I Asked a Psychologist to Help Answer My Son’s Money Question

  • When my son asked if we’re poor I wasn’t sure what to say, so I asked an expert.
  • She recommended being honest, but not to the point of making my son worry about money.
  • Kids should be aware that things cost money, but know they’re taken care of.

“Are we poor?” my son asked, apropos of nothing. 

I’m very intentional with my kids in that I don’t talk to them about household money and especially household money issues. However, my kids are anxious little creatures and sometimes they worry. 

The week before the question, I witnessed my daughter’s eyes widen when I paid for our car’s new transmission, impressed by the multi-thousand dollar charge on my credit card. I wonder if they discussed it later, leading my son to ask me about our financial standing. Also, as kids of divorce, they may have picked up on some of the income disparity consequences between their two houses. I make less money than their father. 

I don’t think my kids’ worries are particularly founded as we are, even at my house, privileged to have what we need, but I’m very careful to make sure my kids feel validated yet secure about their household and that I am taking care of them, freeing them from worry. 

Still, I was unsure how to field this question. I want to be honest with my kids and also give them personal agency when it comes to knowing that money is a consideration in our family’s decision-making. But, also, I didn’t want to traumatize the little guy. So I asked Amy W. Stoeber, a psychologist, trainer, and consultant who specializes in children and trauma, how to handle it. 

Why kids worry

Stoeber says kids don’t worry about money because they don’t feel like they have enough. They worry because “they are tuned into their parents’ distress or celebrations,” she says. They witness parents fighting or fretting over spending, cash flow, or being able to afford things. While transparency about money and teaching about being responsible with their own money is important, Stoeber says, “it should be done in the spirit of financial education versus responsibility.”

When we go shopping and my kids ask for things, for example, instead of telling them we can’t afford it, I often say, “We don’t need that,” or “That’s not on the list.” What’s wrong with worrying kids about money?

“Kids can easily become overwhelmed when it comes to finance, budgeting, saving, and spending,” says Stoeber. She says it can become a problem because, “while they may emotionally be attuned to financial woes, they don’t have the ability to solve the problem of money, which leads to overwhelm and helplessness.” Kids have control of so little in their lives. It’s no wonder they spin out over things we know aren’t their problem. 

Young kids are unable to contribute to the household and older kids may feel pressure to. “On an extreme end, it can lead to anxiety and taking on the emotional burden of adults. Neither of which is healthy for kids,” says Stoeber. We certainly don’t want our little kids to feel the stress of being an adult until they are good and ready. 

How to talk about money in a healthy way 

“Discussions about money and finance for kids, done in a healthy way, are free of parental burden and emotions,” says Stoeber, who suggests kids start practicing how to save their money. For my part, I was, in fact, stressed by the charge for the new transmission, but I kept it to myself and waited to complain about it to my friends until the kids weren’t around. I didn’t tell them that, because of the money spent on the car, I was making some internal edits to the budget.  

As they get older, Stoeber says it’s a good idea for kids to “learn about philanthropy, taxes, and responsible spending.” When I was a kid, I babysat and got an allowance, but I never understood that someday I’d have to account for taxes when I spent my hard-earned money. I participated in some philanthropy, but I didn’t connect the monetary value of providing a service for the sake of helping and not earning money because of it. I plan to connect these dots for my kids as they get older and we continue our money talks. 

What I said to my son

To my son’s question, I began with curiosity. “Is that something that worries you?” I asked. He nodded his little head. “I want you to know that we have everything we need and we have enough money. I will take care of you and make sure you have what you need.” I don’t know if it was a perfect answer, but it made him feel like I was listening and on it. 

He has asked me many questions since, from “why don’t birds have noses” to “what is at the end of the universe,” but he hasn’t expressed concerns about money again. I plan to continue to be honest and open in my conversations about money to assuage my kids’ fears and make them feel responsible for their own money, yes, but also safe from burden when it comes to household finances.

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