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Responding to Uncomfortable Questions About Money

"Why Can't I . . . ?" Questions
These questions generally arise when you forbid your child from using her own money to buy something she wants. "Why can't I use my money to get my [choose most any portion of your child's anatomy] pierced?" and "Why can't I get the Slash and Burn video game?" are two examples. Don't make the mistake of responding "Because I say so!" and leaving it at that. Such unilateral, angry answers to your children's questions turn ordinary objects and services into forbidden fruit. Your refusal to discuss the question gives the desired item an allure that it ordinarily wouldn't have and creates the possibility of a power struggle—you defend your decision with a blunt "I'm the parent" and your child complains, "But it's my money!"

Again, respond to these types of questions by explaining how your values prompted your decision. Discuss why you feel the chocolate-covered, marshmallow-embedded, preservative-laced cereal she saw advertised on television flies in the face of a healthy lifestyle. Talk about why a particular song or singer condones violence toward women, and how that goes against your values. Be as specific as possible in your response to your child's question: "I know the squirt gun can't hurt anyone, but it looks like a real automatic weapon, and it's the type of weapon that kills kids your age not more than fifteen miles from where we live."

These discussions are difficult because you feel guilty denying your child's right to use her money as she pleases. It's much easier to just say no (or, for that matter, yes) and avoid dealing with your own mixed feelings about a given issue. If you encourage your child to articulate why she wants a given product and then explain why you're forced to say no based on your values, though, you capitalize on an opportunity to have a productive money discussion.

"Why Are You So Cheap?" Questions
They may not call you cheap, but they clearly imply that the reason you're not getting them what they want is that you don't care enough about them to spend the money. They might add, "You never get me anything! I hate you!" Naturally, your temptation is to shut down the conversation immediately.

Resist the temptation. Recognize that your child has become so emotionally invested in a purchase or an activity that his sense of self is dependent on it. What he's really saying is, "I need [brand name] sneakers to fit in with everybody else," or "If I don't go to Daytona Beach at spring break, I won't be popular." His value systems are linked to advertisements or peers at school rather than to the values you've been teaching at home.

Try to bring the conversation back to the values he learned at home where his sense of self is not a function of what he has but who he is. Let him know that you understand that his sense of self is involved in the request and try to recall concrete examples of times when he held on to family values or came back to them when faced with peer pressure or advertising. Acknowledge his feelings—let him know you realize that he's unhappy that you said no—but allow him to express them, even if they are hurtful toward you. You might also want to remind him of instances when you weren't cheap—when you bought him things he wanted that were aligned with your values.

Perhaps most important, don't respond to his remarks with sarcasm, such as, "Oh, you poor child. You never get anything. You must have been born into the wrong family." Sarcasm repudiates your child's needs. However you may view those needs, they are legitimate to him. Sarcasm is a slap in the face. Resist the impulse to make fun of how he feels.

"I'm Short of Cash; Can I Have Some More Money?" Questions
Parents don't like the conversations resulting from these questions for many reasons, not the least of which is that they are forced to acknowledge that their children are behaving irresponsibly with money—especially when they are older and max out their credit cards. Sometimes it's easier to give in and give them the money they need without discussion. As you can probably guess, this is a big mistake.

Many psychologists and sociologists have observed that children today often take longer than any prior generation to assume adult responsibility. Not only are they marrying and having kids later, but they often take longer to find careers. Perhaps most significantly, they often live at home with their parents (sometimes moving out and then moving back in when cash runs low) into their mid-twenties. In 1960, 43 percent of young adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four were living at home. By 1990 the percentage rose to 52.8 percent.

As a result, when your children start approaching adulthood, money conversations tend to become more complicated. Your almost-adult is caught between the advantages and disadvantages of becoming financially independent, and while she may want the social freedom that comes with being on her own, she may also enjoy living rent-free in a nice home with good food and cable television. Caroline, for instance, moved back to her parents' home when she was laid off by an ad agency. At age twenty-four and after two years of working, she had saved nothing and maxed out two credit cards. Over the course of the next year, she frequently asked her parents for money, which they gave to her; they were overjoyed to have their only daughter back home and figured she'd be back on her feet soon. In reality, being at home was safe and comfortable, and she had little incentive to get back on her feet. She made only a few feeble attempts to find work and kept telling her parents that she wanted to keep her options open in case the ad agency called her back. After a year, Caroline's parents wanted to confront her about how she was sleeping until noon, partying frequently and making little effort to find work. When Caroline next asked them for money, they tried to talk to her about it, but she immediately burst into tears and went off on a rant about how she was going through a difficult time—she had boyfriend problems on top of her financial woes—and that if they just gave her a little time and money, she'd work things out on her own. They were reluctant to bring up the topic again, and the last we heard, Caroline was still living at home.

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More on: Family Finances

From The Financially Intelligent Parent by Eileen Gallo, Ph.D. and Jon Gallo, Ph.D. Copyright © 2005 by Jon Gallo and Eileen Gallo. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, visit Amazon.


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