Parenting in a Material World

Anyone with a child heading to college knows the drill.
Shower shoes…check.
Twin extra-large sheets…check.
Laundry detergent…check.
Refrigerator, big screen TV…wait, what?!?

How did this begin? What happened to the toddler whose favorite toy was a cardboard box? How did she go from hand-me-downs to coordinated throw pillows and matching desk sets for her dorm room?

Then it dawned on me. American Girl must be to blame. Our girl was nine when we bought her a hundred dollar doll for Christmas. The culprit’s name was Kit. She came with a book, wearing clothes from the ‘40s. But her wardrobe didn’t stop there. We, of Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 8.57.23 AMcourse, ordered pajamas, a personal care set and three “starter” outfits. We didn’t buy a doll. We bought a habit! By the time our daughter’s springtime birthday rolled around, she was asking for a bedroom set and a bathtub…for Kit.

In hindsight, maybe it was a joint effort between us—her parents—and the wallet-sucking power of American Girl that planted the ever-so-tiny mustard seed of materialism in our household. I quickly realized we had work to do to prevent it from taking root. While I want kids who appreciate nice things, I want kids who understand that nice things are just things and that they are earned, not served up on a silver platter.

So how does a middle-aged, middle-class mom of two nearly-adult children dump some weed killer on the mustard seed of materialism? How do we parent older kids effectively in a material world?

5 life lessons to teach nearly-adult kids about money:

1. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should
There are more things for kids to spend money on than ever before: expensive clothes, video games, cars, and more. If you aren’t made of money, it’s hard to give your kids everything they want. And if you are made of money, is giving them everything they want such a great idea?

My own mother had a clever solution to my teenaged begging in the ‘80s. While my folks had the means to finance my wardrobe, they felt I had to have some skin in the game. So when we were shopping and I’d find a pair of Guess jeans I just had to have, Mom would offer to meet me half way, a 50-50 split of the cost of the garment. If it was worth a few extra shifts babysitting the neighborhood terrors to pay for my half, I’d say yes. If not, the item stayed on the rack. I quickly learned to select my wardrobe pieces carefully, and my mom taught me that just because they could afford something, didn’t mean they’d automatically buy it.

2. It’s okay to talk about money
“Dad, I really neeeeeed the new iPhone,” pleaded a freckle-faced boy of about fourteen. I listened (okay, eavesdropped may be a more accurate word) to this father-son conversation at the phone store in our local mall. Expecting the father to cave, my ears perked up when I heard his response.

“Why? There’s nothing wrong with your current phone,” replied Dad.

“It’s cheap…only $99. Plus, my old phone is all scratched up.”

This opened up a conversation that included Dad explaining the difference between price and value, and how responsible people care for items of value. For example, he said, they don’t toss hundred dollar phones on top of sports duffels in the hot sun. (zing!)

As you can imagine, the conversation got a little more intense from there. But what I took away from it was that discussions about money (and value and responsibility) between parents and kids need to happen early and often, both around the dinner table and at the phone store.

Appropriate family financial discussions teach kids about the kinds of choices adults face. Topics can be simple, like discussing want versus need over an American Girl bathtub. Or they can be more complex, like how the cost of a college education can vary and how excessive student loans can be the difference between financial independence or living in our basements forever.

3. Budget wisely
If you haven’t already done so, introduce your child to the concept of budgeting. Don’t assume he or she knows how to create one. Instead, walk through a sample budget together. This isn’t sexy stuff, but it’s necessary. Consider it another teachable moment, just a little further up the line from how to ride a bike and to not eat glue.

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If you have younger kids, this can start much earlier, like when they start eyeing up the glue bottle. In our younger parenting years, we used a clear plastic piggy bank withcompartments labeled: SAVE, INVEST, DONATE, and SPEND. While it wasn’t foolproof (our kids found a way to open it up and secretly “transfer” funds), it provided a visual example of basic budgeting and money management.

Budgeting actually passes ownership of finances on to the child, teaching lessons along the way. Kids soon learn that if they want expensive things, they’ll have to sacrifice elsewhere. Plus, developing the habit of following a budget in high school or college can make it easier to successfully manage more complex finances after graduation.

4. J-O-B is not a four-letter word
The antidote to entitlement is hard work. And a job can be just the ticket to teaching our offspring that money does not grow on trees. A job can reiterate the importance of value and work ethic, often eliminating the “gimme” mindset.

Some parents are concerned about a job negatively affecting academic success. However, experts say there are many benefits—aside from money—of holding down a job. Working students broaden connections on campus and in the community, learn time management, make friends, and build character.

Let them learn from mistakes
Teaching children to manage money will not happen overnight. It takes many small steps. And yes, they will probably mess up along the way and make some poor purchasing decisions. But mistakes are how they learn. Wouldn’t you rather give your child the opportunity to make a mistake with a $45 item now, instead of a $45,000 salary later? While they may have outgrown American Girls and moved on to cars and tuition, they still need guidance and support. A gentle reminder of value versus price or an occasional budgeting tip might be what it takes to keep them functioning well in a material world.

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