Paying Our Fair Share: Explaining Taxes to Kids
As we rush to file our taxes, parents should take a moment to teach kids about money—and Jewish ethics
Obviously this is Bad for the Jews. Gordon Cohn, assistant professor of accounting at Brooklyn College, points out in his article “The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Jewish Perspective” that being a tax cheat is a chillul Hashem, “the most reprehensible of all transgressions.” He writes: “Chillul Hashem has two meanings. First, it refers to any action which makes people look down at the Jewish religion. For example, if someone who is a Torah scholar and keeps all rituals is convicted of stealing money this is a chillul Hashem. It makes people think that following the Torah does not lead one to become a more ethical person.”
As my people (native Rhode Islanders of the 1970s) say: doy.
Now that I am old and have kids (and no longer say “doy” as often as I used to), I know it’s part of my job as a parent to convey my values about money and cheating to my offspring. One way is by talking about current events. Recently there was a huge cheating scandal in the news—a former district superintendent of schools in Atlanta was charged with racketeering, theft, conspiracy, and making false statements after instigating principals and teachers to change kids’ scores on state standardized tests. According to the New York Times, one middle-school principal even held “changing parties” in which teachers sat together erasing wrong answers on test sheets and filling in the correct ovals instead, while he guarded the door. “I need the numbers,” he’d tell the teachers.
Talking about this story is a way to talk about how horrid I find cheating, about why the girls both go to schools that de-emphasize standardized tests even though there are more prestigious schools out there that do the opposite, and about why I think it’s better to be moral than to win at all costs. We talk about the financial incentives on principals to cheat and how we can work to create a world in which they aren’t tempted to do it. We explicitly tell the kids we’d rather have them fail a test than cheat on it.
And I think it’s fine for the kids to know that their parents sometimes disagree about spending, as long as they know we always agree about not being financial skanks. Silence isn’t golden. We’ve talked about tax reform and how little corporations and the wealthiest 1 percent currently pay. We’ve talked about what the government pays for: public schools, paved streets, the subway, helping veterans and poor people—all things we value. I don’t want my daughters living in the dark about the costs of living and the constant need to make moral choices. They hear us talking about where to give our tzedakah money; they know about our volunteer work. I have two girls; I don’t want them unconsciously expecting a prince to sweep in and take care of them financially. They should know the costs of living, including the costs of running a just government and the cost of keeping one’s moral soul.
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The commemorative day is confusing and arbitrary. Let’s find a more meaningful alternative.