Teaching Kids about Money from the Social and Emotional Perspective: Part One, Self-Awareness

Teaching Kids about Money by Jennifer Miller“Wouldn’t it be awesome if every toy in the world were one dollar?” exclaimed my son, E yesterday with great enthusiasm. “Then,” he went on, “I could buy everything on my wish list with the money in my piggy bank!” “Hmmm. Let’s think about that.” was my response. “What if?” I eagerly await those opportunities for thought experiments to help play out the thinking and see where it could lead. If every toy in the world were one dollar, what might happen? We played out the scenario in the following way.

What if you could buy every toy you’ve ever wanted with your piggy bank money? You could play with them all until you got bored and wanted more. But there would be nothing more out there to buy. We, as a family, might struggle with storing all of those toys in our home and could not invite people over. There simply would not be the space. Our family and friends would stay away from our house and we would go to visit them instead. Sadly, you couldn’t play with your friends with the toys because of the lack of space. In addition, you spent all of your money. An emergency might arise in which you need money but you would have spent it all. Meanwhile in the greater world, the people who made each of those toys are suffering. They received one penny for the hard work they put into making your toy with the other ninety-nine cents going to the company that runs the toy-making operation. Those employees go home to a family they are struggling to feed and clothe. Hmmm.

The role of money in our lives is so tightly woven into the fabric of our daily existence that we may often not be aware of the social, cultural and ethical implications and values that we are passing on to our children. The brand of breakfast food we eat, the clothing we put on, the work we engage in and the entertainment we choose all involve money. Sure, it’s just paper; a tool on which we place a number value. But because it determines so much of our lifestyle, it is loaded with emotions and rife with beliefs. If we are to raise children who will become informed consumers, grateful individuals and ethical contributors to society, it’s critical that we examine our assumptions and beliefs about money. To do this, we need to uncover and be clear about what our values are and how our lives are in alignment with those values. And we need to raise questions with our children about the role of money in people’s lives. How does money help them to become responsible decision-makers, cherish the abundance they enjoy and hold empathy for others?

In all of my reading and research on this topic, I searched to find what might be considered a “healthy” relationship with money. And the bottom line came down to our own state of mind. Though looking around, it’s easy to see that many consider money a direct route to happiness, freedom or power. Those are illusions, however, or so says research. A 2010 study with 450,000 U.S. respondents found that well-being does not correlate with income level. An annual income of $75,000 was the most/least individuals needed to experience the greatest satisfaction with their lives. 1 Researcher Doug Short took that study a step further in 2014 and played out the state-by-state “benchmark for happiness” as it relates to annual income with similar results. 2 “Our attitudes about money are more important than the amount we make. As always, in our pursuit of happiness, our inner resources assume a greater role than our material resources.” writes Howard Cutler summarizing His Holiness The Dalai Lama’s words. 3

I share my own story with you as a work in progress. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on my personal journey with money, much more than I could possibly share here. I want it to inform my own life and how I teach my child about money. Self-awareness is an important place to begin when teaching a child any topic that relates to their social and emotional development. Perhaps the questions I am asking myself may help you examine your own assumptions about the role of money in your family life.

Question: What are the stories you’ve been told about your family history before you were born related to money?

My Story: My paternal Grandfather once split a single hard-boiled egg with his new wife for dinner, times were so lean, during the Great Depression. He worked extra shifts for years at Ford Motor Company in order to allow my father to be the first to go to college. My maternal Grandmother, who lost her Mother at the age of three, had to wear purple high heeled, hand-me-down shoes with newspaper shoved in the toes to school and began working in a bar when she was a teenager.

My Father sold off all of his possessions in his twenties to join the Jesuit seminary. He sought a simple, spiritual life. He owned two shirts when he met my Mom. And my Mom, right out of high school, joined the Notre Dame convent and took a vow of poverty. Though both she and my Father left their religious institutions eventually, they retained a commitment to simplicity. Those stories shaped my commitment to service, to a hard work ethic and to being grateful for what I have and it raised an awareness about materialism. Those stories also certainly contributed to my romanticized view of poverty.

Question: What do you remember from your own childhood experience of money? How did your parents make a living? Were there family conflicts over money?

