Parenting our money in the service of our kids

A recent post about money drew the following comment:

“I was hoping for a post on how to get real with kids about money.

I don’t want my girls to hate money or covet it, either. I want them to have a healthy relationship with money, so I was hoping for a post that dealt more concretely with that issue

It was ironic, too, because I have a single mom friend that just got a speeding ticket that wipes away any chance of her being able to get her kids any presents for Xmas this year. It’s all well and good to say that the holidays are not about money, but why don’t her kids deserve presents, too?”

This reader also acknowledges the very human error of running up credit card debt because it can be frustrating to go without, as well as the dilemma of being well-off enough not to qualify for any sort of government assistance, coupled with deadbeat exes who fail to pay their share, which all adds up to parents, particularly single parents, running like hamsters on a wheel—working hard and never really getting anywhere.

Given that I’m happier than I am rich, I’m more qualified to offer psychological insights than financial ones, but in the service of better parenting I’ll suggest a few things to think about with regard to money.

Firstly, money is highly political, and we must be more conscious about money if we are to solve our economic problems—individually and collectively.  George Bataille said that the ultimate consequence of capitalism is over-production of goods, and the ultimate consequence of this (i.e. a lot of stuff no one can afford to buy) is war.  The Great Depression was actually solved by World War II, and our current situation on Wall Street is not disconnected from Iraq and Afghanistan.

As an overall approach to helping our kids learn to neither idealize nor devalue money, our best parenting strategy is to come into balance and harmony with money in our own right.  This is a great challenge, but we teach more persuasively by modeling than by lecturing; it won’t due to attempt to conceal our money anxiety, we must actually get beyond it.

While no one would argue that our world is fair, concrete help is not going to be found in trying to overhaul our culture.  Therefore our first stop is an examination of what might be in our way, psychologically speaking, regarding money.

For example, one might carry a sweeping notion that people with a lot of money are bad, greedy or corrupt.  This is as unfair and distorted as arguing that the poor are virtuous.  Yet it is not uncommon for those who have struggled with say wealthy and controlling parents, or who had parents who felt resentful of “the man,” to carry negative ideas about wealth, and therefore an unconscious wish to avoid money (while consciously longing for it).

Another variation I have seen with some frequency, particularly with economically driven men, is the unconscious wish to be taken care of and babied, that gets expressed in unconscious behaviors that lead to losing all their money.  Think about it, a man can’t walk into a bar and cry about how sad he is about his feelings, but he can walk in and say that he’s lost all his money and get the comfort of others while maintaining a masculine persona.  Being broke is a socially acceptable masculine way of saying, “I’m helpless and scared.”  Of course it is actually a poor strategy for getting love, and men and women alike can be vulnerable to re-enacting a childhood of anxious or angry dependency through pervasive money troubles.

Another psychological flaw in economic thinking is the pervasive fantasy of sudden wealth, such as hoping for a lotto win.  The person buys that ticket and takes solace in imagining all economic pressures removed, and the problem is that such thinking breeds passivity.  Not buying the lotto ticket is a way of acknowledging that no magical deus ex machina is going to rescue us, and this empowers us to get to work and change our situations.  Variations on these fantasies include the idea that we will sell a screenplay for big bucks, or find an amazing stock that goes through the roof—the sort of thinking that avoids the actual key to success:  hard work at endeavors that have a reasonably likely chance of paying us.

Another great problem around money is the grown-up who still relies on parents for money, but at a trickle sort of level that is disempowering and fraught with control issues—mom and dad seem to perpetually save the day, but never release enough to free you.  This can be about controlling parents who maintain closeness with kids via the meager, and shame-infused dispensing of rescue amounts where the overall dynamic is of fostering dependency rather than true independence.

A good litmus test on this is to ask ourselves if there are things we might be tempted to tell our parents, but do not say for fear of being cut-off economically or disinherited.  That secret credit card paid by mom, just for emergencies, ties one’s hands behind one’s back.  If this topic hits a nerve, give it some thought as the couple of hundred bucks you get from your parents may cost you thousands in individuation. If you have a sizable trust fund, this can bring another set of issues, but this post is about those who really feel the pinch of barely getting by.

