More Than Money
Issue #24

What Are We Teaching Our Children?

Table of Contents

“No Easy Solutions”

by Anne Slepian, editor

When we attempt to shape the next generation's values about money, we tend to run into some predictable challenges, whether our role is as parents, relatives, teachers, spiritual advisors, financial managers, or simply as friends. Below are three common difficulties, with a few suggestions on how to deal with them. We offer these opinions humbly, aware that every adult-and-child relationship is unique and there are no pat solutions.

1) When our own choices contradict some of our values.

Life is full of difficult compromises. We might value racial diversity yet choose to live in an all-white neighborhood. We might believe in public education yet send our children to private school, or espouse earning a living yet live on an inheritance.

Living in well-to-do neighborhoods isolates us and our kids from the lives of many people, and can create a cocooned lack of perspective where even we adults forget how unusually rich we are. No wonder our kids take it utterly for granted! Still, it is possible to enrich our children's perspective (and our own) through modest steps. With our children, we can volunteer with service projects, go live or work in other cultures, attend religious services other than our own, and stretch beyond our comfort level to make friends. We can openly admit the tensions in our values and explain why we have made certain choices. We can talk about society's view of rich and poor, and use our children's help to figure out ways to move our lives, even in little ways, into more congruence with our deeper values.

2) When our skills and qualities as parents are tested.

  • Time. "Jenny, can't you see I'm working? Talk to me some other time." Time is one of the major challenges to our parenting. It takes time to even be aware of what we most want to teach, much less figure out how to teach it. What will enable us to step beyond being preoccupied and overwhelmed with our own lives and work, and make teaching values to our young people (about money and everything else) a higher priority?
  • Teaching Skills. "Stop lecturing me, Dad, I've heard that ten times before!" Without meaning to, our teaching efforts often just seem to generate resistance in our kids, and so we give up trying to influence them (or repeat the same ineffective rantings again and again). It's not easy to get into our kids' shoes and think creatively about how to meet their interests, but we can improve our abilities through parenting courses and books such as those listed below. Especially as our children become teens, we may need to get help from others who can teach them with less tension.
  • Emotions. "I hate you, Aunt Sally! You NEVER let me do ANYTHING fun!" Many of us need greater skill with emotions. We need to be able to warmly accept children's intense disappointment or anger with the limits we set-neither put them down for their feelings, nor get pushed around by these outbursts. (I remind myself that most children encounter a hundred small disappointments and feelings of powerlessness every day. Although they tend to release those pent-up feelings at the most inconvenient times, it's healthy and often has little to do with me or the current incident.) Most of us also need ways to process our own emotions constructively and heal unresolved pain from our own childhood more fully so we can respond flexibly to young people's needs.
  • Demands. "Why do I have to spend MY allowance on it? You've got tons of money!" Kids seem to sniff out any areas of guilt or ambivalence we harbor. They can be brilliantly manipulative. Whatever uncertainties we feel-that perhaps we are "depriving" our children of things or not having enough time for them--we can bet they will attempt to use that to get what they want. When we feel upset or confused by a child's complaint, we can note to ourselves that we have some personal homework to do, and commit to resolving our inner tensions at another time.

We also want to model flexibility and respect for young people's preferences. When I've just said "no," I have coached my son to ask me, "What will help?" instead of whining at me. I then think out loud: "Well, on one hand, I want you to learn how to budget your own money and save it for things you most want. That's a really important skill in life, one that lots of grown-ups don't know well enough. That's why I ask you to use your own allowance for it. On the other hand, this isn't just candy or a toy, it's something you could use for school, and so I'd be willing to pay half if you really want it. But I'll want you to pay me back if it's wrecked before school starts!" Sometimes, by thinking out loud, I find creative ways to address whatever concerns led me to say "no." Other times, I conclude "Sorry, it seems nothing will help. The answer is still no." He's still mad, but he can see I'm not just being an arbitrary authority.

3) When the culture around us doesn't support our values.

"Whattaya wanna do?" "I dunno. Go to the mall?" Unless we live in isolated or protected environments, our children are swimming in messages from the wider culture we may dislike. It is painfully true that as they grow we become a smaller and smaller part of their world. What can we do about this?

  • We can remember not to sweat the small stuff. If we instill the important basics while they are very young, chances are these fundamental values will endure even though they may seem hibernating between the ages of 10 and 28 (or so my friends with children over 30 reassure me!).
  • We can clearly express when and why our values about money differ from the dominant culture. For example, we can participate with our children in consumer boycotts, or create holidays centered around relationships rather than consuming, and explain why these are important to us. If we model being joyful and generous with our abundance (rather than denying it or smothering it in tension) our values might even seem appealing!
  • When friends share our values about money, we can encourage them to spend time with our kids, so some of the same messages can come from several different people.

We hope this issue helps you find your own answers, and bolsters your courage to keep asking important questions.

Throughout it all, we need to be gentle with ourselves, and remember we are dealing with forces far larger than any one person or family. Still, never doubt that you can influence the development of young people, not only your children, but all children, including future generations.

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