Rabbi Binyomin Ginsberg got to thinking about these very questions after speaking with a distraught father recently about his six-figure stock market losses. It struck Ginsberg that the father was so wrapped up in his own feelings and fears that he didn't consider the message he's sending his kids. "Don't you think if you lost $300,000 it's affecting your outlook, your mood, and they must pick up something's wrong," asked Ginsberg, the dean of the Torah Academy in St. Louis Park.
University of Minnesota family economist Sharon Danes certainly thinks so. "You are [your children's] emotional grounding and if you're tense, they're going to be tense and then they're going to act out," she said. As hard as it might be, parents must do their best to reduce any money-related stress.
Before initiating conversation, watch and listen to your children. Are your kids acting differently? If so, that could indicate that they're picking up on your money concerns, so bring up the topic.
Are they saying anything about the financial turmoil? "As you listen to what they say, that will give you guidance in terms of how to proceed to talk about it," Danes said.
Whatever you say, make sure it's not simply "don't worry," said Ginsberg. To him, that dismissive phrase is about as bad as saying "I'm not listening."
Exactly what to say will vary depending on your child's age and maturity level. If your child is young, acting normally, and not saying a thing about the day's financial news, why bring it up?
If they are asking questions, by all means, talk about what's going on, but don't even try to explain liquidity, commercial paper, credit swaps or nationalizing banks.
Instead, stick with concrete ideas such as how the economy affects the family directly.
Even kids as young as 5 want to be part of the family and help improve the situation. "It's amazing how much children can help parents," Danes said, recalling a family facing a job loss. They had a family meeting to decide what they'd be giving up at the grocery store. It was the son who kept the mom from buying something on the no-no list. Not only did the kid keep their plan on track, but involving him in the problem solving also made him feel important, more in control, and less inclined to dwell on the family's hardship.
Necessity or luxury?
For parents with kids who are 9 or older, Ginsberg suggests a conversation around the dinner table about what's going on and how it affects your family -- even if they don't ask. You can weave in lessons from history as well, since they might be learning about the Great Depression or relevant economic concepts in school.
Parents with teenagers also should be careful to revisit expectations if the stock market's decline or a wage squeeze means you can no longer foot the college bill or buy junior that car you once promised. The sooner you have this conversation and begin searching for alternatives, the better.
Keep the conversation appropriate, however. "We don't want to not talk money because that's one of our societal problems," said author and fee-only financial planner Rick Kahler. "We also do not want to rely on our children to be an emotional support for us, or dump on them around issues around money." Kids need reassurance from their parents that they are safe and taken care of.
Even if the financial turmoil isn't touching you directly, there are plenty of lessons woven into this financial crisis that are worth mentioning to kids. For example, Ginsberg suggests a discussion about the difference between necessity and luxury. Then, as a family, come up with a way to sacrifice something in order to help a family that's struggling.
Another obvious lesson is why we should save for a rainy day instead of borrow money for everything, a concept that many adults have lost sight of in recent years.
Finally, don't underestimate your kids. Kahler recently had his 7-year-old son, Davin, pretend to be a shopkeeper in order to explain how a recession trickles through the economy. After a while, Davin announced, "I get it, I get it."
What more can a parent ask for?
What have you said to your kids about the financial crisis? Tell Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293 or firstname.lastname@example.org