Kids cost a lot of money, but they are also great motivators and we may feel empowered to ask for more money and to be a little more assertive in the world when the reason is not just because we personally want the money, but because we want to provide for our children.

Finally, at least for today, it is important to understand the difference between income and assets. 

Once upon a time I was utterly broke and puzzling over money and questions of why the universe seemed to block my every attempt to break out and make some real money.  The final straw on this was when I got my big screenwriting break, writing an action movie for Andy Garcia and being paid… only to have the financier of the movie end up crushed to death by an avalanche while skiing in Germany.  Of course I recognize that this was much worse luck for the producer than for me, but it marked the end of my screenwriting days as I took it as a message that this way was not open for me.

In any event, around this time I was in a bookstore and decided to walk down an aisle with my eyes closed and buy whatever book my hand randomly landed upon.  It turned out to be Rich Dad, Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money–That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!, by Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter, which was very useful in explaining key lessons rich people grow up absorbing by osmosis:  assets are holdings, like interest bearing accounts, that generate money passively; income, on the other hand, means you have to be working in order to be earning.  Most people think being rich means having a high paying job, yet the author explains that being rich means having enough money so that the interest you earn can support your lifestyle.  That is the mark of economic freedom.  The more modest of a lifestyle you can accept, the lower the bar on economic freedom, but no matter where you define wealthy, most of us who struggle with money can benefit from a radical rethink on what’s wrong and what it might take to adjust it.

While this may not really feel like “concrete” help, if you can choose the number, be it a few thousand or many millions, that you would say is truly enough—the amount where the interest generated would support the lifestyle you want to live—you take a key step toward being rich (as defined by yourself).  Gandhi died with his only possessions being a bowl, some sandals and his eyeglasses.  Most of us are not so non-materialistic, but even if you need x-millions, if you choose a number and make a covenant that if you were to get any more than that you would give it away, you paradoxically shift from a colander mentality to a bowl

Our cups cannot runneth over if they are full of holes, nor can they spill over if the rim is an infinite and ever-rising lip.

Just as a bowl is our very first, and most important psychological tool (see bowl and the colander:, an upper limit on our money is like crafting a virtual economic vessel into which our wealth can flow, and feel abundant long before we reach our limit.  Just as in parenting, where limits must balance love, in money some limit must be formed in order to lovingly invite our money to stick around rather than run right through our lives.

Next, if you have any assets at all, build on them; and if you have none, begin to save (even just a token dollar in an envelope).  We must never devalue the small, as this is a cardinal error in remaining poor; some people have nothing but save every penny and one day buy a house while others figure that since they have nothing there is no point to saving and they might as well spend the little they have on transient things.  I place no judgment on this, but if you are sick of feeling like you have nothing, put a dollar in an envelope and admit that even if it’s not much, you do haves something.  Another good psychological thing to do when you feel broke is to give a modest amount to charity, say five dollars.  The message reflected back to your psyche that you do have something, enough to give to others, is worth more to your economic healing than say a five-dollar trip to Starbucks.

The difference between depression and ambition is that in depression you don’t believe you can actually have what you want yet presently lack, so you don’t bother getting out of bed.  With ambition, arguably the opposite of depression, you take a hard look at the difference between what you have and what you want and start taking the small steps toward your goal.  With ambition you directly acknowledge and face what you lack and strive toward it, doggedly and in full contact with your frustration.

By the way, if you quit some of your small vices and divert that money toward developing even modest assets, you will see money accumulate and your sense of impoverishment diminish, this eventually becomes a self-reinforcing pattern. Alcohol and cigarettes are expensive, so are too many clothes we don’t need, likewise going to the movies, particularly when they suck, can be less than worth it—and even if you go, you can save five bucks by not having popcorn.  Start to set these little sums aside and notice if you feel any differently over a span of weeks and months.

Sometimes our personal crucible comes from the conflict between what we consciously want—what we dream of being paid for, and what the universe turns out to be willing to pay us for. 

