Should We Shield Our Kids From The Economic Reality?

by Vered DeLeeuw · 11 comments

Do adults take financial stress out on kids? No, according to a recent study. The study found that child abuse has actually declined nationally in the U.S. in spite of the economic deterioration. Of course, this could simply be the result of a decade-long effort to educate parents and teach them non-violent ways to deal with kids. But the interesting aspect of the study for us is that at least when it comes to financial issues, we don’t seem to take it out on our little ones.

This is very good, of course. No child should ever be abused, and no child should suffer because of their parents’ issues. But reading this study got me thinking. Sure, we should never abuse our kids – financial troubles or not – but should we attempt to completely shield them from our financial worries? Should we make the effort to pretend that things are normal, or is it OK to share our worries?

The Case for Pretending Everything’s Fine

Children have their own worries. We may sometimes dismiss these worries as unimportant, or as lesser worries than ours, but in my opinion that’s usually a mistake. In their own world, kids’ stress is very real, and very powerful. They may not worry like us about putting food on the table or saving enough for retirement, but school and social troubles are very real for them. And anyway, the fact that they don’t need to put food on the table does not make them worry-free in this respect. It just means they are completely dependent on us.

If you agree with what I’ve said so far, then you’ll agree that burdening kids with grownup issues is a mistake and that we need to shield them from our own worries, so that they can focus on their own lives and on the huge task of growing up and learning so much. Sharing with our children that we are dealing with financial issues and that we don’t have as much money as we used to will cause unnecessary stress and feelings of helplessness, especially because there isn’t much they can do to help.

The Case for Sharing Our Worries with Our Kids

On the other hand, one could argue that children are part of the family, and that even if kids today don’t contribute to the family’s finances, our job as parents is to prepare them to life by teaching them basic financial concepts, including saving and budgeting. A recession is a great opportunity to reinforce the importance of living within one’s means, having a well funded emergency fund, being free of debt, and being in a place where you will be OK even if you’re out of work for many months.

Another argument in favor of sharing financial worries with kids is that they will sense something is wrong so there’s no point in trying to hide it from them. If the parents are stressed and they don’t discuss it with their children, the kids will be even more worried, because they will fear the worse. Simply telling them that there’s a global recession and that everyone has less money these days so Mom and Dad are a little worried right now but are dealing with it and we will be OK is much better than not saying anything and letting them sense the stress in the house and worry about it.

We Have Chosen To Talk About It

In my own family, we have made the choice of talking with our kids (almost 9 and 11) about the recession. We explained that people all over the world, including us, have lost money and are earning less, and that we need to make sure we don’t spend too much. We also explained that we will still be making donations, but that most of our donations will now go to homeless shelters and family services – not that “green” or health causes are not important, but right now we feel that our top priority is to help people find jobs, try to keep them from becoming homeless, and supporting them if they do lose everything.

I don’t think we caused our kids unnecessary stress when we shared with them that the world is facing a recession and that we need to change our behavior accordingly. I know they would have overheard us talking about it anyway. I do suspect that my older daughter was worried, but we assured her that we will be OK, and I don’t think she would be less worried had we not discussed the recession with her.

David’s Note: We were quite poor when we grew up, but I would never know if my mom never told us a few years ago. She pretty much kept the harsh reality of our financial situation hidden from us, which allowed my sister and me to grow up happily and without worries.

It believe that you should use financial realities as a reason to explain to your kids of specific decisions, but not talk about financial troubles in the general sense. What I mean is that if your expenses are tight, you should let your kids know that they have to cut back on some of the niceties they were enjoying because of the new reality. However, talking about money problems in general is too vague and difficult for most children to understand.

What do you think? Do we need to shield our kids from financial worries, or openly discuss these issues with them?

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  • K-Bot says:

    There has to be a happy medium of some sort. I grew up having “too much information” about my parents’ finances and other foibles. My folks got married too young (Mom was pregnant) and misused credit to maintain a middle class lifestyle. They eventually filed for bankruptcy and divorced, leaving my mother (who suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder from her own train wreck of a childhood and could never hold down a job) to keep everything together, which she failed miserably at. My worst memories were of being 15 years old and going 3-4 days without eating a proper meal and having a hayfield as a bathroom. As a result I grew up scared, even after setting out on my own and going to college (full scholarship to a private university, thank you very much), thinking that a pinkslip and doomsday were always around the corner.

