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How to Talk With Kids About Money Troubles

With doomsday financial scenarios screaming from the headlines and television, there’s no question that kids will pick up on the anxiety in the air. Talking to them about what’s happening in both the economy and the family budget is crucial — because the less we say, the bigger they might imagine the monster in the closet to be. But what’s the best broach to this loaded topic?

Needs vs. Wants

First, be conscious of the way you talk about money, and cut out the “poortalk,” advises David Myers, professor at Michigan’s Hope College and author of “The Pursuit of Happiness.”

“‘I need that’ can become ‘I want that.’ ‘I am underpaid’ can become ‘I spend more than I make,’” Myers writes. “And the most familiar middle-class lament, ‘We can’t afford it,’ can become, truthfully, ‘We choose to spend our money on other things.’ For usually, we could afford it — the snowmobile, the CD player, the Disney World vacation — if we made it our top priority; we just have other priorities on which we choose to spend our limited incomes. The choice is ours. ‘I can’t afford it’ denies our choices, reducing us to self-pitying victims.”

I’ve always tried to frame finances in terms of choices for my kids. For instance, my daughter came home from a play date once and asked when we would be getting an “extreme makeover” on our house, since compared to her friend’s palatial digs we lived in a shack.

I told her we were lucky not to have the disabling injuries, serious health problems, and other woes of the families on the “Extreme Makeover” TV show. Secondly, we could have a bigger home, but then Mom and Dad would have to get different jobs, leave early in the morning, and work late into the evening in New York City. (I work mostly from my home office.) And that would mean I couldn’t drive them to school or have a snack with them when they arrive home, and we wouldn’t be able to have dinner together as a family very often. Fortunately, she agreed that the tradeoff — more time with us — makes it worth having the smaller home. (Of course, she’s not a teenager yet.)

This philosophy is ideal for tough economic times. Rather than scare kids — “We can’t buy anything because Dad lost his job and we have no money!” — we can tell them that the economic environment has changed, and that we need to make different choices about our family budget for a while.

When we hide financial realities, and pretend life is seamless and effortless, we do both ourselves and our kids a disservice. “By keeping crises private, you prolong and intensify the pain and fear you’re feeling,” says Stephen Pollan, a New York consultant and author of “Lifelines for Money Misfortunes.” “You have control here; you can ask for raise, get a new job, cut down on spending. Money is actually one of the only serious problems that is totally within your control.” 

Enlist your kids’ help: Ask them to be creative and think of half a dozen low-cost ways to have fun as a family, or ways to earn more, whether it’s selling stuff on eBay, raking lawns, or babysitting. Asking kids to pitch in empowers them, because you’re acknowledging that they’re capable of making a difference.

Also put economic issues in global perspective. Lately, I’ve been doing that by renting foreign films from Netflix for family movie night. Movies like “Children of Heaven” — in which a poor Iranian boy accidentally loses his sister’s shoes, and they have to share his sneakers in a relay fashion — help my kids appreciate the wealth they enjoy. Or check out “God Grew Tired of Us,” a documentary about three Sudanese refugees who make their way to the U.S., and are astounded by luxuries like electricity, running water, and supermarkets (and genuinely puzzled by the relationship between Santa Claus and Christmas).

Perhaps the most important factor (and the one that requires the most discipline) is to be optimistic for kids, and focus on the good amid the tribulations. In “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life,” University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman explains that optimists view setbacks in their lives as temporary rather than permanent; specific instead of universal; hopeful rather than hopeless; and external instead of internal.

The Optimistic Approach

For instance, imagine two families whose primary breadwinner loses his or her job. Here’s the difference in the way they perceive their situation:

Optimists: “This rough patch will end and the bills will get paid; we’ll tighten our belts for a little while.” (temporary) Pessimists: “We’re going broke!” (permanent)

Optimists: “We have the skills, experience, and contacts to find another job; meanwhile, we’re healthy, the kids are working hard in school, and our extended family is supportive.” (specific) Pessimists: “This is wrecking our lives.” (universal)

Optimists: “Companies are cutting jobs across the board.” (external) Pessimists: “They thought I wasn’t good enough to keep.” (internal)

Ideally, an optimistic approach will teach kids that while we can’t control everything that happens to us, we can control our attitude about what happens to us. As Viktor Frankl wrote in “Man’s Search for Meaning“: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

When kids see their parents struggle honestly with challenges, overcome them or learn to accept them and live with them (rather than go into denial or flee from them), they will be better prepared to cope with their own inevitable challenges. Life pitches us plenty of curveballs. Kids who see their family come together, swing for the fence, and keep swinging even when they strike out will grow up more willing to take risks, make mistakes, learn, and grow. That strikes me as a pretty good way to pursue happiness.

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