I know well, and their take on it is fresh and very entertaining," Woody Allen says on the book jacket.

And yes, that's the Woody Allen, actor, director and writer.

As one wealthy parent in the book finally admits: "There is something you don't understand about having all the money and all the time and all the crisp, capable staff you've always wanted . . . when you can snap your fingers and just buy whatever you want, none of it means anything."

I was riveted by this occasionally risqué (this is not appropriate for young readers) cautionary tale of living high.

In her 30 years of practicing as a pediatrician, Goldstein said, she has seen some disturbing parenting.

"These children grow up in an environment where instead of having aspirations to achieve professional and personal goals, their only goal is to achieve money and the power it brings to 'have it all,' though they may end up having nothing, i.e., no personal happiness," she said in an interview.

Although "24-Karat Kids" is satirical (and occasionally stereotypical), there is lots of truth in what the fake doctor sees, Goldstein said.

It's not necessary to sign up your 4-month-old for musical classes or get a math tutor for an 8-month-old baby, both doctors -- the real and the fabricated -- argue.

Okay, Goldstein doesn't actually know a parent who got a math tutor for an 8-month-old, but parents are spending too much for the extras, she said.

"Tutors at a cost of about $20,000 a year for the pre-college SATs and nursery school tuition now up to $30,000 in New York City are not the sine qua non of good parenting that people of means believe it to be," Goldstein said. "Nursery schools to some extent are no more than glorified playgroups, and if only there would be more children of the privileged attending public schools with parents giving some of their money toward the public school education system, everyone would benefit, and the competitiveness for private schools wouldn't be so ferocious."

Goldstein hopes people take this from her novel: "The most expensive does not necessarily equate with best. Whether it is your child's school, camp, extra-curricular lessons and activities, stroller, clothing or toys, what matters most is not the price but the quality and the match with your child's needs and not the parent's."

The fictitious parents parading in and out of the posh pediatric practice in "24-Karat Kids" confirm what we real penny-pinching parents know. Love of money and prestige often spoils a child. Thankfully, Goldstein and Stuart deliver that medicinal message in an entertaining book.

If you are interested in discussing this month's book selection, join me at noon Thursday at http://www.washingtonpost.com/ . Goldstein will be my guest and take your questions.

To become a member of the Color of Money Book Club, all you have to do is read the recommended book. Then we chat online with the author or authors. In addition, every month I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the book, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of "24-Karat Kids," send an e-mail to colorofmoney@washpost.com . Please include your name and address so we can send you a book if you win.

? On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online athttp://www.npr.org.

? By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

? By e-mail:singletarym@washpost.com.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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