When our clothes dryer broke the same weekend we hired a babysitter for a few hours, my daughter, 6, informed me, "Mom, we're spending too much money." Never mind that the bills were for vastly different amounts. She knew we had to shell out for both replacing the dryer and paying the sitter, and it was too much for her little brain. Either she was really clever about trying to talk us out of having a sitter, or she was all confused about money.
I called Dr. Brad Klontz, a clinical psychologist and author of the book Mind Over Money, to get his take on some of the tricky things kids ask us about money. How should we respond? Here is his advice on the right things to say -- and the wrong things.
The Wrong Thing: "I don't know how we're going to pay the bills this month."
Freaking out about the pile of bills? Resist the urge to tell your children about it, because they can't help. "Don't give them TMFI: too much financial information," Klontz says. "We can't involve them in things they're powerless to do anything about. Laying that load on a child makes her anxious."
The Right Thing: Present a confident front, and then involve them with problems they can help solve.
Do have a conversation, because kids are sponges, and if you're stressed, they're going to feel it anyway. Tell them what's going on, and then ask them to help with things they can manage. "Times are kind of tight. Dad lost his job. He's looking for a new job, but don't worry about it, Mom and Dad have it handled. This is what we're going to do. We're going to be eating out less. Do you have any ideas on stuff we can cook at home?"
The Wrong Thing: "It's none of your business how much money I make."
If a kid asks how much money you make, should you tell them? It's understandable if you don't trust them to keep that information private. But realize that if you don't talk about it, you're sending a signal. "You could be giving them the message that having a lot of money or having a little money is shameful," Klontz says. "So maybe the kid walks away with the belief that having money must be bad, or that rich people are somehow evil or shallow." What will that do to his earnings potential?
The Right Thing: Be honest - if you can stomach it.
Klontz meets with 30 adolescents each week, and if they ask about his income, he tells them. (Note to readers: I didn't have the nerve.) "People will tell you more about their sex lives than how much money they make. I don't feel any reason to feel ashamed about it," he says. "If they ask you, I think it's OK to tell them. You can ask them not to tell their friends, but give them a reason why: You're afraid other families or friends are going to judge you for having more or less than them." Try to avoid conveying shame to your kids.
The Wrong Thing: "I work so you can go to camp, art lessons, or play sports."
If kids are fussing about your long work hours, it's natural to want to tell them you're putting in extra hours to fund their activities and their toys.
The Right Thing: Look at what's really going on.
When your kid makes you feel like you're not spending enough time with him, that gets you defensive. The right answer is, "Work is important to Mom, but what do you think about us trying to set aside some time when we can be together, you and I?" In this case, it's not about the money, so resist trying to place an unfair burden on the kids.
The Wrong Thing: "$60 for a Halloween costume? That is way too expensive. I'm sorry, but I just can't afford it."
You feel bad or guilty, so you're apologizing, which only magnifies the issue.
The Right Thing: We have $15 to spend on a costume.
Say it matter-of-factly: "This is our budget, $15. We can go to a thrift store or the Salvation Army, or we can buy something in this range." If you state it firmly, without letting your emotions in, they probably won't challenge you on it.
The Wrong Thing: Silence about money.
"Kids make the association very early on between money and the ability to buy things," Klontz says. "I don't think you can talk about it too early. The biggest mistake parents make is not talking about it. Because kids will arrive at their own conclusions about how money works, based on what they see us do and what they hear. They always arrive at erroneous conclusions - that's the child's mind, right?"
If those understandings aren't challenged, as they turn into adults, they operate from these beliefs. For example, if a child grows up in a family that's struggling financially, he might walk away with the belief that there will never be enough money. "There are two typical responses," Klontz says. "Either he'll be a workaholic who hoards money and never spends it. Or he'll be a frivolous spender, because he's never going to have enough anyway, so why try? The more emotional the experience is growing up, the more tightly we hold onto those beliefs."
The Right Thing: Share Your Values About Money.
When your son is begging for a new computer game, say no, and say why. "It's important for kids to get used to the idea that they can't have everything they want," Klontz says. Tell them what your other plans are: "With our money, we're going to choose to have a vacation together or an experience together, to us, that's more important than things. It's OK that you want that, maybe that's something we can think about getting down the road, but for now, we want to spend money on doing something fun as a family. That means a lot to me."
If you hear a child talking about money, and she seems way off base, it's a teachable moment. "Stop what you're doing and say, 'What do you mean? Where did you hear that?' It gives you a chance to clarify and challenge whatever that belief is, and help flesh it out so it's more accurate," Klontz says.
Have you told your kids how much you make? Why or why not? Sign in below to let me know how you handled it.
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