My Story: I remember my Mother working full-time as an English teacher with my Dad out of work and in graduate school. She was making $10,000 a year to support our family. I was well taken care of but there were few extras. She hand-made most of my clothes and my toys.

I surprised myself when I dug deeper and fully answered this question. My maternal Grandmother was my primary caretaker while my Mom worked full-time before I was school-age. She often used money and extravagant gifts to buy love and had lots of expectations tied to her giving. That led to arguments that resulted in my Grandmother not speaking to me or my Mother for twenty years. When I thought back, I remembered the story incorrectly as an argument about money. That experience shaped so many of my feelings about money – that it could be evil, that it could destroy relationships. But in truth, the conflict was over much deeper, more fundamental issues – love and worthiness, not really money at all. And my uncovering of those feelings related to money have been important in understanding some of my false perceptions.

Question: When you became an adult (early twenties), what were your first experiences of making a living for yourself and managing your own money?

My Story: Right out of college, I signed up to fight the War on Poverty by becoming a full-time Americorps*VISTA volunteer. I was immersed in low income communities, experiencing life on the “literal other side of the tracks,” working with youth from various Indian tribes and struggling to pay my own bills. I know for certain that the ethic of service was learned from my parents and has been an important part of who I am and aspire to be.

Question: Do you currently have conflicts over money in any of your relationships? What are your feelings about money’s role in your life?

My Story: After much reflection, I realized I had some disturbing feelings about money. The myth that resided somewhere in the recesses of my mind was that money was the root of evil, a destroyer of relationships, a power without conscience. All of this time, I think I’ve carried a fear that money might destroy any relationship in its path. So I get very anxious when I talk with my husband about our budget. I cringe when I encounter luxuries because it seems to go against my moral fiber. All these are important realizations about the emotions I bring to conversations about money. They allow me to communicate better with loved ones and catch myself when I bring false beliefs to opportunities to teach my son.

There are cultural messages we often receive about money. Urban myths and sayings abound. “Neither a borrower or a lender be.” “You can’t take it with you.” and “Money can’t buy me love.” to name a few. And no it can’t, but it certainly can stir heated emotions in relationships. The 2014 American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey found that almost a third of adults with partners reported that money is a major source of conflict in their relationship. 4 And compared to other hot button topics, couples’ arguments about money tend to be more intense, more problematic and more likely to remain unresolved. 5

Because I have examined my beliefs and assumptions based on my own past history, I can ask questions about that state of mind I want to possess and what I want the role of money to be in my life and my family’s life. This can inform how I want to talk to my son about money to help him learn about not only the practical realities of money, but also the cultural, emotional and social implications.

Because this is such a fundamental issue, it seemed that one blog article was not enough to address all of the implications money has for our family lives. In this article, my goal was to raise questions to help you and me elevate our own self-awareness about the issue so that we might think on a deeper level when we return to the subject. So for the next two blog articles, I will discuss 1.) teaching children ethics around money and 2.) teaching children empathy related to money.

In the meantime, I hope you will share your thoughts to inform the discussion.

What beliefs do you hold that may be helpful to you or, as in my beliefs about money as a relationship destroyer, what beliefs do you want to let go of?

What ethical principles do you hold dear and how do you share them with your children?

And how do you help your children become more empathetic to those of differing economic statuses?

Further Reading:

Educating the Consumer-Citizen; A History of the Marriage of Schools, Advertising and Media by Joel Spring

Savage Inequalities: Children’s in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol

A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne


1 Kahneman, D. & Deaton, A. (2010). High Income Improves Evaluation of Life but Not Emotional Well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United State of America. 

2 Short, K. (2014). Here Is the Income Level at Which Money Won’t Make You Any Happier in Each State. The Huffington Post, July 25.

3 His Holiness The Dalai Lama, & Cutler, H. C. (2003). The Art of Happiness at Work. NY: Riverhead Books.

4 APA. (2014). American Psychological Association Stress in America Study. 

5 Papp, L. M., Cummings, E. M. and Goeke-Morey, M. C. (2009), For Richer, for Poorer: Money as a Topic of Marital Conflict in the Home. Family Relations, 58: 91–103. 3

6 Kirkcaldy, B., and Furnham, A. (1993). Predictors of beliefs about money. Psychological Reports 73 (3), 1079-1082.

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