It was somewhat hard for me to give up my film non-career, never entirely sure if the big breakthrough could have been just around the corner; yet when I realized that I needed to provide for my kids, and was willing to do whatever it took, it did feel as if the universe opened up and led me along—an initial plunge into huge student loans and even more deprivation, and then a slow climb out through meager salaries and, over close to twenty years, a decent living that I’m more than grateful to be able to earn. 

As a young man, the modest life I now lead would have looked like a pathetic settling, even a loser’s outcome; but the young man I was looks to me now more like an insecure and over-compensating boy who wanted to just feel engaged, safe and like a part of things and thought that you needed to “make it big” to achieve this feeling.  Trust me, I know what it feels like to cry over the bills and be unable to sleep; I know what it’s like to face one’s tearful partner who just can’t stand living like this anymore and to feel helpless shame and rage, seemingly unable at the time to change things.  Sometimes change is necessary, and sometimes pain and frustration is what it takes to kick us in the ass and force us to adjust to what is wanted for us.  Nevertheless, as a once-starving artist, I have realized that if one is an artist in one’s soul, one can be an artist as a parent, as a psychologist or as a cab driver. 

So, let’s dedicate today to making whatever steps we can toward economic security and a feeling of gratitude and abundance.  By transitioning from anger and blame, whether inward or outward, toward compassion and trust we open our hearts to guidance from within and without.  If the universe, for whatever random reason or non-reason, wants us to suffer deprivation, we have the right to ask it, “What’s up with that?”  And we also have the right to ask for courage in facing it, but if we encounter our lives as they are, fully embracing even our frustration and poverty as teachers of something, perhaps we will master whatever lessons are on our plates at the moment and, in turn, free ourselves from our stuckness—which, hopefully, will ultimately benefit all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce


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8 Responses to “Parenting our money in the service of our kids”

  1. Kristen Says:

    Bruce, this is a great starting point for a discussion of money in the family. As an educator, it shocks me how little attention is given to basic economics and money sense (pun intended) in our public schools’ curricula. Surely we can’t be surprised to find our nation in a recession and so many people overburdened by debt and poor economic decision-making when most have never been taught the most elementary tenets of savings and credit.

  2. April Says:

    Thanks for opening the dialogue! I have recently started actively saving, and I agree, it does help to bring a little calm.
    I try to remind the girls of all the happy times that have occurred without a dime being spent, but it is time to start having some serious talks about the reality of it.
    I think, as I write this, what’s been keeping me from discussing money with them in concrete terms is the fear that they’ll talk about it amongst their friends. Our society still operates under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” theory with money, and I agree with Kristen, the lack of openness has led to very real problems. So maybe I stop worrying about what they’ll say to friends and start concentrating on giving them a valuable financial education.

  3. BigLittleWolf Says:

    A lot of meat here. Much to ponder. But let us not forget that there is rightful blame in the deadbeat exes (with money), rightful anger in credit card debt (to pay for groceries), and fatigue – that comes with battle that goes on for years. And age.

    I do not disagree with much of what you say, only its practicality in the face of many realities, and mine, I’m sure, small potatoes next to the realities of others.

    That said, even on nothing, I continue to reduce the something-of-nothing in every way possible. And in so doing, unlike many friends I don’t buy the lotto ticket. And stubbornly, I am one of those who puts the dollar away a week. More symbolic than anything.

    I would disagree with one last thing. I do not find that depression is the antithesis of ambition. I believe they may coexist. Even from a bed, dreams don’t necessarily disappear entirely, and perhaps I would say that ambition = dreams + work. Depression may lessen the capacity to belief in dreams, and the physical ability to perform the work. But neither disappears entirely, in my experience.

  4. privilegeofparenting Says:

    Interesting points… sometimes it can be a matter of semantics but perhaps on the depression/ambition question it would be better to conceptualize the importance of simultaneously holding angst and sorrow with determination, dreams and ambition—so long as one has the psychological vessel to manage this. Just as there is a wide range on the poverty spectrum, the blackest chemical sorts of depression are quite an abyss of the psyche where sometimes the only dream left is the wish to no longer be here… I completely agree that one can have what most of us mean by depression and also have ambition, and in fact the transcendent, poetic and truly innovative is so often found at the intersection of the opposites.

