MY SON HAD a scarring experience with the stock market while still an impressionable boy. Like a kid who falls off his bike, he is refusing to get back on again.
While in high school, he was given a couple of hundred dollars for attending a summer college seminar, and I talked him into depositing it in a mutual fund account. I set up an online chart to help him track the progress of his modest investment.
He decided that getting paid for going to class was the perfect setup, and he managed to gain admission to a military academy where that is, more or less, the deal.
But my efforts to get him to save, and then invest, a small percentage of his military pay is falling not just on deaf ears, but on ears red with anger.
You see, thanks to my little online chart, he was able to watch his investment shrink, not grow, as the stock market fell off a cliff. Like many of us grown-ups, he lost most of his money, and he isn't happy about it.
He is willing to save money -- for a fancy cell phone or a car -- but he wouldn't invest in the stock market now if Alan Greenspan came to the house and made a personal plea.
"Why would I do that?" he asks. "Look what happened to me. Hey, look what happened to you!" And, indeed, he has overheard the regular moaning as I watch our retirement funds shrink like a cashmere sweater in the wash.
It is hard enough to persuade twentysomethings to save for a rainy day, let alone a retirement that might be half a century away. But I am afraid we will never persuade them now -- not with all their parents taking to the fainting couch every time a new brokerage statement arrives.
Joe would rather keep his money in a shoebox under the bed, and I am not sure I blame him.
"If they don't have all the facts, it is easy to come to that conclusion," says Dara Duguay, executive director of Jump Start, which promotes financial education for young people.
"If they don't concentrate so heavily on the last two years and think of the stock market over time, they won't be worried."
Janet Bodnar, executive editor of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, says that just a couple of years ago, when high-school kids were winning big playing stock-market games, she was fielding questions from worried parents who feared "we were raising a generation of greedy little investors."
"I told them not to worry, that pretty soon we would have a bear market and the light would go off in their heads.
"And sure enough, it is three years later and parents are asking, 'How can we ever convince them to invest?'
"Time itself takes care of extremes. Your son's reticence to invest will last about as long as the stock market is down."
Unfortunately, his timing will be off, as it often is with investors who react emotionally to the stock market.
The market is down and Joe, like lots of grown-ups, sees losses, not bargains.
When the market goes up again, he, like the rest of us, will see profits, not inflated prices.
"It isn't glamorous," says Bodnar, author of Dollars & Sense for Kids (Kiplinger Books, 300 pages, $17.95), "but you have to keep hammering away by investing small amounts over time -- no matter what happens."
For twentysomethings, the future is next weekend. Retirement is -- well -- a lifetime away. But that misperception of time can be used to advantage when we try to persuade them to stick it out for the long haul.
"This bear market has been a heart beat, a blink of an eye. Over the long term, it has been nothing," says Bodnar.
If you need a visual aid to persuade your young adult of this, Duguay suggests a chart showing them the magic of compound interest over time.
"It is dramatic and they are astounded. It is the best way to convince them to save," says the author of Please Send Money: A Financial Survival Guide for Young Adults on Their Own (Sourcebooks, 256 pages, $16.95).
The other chart to show them is the performance of the stock market over time. "There have been bubbles like this in the stock market since the beginning. But it doesn't last. Over time, the stock market has consistently been on the positive side," says Duguay.
As is the case on so many topics, our children get most of their financial information from us, even if they are acting like they aren't listening.
According to the American Savings Education Council, 94 percent of students ages 16 to 22 say they are likely to turn to their parents as a financial information source.
It would help if we knew what we were talking about.
Duguay and Bodnar agree: Encourage even young children to get in the saving habit by putting away at least 10 percent of their income -- from allowance, baby-sitting or a real job.
Young adults will need cash in the bank in case of emergencies, and the formula is the same for them as it is for us: three to six months of living expenses.