Five Ways to Say No to Your Teen

Last Updated Aug 5, 2010 11:42 AM EDT

When the iPhone 4 launched, a staggering 76 percent of the 1.5 million folks who bought the first day were upgrading from a phone that, on average, they had owned for just over a year. Is that any way to teach kids about money?

In a word: no. I couldn't find stats on how many of those iPhone upgrades were for young adults. But I'll go out on a limb and guess that it was a bunch. I'll also guess that a good many of these upgrades were funded through the Bank of Dad.

The useful life a cell phone is at least two years and probably three or even longer -- even though it can't handle some new and cool (and unnecessary) apps within months. So what we have in this case is a bunch of youngsters buying something they don't need, and probably doing it with their parents' blessing.

What's wrong with this picture? Parents need to set a good example. You shouldn't buy expensive things just for the sake of coolness anymore than your kids. They learn a lot of excessive behavior from friends. But they also pick it up at home, and when you refrain from impulse buying you not only set a good example but also make it easier to convince your teens to follow suit.

Just setting an example isn't enough, though. Parents also need to set limits so that teens begin to learn to distinguish between wants and needs. The difference may seem obvious. But to a teen who is trying to fit in while parsing numerous and competing marketing messages about their image, it can be difficult to understand that they do not absolutely need a new iPod or wardrobe. It's up to you to say no.

Desire can be a constructive and motivating force. There's nothing wrong with wanting things that you do not need -- so long as you go about acquiring them in a way that does not compromise your long-term financial goals. But tricking yourself into believing you need something that, in truth, you simply want leads down the path of impulse spending and bills that cannot be repaid.

I've mentioned the value of delayed gratification before. The sooner your child learns to wait for things -- until she has the money, or until she really needs it -- the better off she'll be in adulthood. Step one for parents, then, is learning to say no. It's not easy. So here are five ways to say no when it must be said:

Reflect. A quick no carries no weight with teens. They'll see you as intransigent, uninformed, and simply out to make them miserable. Even if you know you are right, take some time to consider the request and explain why you decided against it.

Listen. By listening to your teen you demonstrate respect for their point of view and you are more apt to convince them of the merit of your own point of view. If you don't listen they may infer a lack of interest and will avoid future discussions.

Keep cool. Your teen may try to bait you with unfair accusations or even insults. Don't respond. Agree to talk about it later and walk away if you have to.

Offer evidence. You don't want to compare your teens with someone else. But if you ask them to observe the consequences of mistakes made by others it just might sink in that you know a thing or two about life.

Stick together. Parents who cannot put up a united front are in for a long and ugly battle. Reach a decision privately, and then stand firm and take the time to explain. If you remain consistent and united eventually your teens will figure out when they have no shot in the first place and spare you the grief of having to say no.

They'll also learn that a vintage cell phone still does what it needs to do and that they should choose carefully when they do get their next upgrade because it's a decision they'll have to live with beyond the next app.

Photo by William Hook from Flickr
More on MoneyWatch:
Consumer Reports Review a Blow for iPhone 4 and Apple Stock
iPhone Apps: 5 Top Money-Saving Picks

  • Dan Kadlec

    Daniel J. Kadlec is an author and journalist whose work appears regularly in Time and Money magazines. He is the former editor of Time’s Generations section, which was written and edited for boomers. Kadlec came to Time from USA Today, where he was the creator and author of the daily column Street Talk, which anchored the newspaper's business coverage. He has co-written three books, including, most recently, With Purpose: Going from Success to Significance in Work and Life. He has won a New York Press Club award and a National Headliner Award for columns on the economy and investing.