By Marlis Jansen with Lily Boyar
I am blessed to have grown up with two parents who are amazing cooks. Family meals were not always appreciated at the time they were consumed, but now I remember them as one of the highlights of my childhood. We consistently gathered around a table while being nourished by food that was lovingly created and provided for the family almost every night. Now that I have two college-age daughters, I understand the enormity of this task.
My parents had their own styles in the kitchen. While my mother often tried new recipes and had an organized, calm presence in the kitchen, my father cooked with a fervent, creative, almost impulsive energy, like what I imagine it might have been like to be in Jackson Pollock’s painting studio. Throwing color at the canvas in a way that seems random, but isn’t. Full presence in the moment. At the end, the masterpiece is a complex sensory experience layered with color, texture, and emotion. In the kitchen, this took the form of adding unusual ingredients with high energy, keeping at it until it tasted just right.
My father and his wife had a ranch in Northern California for many years that was a wonderful family gathering spot. They made it a place to live well off the grid. Cooking and eating comprised a big part of that living well. One day, while they were hosting some friends with their four-year-old son, my father made a pancake breakfast for the group. His pancakes would never be just plain pancakes. Everything he cooked had his special flare. And nothing was ever made the same way twice. This day, his pancakes had ginger, cardamom, and black pepper. When the four-year-old tasted them, and in front of everyone else seated at the table, he leaned over to his mother and attempted to whisper (but actually projected his voice quite well) “Let’s not tell him that we don’t like the pancakes!” Kids are so authentic in the way they tell it like it is and think that no one else is listening.
After reflecting on this event, I realize that it relates to the work we do. There is a lesson here for wealthy families. Like the child who thought my father would not hear his comment, parents often think that their children don’t notice and wonder about their families’ socioeconomic status. Wealthy children have a sense that they are different from other kids they know, but don’t know how to talk about that experience. (This is true for poor kids too.). Most of the time, kids make comments and ask questions about money, and they learn implicitly or explicitly from the reactions they receive that money is not to be discussed. When this happens, they internalize a sense of shame and miss an opportunity to learn how to leverage financial resources as a tool for well-being. Learning about money and finance is important for all young people. It is a critical part of their identity development. The upside of addressing this important and sometimes uncomfortable topic with children is significant.
Talking About Money Doesn’t Spoil Children
Wealthy parents often believe that if they talk to their children explicitly about money, they won’t be motivated to work hard and contribute to the world. Perhaps if a child doesn’t know how wealthy their family is, they will be better adjusted. However, by the age of 3, children begin to understand the concept of value. And by age 7, they are starting to develop a relationship with money (CNBC). This is often why some parents choose to give children an allowance. It allows them to learn about managing money. Will they save it? How will they spend it? Do they plan to donate some of it? An allowance is an opportunity for parents to talk to their kids about money and help guide them in their decision-making.
Young children notice everything and mimic their parents. That is how they learn to be in the world; mon(k)ey see, mon(k)ey do. Their attitudes and feelings about money are shaped and modeled by the behaviors they witness. So when we avoid the money conversation, kids fill in the blanks themselves. They try to make sense of the differences between themselves and their peers. This can lead to inaccurate assumptions and conclusions. Money conversations in the family can be an opportunity to talk about values such as generosity, gratitude, and saving that can prevent entitlement.
It takes time to build a positive and purposeful relationship with money. And most of us don’t have practice with this topic, because similarly, it wasn’t taught to us. How did you learn about money? Have you articulated the values you want to impart on the next generation? Even when we feel unprepared, unsure, or ill-equipped to talk about money and wealth with our kids, we can model how to be vulnerable and have uncomfortable conversations about important topics. Money often brings up a lot of emotions, and the more we can name them, the more we grow. The way we use money is an expression of what is most important to us. So, a good place to start is to have an honest dialogue about your financial and life priorities and how you arrived at them, rather than focusing on numbers.
