Children and Money - Setting Boundaries in a Constructive Way
written by: Kosjenka Muk
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Children who have not yet become familiar with the way money works (but also those who have) have endless requests and wishes. Just as they wish to see, touch and experience everything they see in their surroundings, objects in shop windows and advertisements lure them as well. Manufacturers and marketing experts dedicate a lot of time and effort to unscrupulous strategies for luring children to desire their product. They know that many parents cannot easily refuse their children's requests and that they will often spend money on the child, rather than themselves. Even if some parents are not like this, if the child desires something strongly enough, his persistent pleas sooner or later may cause the parents to give in just to get some peace.
At the beginning, children know no sense of limits and believe that money comes "from the ATMs", just as many children believe that food simply comes from supermarkets before somebody teaches them where it actually comes from. For a small child, the money flow system can be too complex to comprehend, and she can be shocked and hurt by the fact that so many interesting things remain beyond her reach. It is almost impossible to avoid this disappointment completely; however, you can mitigate it by a wise approach.
The problem arises when parents, due to their fears, shame or guilt related to the issue of money, attempt to restrain children's wishes and requests as soon as possible, to avoid their own unpleasant feelings. For example, if a mother feels guilty to say "No", she might defend herself by anger and induce guilt into the child. Often, parents start to use manipulative approaches: criticism, guilt or playing a victim. The younger the child, and the more intense the manipulation, the more likely it will generate unpleasant impressions and feelings regarding money. That can lead to the child's unhealthy behavior as adult; ranging from spending his entire life in a victimy attitude, to greed and rapacity.
If your financial situation is average, you will by all means have to limit the number of requests which you will satisfy, especially considering the quantity of attractive offers on the market. However, we recommend it even if you are wealthy, to avoid that your child becomes a slave of the consumer society, manipulated by the media and focused to external, material objects. Children are prone to absorbing manipulative messages of the mass media and are attracted to colorful packaging. Children who, at the same time, feel they are not getting enough healthy love and attention (and these needs are often difficult to fulfil in the industrial society, if parents work long hours and come home stressed) can very easily develop dependency on external objects that will draw their attention away from the inner void.
This problem can become aggravated when children of the same age start to fight and compete in order to gain power. Some children can become focused on external demonstrations of power. Children can make life almost unbearable and cause many traumas to those who cannot or do not want to buy status symbols. Sometimes school bullies choose as their victims the very children who do not display external symbols of wealth such as sneakers or branded clothes. However, you will notice that the lack of status symbols is frequently only an excuse, and the main child's features for which he is terrorised are insecurity and shyness. Confident people with strong personalities are valued regardless of the quantity of status symbols, both among adults and children.
Communicating about money and consumerism
While the child is still small, it's important to do everything in your power to set healthy limits, but without making the child feel that she is helpless, that her wishes are not respected and that she has to expect scarcity. The main goal is to develop in a child a healthy feeling that she is capable and that she deserves to have her wishes fulfilled, as well as the ability to distinguish between deep inner wishes that really make her happy, and superficial wishes influenced by her environment.
Explain to the child, as simply as you can, that money is the way people exchange their products. In order to avoid that some people only work, and some only take, money is the way to achieve balance and honor the time and work invested in production. We do not live in an ideal world, therefore try to explain to the child that many people have sick, distorted beliefs about money. Those result in struggle, lies and injustice, so the majority of people unfortunately do not receive as much money as they deserve for their work. You can say that many people have learnt to believe that they are not able to achieve anything better, and that this is the reason why they remain in such circumstances, while other people take advantage of them.
You can tell the child (if this corresponds to your situation) that due to certain circumstances in the society or in your life, at this moment you cannot fulfil some of his wishes, however, that the child will be able to fulfil them in the future on his own if he collects enough knowledge and invests enough time and effort. In that way you reduce the child's dissapointment and increase his motivation to be creative.
The next key issue that needs attention, is to familiarise the child with the ways in which some people try to manipulate him. Explain to him that there are many people who are so sick that for them it's more important to have more money than to produce good quality, and sometimes they don't even care if they will harm other people emotionally or physically, or even indirectly cause their death. Explain to the child that often these very people have the greatest influence on others, since they do not hesitate to con and manipulate, and frequently they succeed in making people believe them. You can tell the child that they will try to convince him that he is worth less, or that he will not feel good if he doesn't buy their product. Tell him that these people intentionally strive to arouse in him a strong desire for worthless, even harmful products, that they try to make him feel bad (frightened, lacking, not good enough) and to believe that he will feel better once he has bought their products.
When you shop together, draw the child's attention to the attractive packaging and appearance of a product, and then to its quality. When you watch or read commercials, draw her attention to the manipulative messages and explain to her how they were chosen and what is their purpose. Children, as any healthy adult, feel when something is not OK, and gradually, they will learn to recognise lies and misleading messages. Likewise, they can feel what is healthy and sincere. However, small children need help and support in order to learn to recognise, value and consciously analyse this inborn instinct. Without other people's guidance, this inner voice can be choked in the flood of manipulative commercials.
The next lesson for the child is to learn to distinguish and separate superficial, temporary or "false" wishes from those deep, joyful, true ones. Whenever you can, teach your child to stop, direct her attention inwards and listen to her body and feelings. Ask her what kind of a feeling she has when she has a particular wish. Is it deep and happy, or "shallow"? Is there any unpleasant feeling connected to this wish - fear, urgency, insecurity, anger, greed? Ask her to imagine that she has already received the desired object, that she has been playing with it for several days or weeks already. When she imagines it, does she have a feeling that this object would make her happy long-term, or it would be forgotten very soon?