    I also agree that we have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude about money, and I’ve noticed that people will share the most intimate details of their erotic lives, including insecurities and dysfunction, more comfortably than the brass tacks about how much money one actually has, needs, etc. This both hints at how much unconscious shame attaches to money, and how uneducated (or at least unaware) we tend to be about the universality of economic insecurity across wide ranges of actual money.

    I’m glad at least we’re talking about this, and hope we can further our real understandings of each other, our thoughts, feelings and fears, and support each other toward a place of abundance, creativity and realness in the face of inescapable sorrows and simultaneous joy to be here, grow and learn.

    I also believe we’d all be interested to hear what other people think. Rants are welcome, but so are insights about how others have come to a better place with their relationship with money, especially in finding that balance between not giving kids a poverty mentality vs. not spoiling them by insulating them from economic reality.

  5. Greta Koenigin Says:

    Striking the right, balanced message for kids is my key topic these days. Wealth is so relative and, also, so much a part of our identity as Americans. I guess that I mostly want to teach my kids that we all have value as humans, beyond our wealth, an idea which I believe is lost on many people. And I want them to know that everything has a cost. If they want to live in one of the big houses on the hill, then their parents will both have to work a lot more and a lot harder. I ask them if they would prefer people or square-footage. They pause, and then change the subject.

  6. Beth K Says:

    I don’t have anything profound to add right now, but I have a few practical suggestions. I’m thinking of the single mom who got a speeding ticket and can’t buy Christmas gifts for her children. She can probably get some short-term relief from local agencies so that her children won’t feel deprived on Christmas. In my cities we have food banks that give out food on the spot without proof of income/assets. It might be humiliating to ask for free food, but the mom could go get free food and use her food money for gifts. Also, there may be groups who would get Christmas presents for her kids. People seem to be more generous than usual at this time of year.

  7. Emily Geizer Says:

    You bring up very significant points here, Bruce. Thanks for splitting this topic wide open.

    In the case of children, I think it is critical that they understand the basics. Here are 5 basic concepts:
    1. When it comes to teaching kids about money, sooner is better.

    2. Teach your kids that people can spend, save, and give away their money.

    3. Teach them that money achieves necessities (food and shelter) and goals (traveling, philanthropy, etc).

    4. Introduce the idea that people have different priorities for their money. Make a point to discuss your priorities with your child. Help them to create their own priorities.

    5. Be mindful of your word choices. Rather than saying, “I have to go to work now.” Say, “I get to go to work now. I work so that we can have money to buy food or visit grandma and grandpa or so that you can go to school.”

    In addition, I think that abundance is a mentality that can be easily passed along to children. This can be accomplished through a consistent practice of giving to others as well as learning the art of receiving.

    Money is a thorny topic, but one that deserves thoughtful attention.

    Thanks again.


  8. Cathy Says:

    A lot to think about here! I agree with BLW, there is rightful blame and anger if you are dealing with a deadbeat ex.

    What I learned from my own experience is that you can feel rightfully angry and you can do battle but in the end you’ve used up a lot of energy on something that will probably never be rewarded with anything other than more anger and more battle.

    Battling the ex is akin to the controlling parents who dole out a little at a time. You get just enough to keep you from sinking but never enough to allow you to feel financially secure and independent.

    What I realized about my need to do battle with my ex was that it kept me from facing the fear I had of not being able to take care of myself and my children alone.

    My ex played the game he did with money because he wanted me dependent on him. I wanted to be dependent on him because, God forbid having to dependent on myself…a woman who had been taught she “couldn’t take care of herself.”

    There came a time for me when I had to let go of what someone else owed me and focus on what I owed myself. Proving to myself that I was capable of earning what I needed and that it wasn’t really about money at all.

    For me it was about not facing reality, not wanting to be an adult responsible for two children. It was an enormous amount of fear but once I started putting all the energy toward becoming financially viable in my own right instead of battling my ex, things fell into place.

    I’m not rich, will never have enough money to live off the interest. But, what money I do have I earned AND I depend on no one by myself.

    No better feeling in the world!

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