Dear Dr. T.,
I read your Chanukah column about the excesses of this holiday in our world today, and I have another Chanukah-related question.
Here’s my issue: on Chanukah and various other occasions, my children receive their “own” money. Some of the children want to go asap to Target and look for something to blow the money on. Others want to hold on to their money and fear spending even one dollar of it. Believe it- both these attitudes in the same family!
How do I help my family develop a healthy balance about money?
Dr. T. replies,
A person’s relationship to money –how he views it, spends it, saves it -is extremely complex. There is no one lens that we can use to understand this dynamic. Sometimes it is a person’s innate temperament- cautious or impulsive, conservative or free-spirited- that guides his style. For others, money is a lightening rod that triggers unconscious feelings like deprivation, entitlement, or guilt. And for some, money is a means to an end, i.e. a way to satisfy a need like instant gratification or the desire ‘to have.’ While how we spend our money is generally reflective of our own particular make-up and needs, it is also true that children model what they see - a carefree, open-handed style or a ‘save it’ script. So, over the many long years of your parenting career, you want to adhere to Chazal’s advice of “Chanoch l’nar al pi darko” all the while modeling healthy, pro-social attitudes and behaviors around money.
As far as the immediate present is concerned, you want to develop a family policy similar to those you have on other issues like homework or mealtime. While every family has its own coping style, value system, and economic reality, the structure suggested below is an example of a plan that you might find helpful. It is designed to restrain the overly-impulsive child and to empower the tight-fisted one. It is meant to help the child see that money – like brains, looks, yichus- is a special gift that is given for us to enjoy, not just hoard; however, like every bracha– it is finite- and one must give a din v’chesbanfor how it is used. Hopefully, it will teach your child to treat money with respect, because it is a potent force that demands consideration.
The first step is to have the child set aside some of his money for ma’aser. To make this truly meaningful, do more that simply put money in a pushka. Develop your child’s capacity for empathy by looking – together with him- at some different tzedakah options. Then, let your child make the kind of choices that we hope will become so much a part of his lifestyle in the years to come.
The second step is to suggest that the child set aside some mutually agreed upon amount for later. While for the very young child this might be some informal arrangement like the classic ‘piggy bank’, by the time a child is nine or ten, a formal bank account is a sound idea. Going on an outing to the bank, tabbing a total, calculating interest- all these lend a formality and a structure to this project. The value of learning the delay of gratification [I’ll take a dollar later rather than a quarter now] at an early age is immeasurable. The ability to defer our wants and needs takes much training over a long period of time, and this is a good place to start.
While the balance of the child’s money is his to use as he sees fit, his process is an exercise in decision making. We want to train our children in making considered choices, not just grabbing the nearest way. So, parental guidance is definitely suggested, unless your child has reached that age where parental approval is the kiss of death. It is always preferable for the choice to follow a long-standing want. However, the younger, more impulsive or less thought-out child may be clueless about his interests and may opt to go to the store where the viewing will stimulate desire. And, the tight-fisted child may need some support and encouragement here. In any case, the process of choosing and then living with the choice [or learning to choose wiser next time] is a precursor to developing sound behavior patterns and a wonderful real life lesson.
There will certainly be sticky moments around money issues in your family- as, for example, when you violently disapprove of your child’s choice [as in a drum set in an apartment house]. However, having a basic framework for the spending of the money and the attitude of healthy respect for both money and the child’s choices should help you negotiate the really rough spots.