By Amanda Rose Adams
Ron Lieber, personal finance columnist for The New York Times and father has written a bestselling book that tackles the difficult issue of how to teach the values and meaning of money to our children with insight, kindness, and humor. Below, Mr. Lieber answers questions about his book, The Opposite of Spoiled, and the values we teach our kids about money.
Q: You were inspired by real-life parents and tested many of the concepts in your book while writing it, but were you already committed to any of these practices before you decided to write about them, and if so which ones did you bring to the table with your own family?
Lieber: The idea for this book arrived not long after I became a parent for the first time, so I didn’t have much in the way of philosophy underlying any of my writing on parenting at that point. But there were a few things that became a part of this project almost instinctually.
One was honesty with kids about money. Not full disclosure, but a no-lying rule, especially for children who are 8 years old or so and up. While there may be some circumstances where delaying the truth or avoiding it may be best for some children, most of us will be lucky enough that we won’t find ourselves in them most of the time. Plus, they can tell when we lie, or they find out later. And if it becomes clear that we’re not good sources for accurate information about important things, like money and sex and drugs, they’ll turn to others (or the internet) for advice and counsel. That’s not something we want.
When I was in high school, my mother was pretty blunt with me about the reality of our financial situation. While that wasn’t always fun, in retrospect, I’m glad I knew exactly what kind of odds we faced for getting me into and through college without racking up too much debt. She also took me along for a meeting with a financial aid counselor when I was in high school, which had a lasting impact.
Money is a source of power, but it’s also mysterious. So of course our children are going to have lots of questions about it. We should be as honest as we can, even if it means promising the truth (say, about our salaries) on some later day years in the future when they’re more ready for it.
Q: What I came away with after reading your book is that money is a powerful tool to express who we are. Were you as open with your daughter about money before you started writing the book as you are now?
Lieber: Thanks for saying “a” powerful tool and not “the most powerful tool” or the “best” or “only” tool. It’s none of those last three things, though it might be the most underrated and least used or understood parenting tool to imprint good values on our children. We should talk about money more often, but not all the time. Make it a focus, not a fetish.
Think about it this way: What we spend and where says a lot about what we care about and ultimately what we stand for. If looking at the credit or debit card statement each month is unpleasant, then we’re probably spending on the wrong things or in the wrong quantities. This is not a hidden argument for more thrift by the way; sometimes spending more on the things that matter most is the surest route to happiness, as long as we can do it without going into debt. The money we give away, by the way, says a lot too. When we told our daughter how we divided our charitable budget, the conversation was revelatory for all of us. We do it every year now.
Q: Do you have any advice for where to start, and if families are late to start the discussion about money and finances how they can catch up?
Lieber: First, before you start talking, consider your own shame, in all the forms in which it may manifest itself. Some people have shame about what they do have, especially if they inherited it. They’re ashamed of not having to work, and they feel idle and unaccomplished. Others are ashamed of how they’ve made their money. Still more feel shame about having more than anyone else and don’t want anyone to know.
Then there is shame in having less, perhaps because of a job loss. Or there is shame in a path not taken, a career that feels like a dead end or is not glamorous. There may be shame in having been tricked or swindled in a way that is costly or shame in big mistakes that have led to the need for a move to a smaller residence or some other large disruption.
Talking about these feelings is as good of a way as any to start the conversation with a spouse about how to start a conversation with a child or children. Spouses who grew up in different social classes may well have very different ideas about how to approach the topic. If you don’t have a spouse, try confiding in a sibling or close friend. Ask other parents what their kids ask and how they answer.
Many parents also feel shame in not knowing enough about money to teach their kids or talk to them about it, or they’re ashamed of their own habits around money. But teaching and talking out loud with children, especially older ones, is as good of a way to shape yourself up and get over it as any. You’re a role model, they’re watching your every move now anyway, and they probably have taken in way more than you think about how you spend and what that says. Might as well talk about it.
Q: When researching for your book, what did you notice about parental partnerships and different approaches to money, and how that influences the kids? How involved is your wife in the money messages that you bring to parenting your child?
Lieber: The most important thing here is not to fight about money with your spouse (or ex-spouse) in front of your kids. When I talk to adults about the topic, so many of them have intense memories of loud fights over money when they were growing up and having been led to believe that money is a source of stress and strain first and foremost. It’s those recollections that often lead those grownups to not talk about money at all, for fear of repeating the same patterns with their own spouse.
Q: A lot of parents are co-parenting with a former partner, how do you think separate households can collaborate to give kids a consistent message? This wasn’t a focus of the book, but when a child could have as many as four parents and twice as many grandparents through remarriage, how can they all begin to balance those influences, which is probably trickier than the influence of the media?
Lieber: The fact is, many times they cannot give kids a consistent message. Ex-spouses are sometimes not on speaking terms, and even if they are, they don’t agree about money and 1,000 other things. One spouse may have more money than another or is willing to spend more (or go into debt) to show the kids a good time or lavish them with toys or experiences to make up for whatever pain and distance exists in the family relationships.
This is a hard thing for the parent with less (or who chooses to buy or do less) to explain. Kids will demand an explanation, and I do believe they are entitled to one. This is confusing, after all, and it’s their job to figure out how the world (and their world) works. But it can be extremely difficult to explain your choices without disparaging your former spouse. Try to avoid doing that anyway if you possibly can. Explain that you’ve simply chosen to make different choices. Lay out your budget. If you’re choosing not to spend more, even if you could afford to, remind your children that it is your job to set limits so that the kids will know how to do the same thing for themselves when they get older. Give them some power or control over whatever budget you do have if you can, and let them make some choices for themselves about tradeoffs.
Q: What kinds of financial details do you think are appropriate to withhold from kids of particular ages, and when do you think those details should be shared, if ever?
Lieber: I don’t think we should tell kids how much money we make until they are ready. Most aren’t ready (having practiced with money themselves for a decade, having learned about all of the household bills, having proven they are discrete) until they are at least 16 or so.
To me it makes sense not to voluntarily offer up information to children that we think will cause them anxiety. But I also believe in the no-lying rule.
Q: Your entire book spoke to me about family trust. Parents who trust their children to treat private information with respect, and children who trust their parents because they know that nothing is off-limits when it comes to conversation and learning. Would you agree that the unspoiled child is one who is given the gifts of trust and respect, and if so, how can parents continue to build these attributes?
Lieber: Agreed. Most younger kids are not ready to keep private information private and we shouldn’t test them unless we don’t mind certain things getting out. When kids ask for it, remind them that childhood (and their teenager years especially) are partly a years-long discretion test that parents are conducting. Are they keeping their friends’ information to themselves, or getting in trouble for spreading gossip? Are they reading their siblings’ journals or tattling on them inappropriately? Is other family information leaking out somehow? If so, let them know that they have flunked this part of the test. Until they can pass, they don’t get to discuss the household income or net worth, which is private information.
One other useful tactic to try with teens as they approach readiness, especially those from families who have more money than average: Remind them that the information really doesn’t have much use outside of their house. Their friends probably aren’t going to ask about your family’s income, and if your kids share the information anyway, they’ll sound like braggarts and jerks. No kid wants to flunk their parents’ discretion tests but they definitely don’t want to flunk their friends’ jerk tests.
Amanda Rose Adams is contributing blogger for Brain, Child, the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her work has been featured in the New York Times Motherlode Blog, The American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics and various literary journals. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaroseadams or visit her blog at www.amandaroseadams.com.