Try to explain him, depending on his age, that many people wish for material objects, thinking that those will help them achieve a good feeling inside, but it does not work, since feelings which they search for must come from the inside, not from the outside. Ask the child how he thinks he will feel if he receives the desired object, what kind of satisfaction it will cause him to feel? Tell him that by careless purchases, a pile of garbage is being created which burdens the planet, which is already poluted, and that it's important to choose those things which he is not going to discard so soon.
At the beginning, don't expect the child to give entirely sincere answers, since children may not want to give answers that might cause them to remain without the desired object, or they are simply unable to recognise their own feelings. Eventually, be ready to gently, but in a determined way, make your own decision. However, your goal in this communication is long-term - to help the child gradually create the habit of asking himself such questions and to listen to his deepest feelings. Even if he refuses, even if he doesn't seem to listen to your words, if repeated, they will stay with him until time and experience teaches him to appreciate them.
If you buy a toy and soon enough you find it discarded or destroyed, take advantage of this situation to instruct the child additionally about superficial wishes. Avoid inducing guilt and "didn't I tell you". Many times, the child will best learn her lessons from her own mistakes, just like each one of us. Ask the child how she feels about that object now, and tell her to compare that feeling with the earlier strong desire. Ask her whether she has recognized the feeling she was looking for (pleasure, fun, self-worth...), and whether she has an idea how to develop that feeling within, instead of through material objects. Do not expect instant results, but expect the child to embrace such a way of thinking when she has gained enough experience to truly understand it.
Think about how much money you are ready to spend monthly to satisfy your child's wishes. Be ready to satisfy some of his wishes, regardless of how they may seem insignificant or short lived. The fact is that even some of your wishes are not especially wise, deep or vitally important, still you enjoy fulfilling them. Try not to create a feeling of deprivation in your child, as if he was a "second-class citizen" by belittling his wishes while fulfilling yours.
Subsequently, give your child a choice; tell him that he can choose the most important among his wishes if the amount of money that he can spend has been limited in advance. At the same time, direct him to listen to his body and check what kind of feeling he wants to achieve. This will teach him to prioritize and make financial decisions. As the time goes on, you can start giving pocket money to your child so that he starts to learn from his independent decisions. However, at the beginning he will need your help and control.
When the child reaches the school age, ideally you have already dedicated some time to creating those habits. Then it will be easier for the child to resist the peer pressure. Of course, life is rarely perfect and maybe a real challenge awaits you: how to avoid applying toxic educational methods and how help your child develop a healthy attitude to money, in the society that exerts maximum pressure on him so to make him succumb to materialism.
Let's say that the peers ridicule your child because he wears non-brand sneakers. The conversation with your child could unfold more or less like this:
Child: Mum / dad, please buy me these sneakers!
Parent: These are really expensive. There are many sneakers of different brands of the same quality, but a lower price, besides, you will outgrow them soon.
Child: But everybody else at school is wearing such sneakers!
Parent: What do you think / feel about it? (Smaller children can have difficulty with answering such direct questions, so be ready to help them.) Do you think it is important which brand of sneakers you wear?
Child: But other children make fun of me because I don't have them. They tell me my parents must be some losers! Nobody wants to play with me!
Parent (show respect and sympathy and adjust your words to the child's age): It is really tough to hear and suffer this every day. I wish to help you, but there are several reasons which make me feel bad when it comes to the purchase of these sneakers.
Firstly, the manufacturers of these sneakers try to stimulate such an atmosphere, in which everybody must have them to avoid being ridiculed. This enables them to set such a high price, so they can take advantage of people to the fullest. I don't want to accept this and I don't want you to learn to accept this. Moreover, these manufacturers frequently abuse people in poor countries, even children, forcing them to work almost like slaves in order to reduce their costs.
Secondly, I am afraid those children may convince you that your value depends on what you wear. These are sick ideas and I don't want you to accept them. Sneakers have no value. It is important what the person is like inside and how he treats other people. I don't want you to forget this.
Do you think you have enough strength not to listen to them and not to allow them to force you into feeling bad about yourself?
Child: I don't want to listen to them, but I can't help feeling bad when they treat me like that!
Parent: Certainly you won't be happy because of that, but can you stand it? Or do you feel that they are right, that they know you better than you know yourself? That they really see you? Do you think they are more valuable, better people, because they wear such sneakers?
Child: No, but..
Parent: What do you think it makes them act like that? What do they try to achieve with such behaviour? Why do they need it? (Be gentle when asking these questions, not demanding, and help the child in finding answers.) Do you think they could really see and respect you if you had these sneakers?
Child: I know, but I would still like these sneakers. I don't want them to make fun of me.
Parent: If it is too hard for you, I can buy them. But I think that, if you can stand it, you can develop great strength and become your own person, instead of following them. They will not love or respect you, no matter what you are wearing, since the problem is in their sick beliefs. If you buy the sneakers, they will find something else to mock about you. They might start to make fun of you because of your clothes, then because of your mobile phone...eventually you'll be spending a great amount of money just to become accepted by those who you do not like to begin with. Are there any other children who are not like that, with whom you could connect? Do you have any idea how you can respond to those children when they make fun of you? (Help him to create ideas).
I have intentionally left the ending of the conversation open, since there is never only one solution. Maybe you will still buy the sneakers if the peer pressure makes your child's life truly unbearable and traumatic. The purpose of such a conversation is not to win the argument; the purpose is to teach your child different values, and that he learns to think for himself and put other people's ideas in perspective.
The healthier your child and the more she truly values herself, the easier she can understand and accept something like this. However, if she already has certain traumas and lacks self-esteem, maybe no amount of rational conversation can suffice. Then it is important to dedicate time and show her love and respect in a healthy way, long enough to create new subconscious impressions and new automatic reactions.
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© Kosjenka Muk