By middle school, the focus starts to sharpen. That's when kids realize that their family might have less (or more) than their peers, says Dr. Brad Klontz, a clinical psychologist and author of the book Mind Over Money. Income disparities become apparent to preteens -- who are naturally image conscious and embarrassed by their parents, no matter what kind of car they drive or house they live in.
And by high school, the questions might be even more direct: "Why don't we have more money?" Which can leave any parent tongue-tied. Here's Klontz's advice for answering your child's money questions.
Q: What's the best way to answer when my six-year-old asks, "Why can't we have a pool?"
BK: Parents should look at all these questions as opportunities instead of fearing them. It's an opportunity to educate your kids and frame your answer in the context of your values and priorities. You don't have to go into too much detail with a six-year-old. You could try saying, "Yes, Joey's family does have a pool. A pool costs quite a bit of money. We could certainly do it, but we would rather travel more." Or "We want to save money for your education so you can go to a really good college."
Q: Why not just say, "We can't afford it?"
BK: It's not really that helpful, and it might put your kids into conflict about money. I think parents wig out about these questions a lot more than kids do. If those questions trigger in parents feelings of guilt, jealousy, disappointment, shame or anger, you're probably going to give a less useful answer. The bottom line is this: If parents are at peace with their socioeconomic status and how they're using their resources, the kids will be at peace with it too. The kids will be like, "Oh, OK."
Q: What about those older kids who just come out with it and say, "Why don't we have more money?"
BK: Again, it's an opportunity. If you've resolved your own issues around your choices in life, it won't be a problem to answer that question. Being a banker on Wall Street might have earned you the most money, but you can share with your children why you decided not to do that. "It's not all about getting the most money that you can. I didn't really want to do that. My passion was..." and fill in the blank. Maybe it's, "I wanted to be a teacher. For me it was more important to try to educate kids than have a bigger house. I hope whatever job you get is one you feel passionate about."
Q: When your children are exposed to really wealthy friends -- I'm thinking of an outrageous nine-year-old birthday party I heard about recently -- should you talk to them about it?
BK: The kids are going to see the economic disparities if they flip on the TV and watch My Super Sweet 16 or MTV Cribs. It's inevitable. It's a good idea to have some response for them. But at the same time I think ideally we follow their lead. You have to be thinking of what's going on in the child's mind. Start with open-ended questions, like, "So what did you think about that party?" They might not have noticed what you noticed. They just be thinking, "Those hot dogs were really good."