“She’s my expensive one.” The mother sitting beside me at the local community pool points to one of her three teenaged daughters. “She’s the one who just has to have clothes from the GAP. She won’t wear anything that doesn’t have a designer label. The others are happy with what we can get at Penneys or Sears but not her.” The mother is clearly exasperated. I ask her what she does about it. “There’s nothing I can do,” she says. “She just won’t wear anything else so I have to get her what she wants. I’m just glad the others don’t care.”
This mom wasn’t asking for help. She just wanted someone to commiserate. Off duty, I do just that. Advice that isn’t asked for is usually not welcomed. So, I make some sympathetic noises and change the subject to how well the girls are swimming and what would be nice to have for dinner the way moms do who find themselves idly sharing on a summer afternoon.
But later on I couldn’t help thinking about the interchange. If the mom at the pool had asked for advice, I would have told her this: Children don’t learn the value of a dollar as long as it seems that Mom and Dad have it to dole out in endless supply. When parents stay absolutely in control of money, kids grow up believing that when parents say no, they are being mean, not that there is a limit. The kids whine, plead, beg, charm, and tantrum because they’ve learned that these tactics will usually extract money from the Mom & Dad Bank and Trust.
Two events in our family got me thinking about how to train children about money. I remember the first time my oldest daughter, then 4, wanted some money for something at school and I didn’t have the $5 in my wallet. When I told her I didn’t have it, she was absolutely incredulous. Then she said, with all the earnestness and sweetness of a 4-year-old charmer, “Well, you can just go to the money machine.” I realized that she thought money was in endless supply at the ATM and that she had no concept of how money worked.
Then there was the first time my then 80-something grandma asked me to help her with her checkbook. She couldn’t figure out why the bank kept telling her she was overdrawn. “I still have all these checks, dear,” she said. A traditional woman who had gone from her father’s protection to her husband’s, she had never had to manage money until she was widowed. Disoriented by age and change, she had the idea that as long as she had blank checks, she had money.
Although these stories have become part of our family folklore and humor (“But dear, I still have lots of checks . . .” when either my husband or I want something we can’t afford), they are also object lessons for me about the importance of taking the time to school our children in the use of money just as surely as we make sure that they know how to read and write. Lessons in how money comes and goes can be a part of family life from the time children are in preschool. As with many things about child-rearing, I try to think about what I want my kids to know by the time they graduate from high school and work backwards from there. No child should leave home without the fundamental skills of how to:
work within a budget;
save for what you need and want;
save for a long-term goal;
balance and maintain a checkbook;
establish and maintain good credit; and
comparison shop to get the best value.
They should also have a realistic understanding of just how much it costs to support themselves and some direct experience with earning money that they need.