All parents want their kids to be happy and prepared for the future. Yet, it is not often clear how to help them get there. Even with the best of intentions, parents may not realize that avoiding the topic of money hinders their child’s learning. Clinical Psychologist and financial planner Brad Klontz, says, “You’re trying to give your kids a leg up, and the leg up they need more than anything, more than giving them money, quite frankly, is giving them the mindset that will help them manage [wealth] well and acquire it.” Perhaps the way to prevent kids from being spoiled or entitled is determined less by how much money they believe they have and more about how they are taught to think about it.
Finally, we can be tight-lipped about finances because we might feel embarrassed or ashamed about how much money we make or spend. Rachel Sherman, a sociologist at the New School and author of Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence, conducted interviews for her book on wealthy New Yorkers. She found that wealthy people were private about finances to “spare their friends or children from feeling bad.” Sherman cited that perhaps if they didn’t discuss wealth, they could avoid confronting the difficult conversation or possible feelings of shame due to having abundance in a society of inequity. However, it is these rich conversations (pun intended) that help the rising generation (at any age) make sense of their wealth and privilege.
Two Words to Avoid: “Can’t Afford.”
The best thing we can show our kids is that we are responsible for our money choices. Aside from Uncle Sam, no one else gets to decide how we spend our money. When children understand that, they learn to think about money choices as trade-offs. This prepares them for being responsible with their own money. If we simply say, “we cannot afford this” as a justification for not buying something they want, it robs them of the opportunity to learn personal responsibility.
Kids are often operating based on guesses about how they believe they should behave. Parents might say, “you shouldn’t spend your money on that,” but this doesn’t communicate why. This remark alone doesn’t explain the priorities and values that influence them to make that statement. For example, I remember wanting designer jeans in high school. Instead of saying. “We can’t afford it,” my parents said,” We don’t spend our money on that.” This struck me. They explained that I could save my own money to buy them if I really wanted, but that as a family, this wasn’t something we valued spending money on. They explained that one way to evaluate my spending decision was to consider a trade-off (opportunity cost). I could have one pair of designer jeans or other things that equated to the same cost. They communicated that while this wasn’t valuable to them, I could make my own choice. As a side note, while the desire for designer jeans may seem like an extraneous luxury, this could actually come from the child’s need to belong, stand out, or appear a certain way in his or her peer group. The more the parents can recognize the true and legitimate need the child is trying to meet (whether they agree with their perception or not), the more the child will feel seen. And now the conversation is about values and priorities instead of whether you can or cannot afford something. This conversation left a lasting impression and grounded me in a sense of family identity.
No matter where you are in your money mentoring journey, it is possible to continue to build self-awareness and healthy communication around money and wealth. Some people choose to work with a coach who specializes in family wealth, family business, or financial psychology. But even without professional coaching, there are ways to begin practicing these skills. Here are a few recommendations:
Start with yourself — Take some time to reflect on your own values, ideas, and insecurities related to money. What feelings come up for you surrounding this topic? How would you like your children to relate to money? How can you express your hopes and dreams for them in a way that will support their healthy development?
Include children in everyday life and money decisions — Talking to your kids about everyday financial decisions and responsibilities teaches them to make the connection between life and money. The key here is to consider what is developmentally appropriate in each case, even with adults. With a younger child, you may walk through a grocery store and discuss the differences between brands and products. Give your children an understanding of what things cost, and your decision-making process when choosing what to buy. For older teens, it may be appropriate to discuss bills or investments with them. For adults, start by documenting and discussing their financial footprint and creating a budget that can be revisited on a regular basis.
Make a family financial education plan — Start with identifying shared values and learning about healthy money behaviors, like saving. Begin without focusing on numbers and instead discuss what money means and what it is for. Remember to make it relevant to kids, in terms they understand. Focus on simple concepts like spending, saving and sharing and work toward the more abstract such as investing, wealth creation, legacy and stewardship.
Sherman, Rachel. Uneasy Street the Anxieties of Affluence. Princeton University Press, 2019.
Mikka, Ella. “Talking to Your Kids about Money Can Pay off in the Future-It Worked for Me.” CNBC, 14 Apr. 2022, www.cnbc.com/2022/04/14/talking-to-your-kids-about-money-can-pay-off-in-the-future.html.