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Giving children sound money advice

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Sarah Beth Glicksteen/The Christian Science Monitor/File

(Read caption) Dylan, 4, waits to leave Stellabella toy store in Cambridge, Mass., with his new toys in this September 2009 file photo.

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My two oldest children are in elementary school. They have a wide range of classmates from different ethnic, political, social, and economic backgrounds in their class. There are children of college professors in the classroom right next to the children of migrant workers of immigrants.

Children in early elementary school are enormously influenced by the ideas of their parents, but the importance of the ideas of their friends and classmates is rising as well. The result of that is that children of that age bring home all kinds of strange ideas and questions from school, questions and ideas generated by their friends, their teachers, classroom guests, and many other people.

My daughter, for example, is convinced that you can tell how much one person loves another person solely by the size of the diamond that they give. My son told me recently that he had heard that only poor people shopped at some stores and that must mean that everything there is really really expensive, right?

It’s easy to see where they get these ideas from. You can also see how these ideas were half-baked to begin with. It’s also easy to see how they’ve been mutated by being re-told and then shared by young children. 

Still, these ideas are part of the bedrock of the ideas our children will carry with them for much of their lives. Many of the broad strokes of what we know to be right are set in place during our childhood and it can bevery hard to undo those assumptions.

How do we combat these ludicrous money ideas (and other false ideas) that they drag home from school? Here’s what I’ve figured out, both from experience and from continually reading parenting and personal finance books of all stripes.

Nip it in the bud
As soon as you hear a bad money idea expressed by your children, politely and kindly explain to them why that idea is a poor one.

For example, if your little girl expresses the idea that diamonds are needed to show someone that you love them, embrace your spouse and tell your children that you don’t need a diamond to show love. A kiss will do, or a hug, or a kind word, or a thoughtful action.

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If your son expresses the thought that only poor people shop at a certain store, talk to him about the more important reasons people choose various stores, with the prices being a big one. Present it as options: one store offers the same item at a lower price than another store, but perhaps the other store treats its employees better, has more helpful employees, or has a cleaner and more orderly shopping environment. There’s no wrong or right answer to these questions, just different choices, and different people value these attributes differently.

Use actions, not just words
It’s easy to talk the talk when it comes to these things, but actions speak louder than words, particularly to children. Show your children that you live by the things that you tell them.

If your daughter is concerned that love is expressed by material things, you should show that your relationship with others isn’t based on those material things.

If your son thinks that poor people shop at a certain store, shop at that store sometimes. Even better, shop at a consistent store and explain exactly why you shop at that store.

It’s not enough to just walk the walk for a little bit, either.

Live by the principles you want them to have
If you want your children to adopt principles in their lives, you need to live by those principles yourself. Just telling them things doesn’t cut it. They emulate your behavior, not your words.

Live frugally. Don’t rely on material items to express love. Do your shopping based on value. Live by all of the things you find to be important and that you want your children to live by, too.

If you talk about things, but then don’t regularly follow through with action, your children are not only going to fail to adopt the things you’re talking about, but they’ll grow to not value your words, either. Children may not have acquired the knowledge of the world that adults have, but they are astute observers of human behavior.

Remember their life isn’t your life
The old “when I was your age” story hasn’t inspired children or teenagers for a very long time.

My children have six times as many kids in their class as I had growing up. They live in a town, whereas I lived in the country. I had three or four television channels, while they have hundreds. I played Pac-Man on the Atari 2600 using an old black and white 13″ CRT television, while my children play Mario Kart Wii in HD (or close to it) on a 55″ full color flat panel television. My children have a library within walking distance of their house, while I had to travel several miles to the nearest one (and it was tiny0. I barely knew anyone who continued with education after high school, whereas my children are surrounded by college graduates.

At the same time, there can be a bit of a temptation to live vicariously through them. It’s vital to remember thatyou’re the parent, not the buddy. That doesn’t mean you can’t engage in their interests with them, but you’re still the role model and the disciplinarian, no matter what.

Keep those principles in mind and you can go a long way toward erasing bad money ideas from your children’s minds… and other questionable ideas they pick up, too.

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