    Sometimes I wish my parents had protected us a little more and told us less about what was going on in their lives. But then again, those hard times made me strong, and financially sensible (after briefly being tempted to just “bow to genetics” and repeat my parents’ mistakes). I own one home free and clear and am in process of buying my second; my credit is virtually perfect. But I also drive a 12-year-old car and haven’t bought new clothes for myself in years. Most of my vacations are “staycations” where we bunk with family or friends. Nevertheless I am happy, healthy and love life. I guess that’s a “happy medium” in and of itself. Thanks for listening.

  • Ray Edward says:

    I believe that too much shielding from reality is not healthy for young children. Of course everything must be within reason. Little ones tend to believe mostly everything that we tell them. If we explain the value of money and how it is achieved (by going to school, studying, getting a good job, working, and getting paid for our efforts) then they will begin to realize the process and even be motivated to follow their dreams and goals. Money is just a tool, for better or worse and we must teach the young ones that you get what you put into it.

  • Nick D. says:

    I agree that you absolutely must share current issues with your kids (assuming they’re old enough to understand) Times like these are a perfect time to teach your kids some super valuable lessons about being frugal, appreciating what they have and working hard.

  • First Gen American says:

    Regarding Stella’s comment, my 5 year old also thought money came from ATM’s, not from working. I am doing my best to explain where money comes from and the concept of jobs, but 5 is still a little young for some concepts.

    Even after our talk, a couple of weeks later, my son asked why the amusement park wasn’t free. I had to explain again that some people’s jobs is to help people have fun. I think it will come with time.

  • Steve Jobs says:

    No matter how we want to hide the true financial situation from our children, they know that there is something wrong and they start to worry especially when we can’t give what they want. Telling them the current situation will actually relieve them of their worries and can actually help by not asking too much for unnecessary expenses.

  • Stella says:

    I think it’s smart to share some financial realities with kids–within reason of course. They should understand that money is finite–that it’s earned as opposed to just being dispensed freely from ATMs (I knew a five year-old who harbored this illusion thanks to parental indulgence), and should be spent wisely and mindfully.

  • Kim Woodbridge says:

    I tell her that there isn’t a lot of extra money because of the world economy but emphasize that we are comfortable and have everything that we need. Her father, however, has been unemployed for quite some time now and she is very aware of the time he spends looking for work, going on interviews and hoping he finds a job. I don’t know how much this stresses her but I think she is concerned.

  • vered says:

    I agree with both of you that it makes sense to share more as the child grows and can graps more.

  • KM says:

    As with everything else, there needs to be a balance. What I remember from growing up is that I listened to my family talk about finances and problems (I listened a lot, usually with my head on my mom’s lap, so there were other topics too) and even if I didn’t understand everything, I understood we couldn’t afford some things and I didn’t ask for toys unless I really, really wanted it (and not in the usual child sense when you really, really want everything). I think I was raised really well in general, but I don’t remember how they did it. I think maybe explaining to the kids that the family is struggling and can’t afford some things in simple terms without going into too much detail about why may be a good way to do it. As they get older, they can understand more details.

  • Chris-Jumbo says:

    Although I would agree you don’t want to add stress to the kids, you don’t want them to worry about what they don’t understand either. For instance, why does Dad cry when he looks at the check book?

    It also depends on the age of the children. I have older and younger children. I am more open with the older ones than I am with the younger. We also make sure the kids understand that regardless our faith will get us through and still have things we could do if it got worse.

    For our older kids, we have encouraged them to find ways to make money. Not to pay for our expenses, but to help pay for extra things they want such as Karate lessons, pants from Tilly’s (as opposed to Walmart), etc.

    I don’t believe in allowances, but we do look for ways our kids can do extra things to earn money and then teach them about saving, tithing, and budgeting for things you want to buy.

    cd :O)

  • Melissa Tosetti says:

    I agree with you that once children get to a certain age, it is better to be open with them about your financial situation. The key is to do it in a way that minimizes fear. Letting them know that it should be a temporary situation will give them hope for the future. Also, letting them know what they can do to help will give them a sense of control and contribution.

    I believe it is also very important as the parent, to be careful about how you react to your financial situation. Children notice everything. If they see that you are fearful or angry, it’s possible they will develop fear or anger around money.

    Melissa Tosetti

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