Teaching Kids Empathy and Ethics with Money

Pathway to Goal Achievement by Jennifer MillerIf you are concerned about your children making a living in the world on their own someday, you are not alone. And because financial acumen is not typically a rigorous part of school curricula, we know, as parents, it’s up to us to help our children. It’s likely you’ve considered teaching your child about money or have already begun the process. In fact, experts recommend giving your child plenty of practice with early money management by opening a saving account, providing a small allowance and divvying up Grandma’s greeting card funds to savings, charity and spending.1 These are indeed helpful experiences for children to begin understanding money’s value and its role in their lives. But the ethics developed around the use of money can be equally important and can be taught right alongside those practical first experiences. In addition, empathy goes hand in hand with ethics since acting as a responsible citizen means working to understand others who may have very different lives and circumstances than our own.

The way you educate your child about the values and ethics of money can play a significant role in their future mental health. After all, it is not just paper and metal but a source of livelihood and sustainability. What we emphasize through our parenting can go a long way toward helping our children develop a work ethic, achieve their goals and contribute the best of themselves to the world. Here are some considerations when educating your child about money, ethics and empathy.

Discuss gratitude.

A spokesperson for a relief aid organization came to speak at my son’s school yesterday. He lives in Ghana and spoke about his childhood as an orphan who relied upon a relief organization for his food, shelter, clothing and education. “I felt bad for him,” said my son. “He didn’t have any parents and didn’t even know when his birthday was.” “And how did he say he felt about his life now?” I wanted to know. “Grateful.” said my son. “He was grateful.” I was thankful that my son had that opportunity to encounter a person who lived a very different life on another continent in simpler living circumstances yet he was very grateful for his life. His story enhanced our family’s gratefulness and so it goes, as you encounter others and learn about their lives, it can enhance your family’s gratefulness for the abundance you enjoy. Certainly, it helps you not take your life for granted.

The authors of Making Grateful Kids say their research supports the idea that materialism and gratitude are opposing values so it’s up to parents to balance doses of gratefulness with the materialism children experience.2 It seems there are a full range of attractive toys associated with any given television program, movie or video game. So if children are viewing screens each day, they are getting regular exposure to those commercial messages. The key is to balance those messages with your family’s own sense of gratitude. Look for chances to discuss what you are grateful for. Make it a daily ritual at breakfast, dinnertime or bedtime. Those researchers found that it can significantly impact a child’s feelings of motivation and satisfaction with their own life so it’s worth that daily effort.

Exercise self-control and persistence.

There are numerous ways you can encourage the practice of self-control with kids. (Check out, “Strategies for Teaching Self-Control”) One small, simple way is to recognize and focus on hard work and effort versus end products whether its related to a homework project or learning to ride a bike. Ruby Payne, expert on mindsets of poverty, middle class and wealth, writes

Emotional resources provide the stamina to withstand difficult and uncomfortable emotional situations and feelings. They are the most important of all resources, because, when present, they allow the individual not to return to old habit patterns. 3

And they allow the individual to achieve their goals whether they are monetary or other.

Clarify goals and priorities.

When valuing and achieving extrinsic goals such as wealth, image and fame as central aspirations, people can become hindered in terms of fulfilling their fundamental needs, which can lead to feelings of emptiness and despair. On the other hand, when valuing and achieving intrinsic goals – such as kinship, friendship and personal growth – as central aspirations, people can more easily fulfill the fundamental human need which support mental health. 4

Consider how you talk about your work. For most, their work is critical to supporting their lifestyle but that is not the only concern related to a job or career. Do you discuss the meaning and purpose of what you do? Do you describe the service you provide? Do you help others? Do you value the relationships in your workplace? Children can benefit from hearing you talk about the aims of your work in addition to the monetary goals.

Employ a caring Socratic method.

Ask good questions in order to help your child explore their thinking and examine assumptions they may not be aware they have developed simply by living in a consumer society. Here are some examples:

  • What if everyone got everything they wanted from the stores all of the time? What would be the implications for employees? For others?
  • What could happen if you spent all of your money on one big toy?
  • What would happen if Mom and Dad spent all of their money on one big toy?
  • What kinds of things do you think Mom and Dad have to work to pay for in our lives?
  • What happens to people who are in a car accident and handicapped and cannot work to gain money? What do you think they do?
  • What do you think the experience of being homeless is like?

Also, explore ethical dilemmas with your child so that he can think the problem through to his own conclusions. For young children, you could explore the issue of lying or stealing. For middle grade children, you might talk about social issues such as prejudice related to class issues or cheating. For high school age, you could explore larger topics such as extortion or mental illness.

The book Talk with your Kids encourages parents to not offer answers or a final conclusion. 5 Explore the complexities and gray areas. Children will wrestle with those dilemmas themselves and when they do, it will contribute to their moral development.

Cultivate empathy for others.

Look around and take a moment to examine how often you interact with others of a differing income level. Because class can determine much of a person’s worldview, it can be mind-expanding to experience those differences. Return to your question asking and explore your own assumptions as well as your child’s. “How might that homeless woman see the world differently than we do from the vantage of her wheelchair?” “What do you think she thinks about?”

The resource book listed below, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, contains a helpful graph entitled “Hidden Rules among Classes” to help see what the assumption mindsets might be from each income level around people, education, time, food, clothing and other daily aspects of our lives. The author’s website offers a video to explain more.

Understand the roles of fairness and reciprocity.

It is human nature to return a gift with a gift. The norm of reciprocity is true even among strangers. 6 Over the holidays, my family went to deliver needed food and gifts to seniors living with a limited income but each one gave something to our son, E whether a piece of candy or a hug. One man ran down the hallway to get us and bring us back so that he might offer E his prized Little Debbie cupcake. Perhaps it’s human dignity that requires individuals to give back in return. Help your child understand the value of accepting what is given and expressing gratitude (when you are not in the those situations so that it’s not nagging but discussing in advance). Focus on the care of the giver and not the thing itself. And from the receiver’s perspective, when gifts are too large, they can feel overwhelmed. “How can there ever exist fairness or reciprocity?” the receiver might think. Discussing gift giving and receiving and the complexities only raises your children’s sensitivity to those issues. He will be prepared and able to act graciously when he participates in future giving and receiving.

Share your own values.

What ethics do you adhere to when it comes to money? Where do you draw the line? What if you came into a large amount of money? What would you do with it? What if you and your husband lost your source of income? What then? Do you practice regular giving to others, to charity? Do you accept gifts of money? What is your comfort level with debt? Would you borrow money and if so, under what conditions? Raising questions with your family can help you talk through the complexities of these questions that often have no certain answers. It helps for your children to understand that you are grappling with questions and trying to figure out your own boundary lines too.

Families that regularly express their gratitude attract more abundance into their lives contributing to their sense of well-being and ability to pursue their goals. Families that hold people and relationships as a central value as they consider the complexities of money and consumerism are prepared to be thoughtful when challenges arise. It’s renewing and empowering to know that gratitude can be freely experienced no matter an individual’s circumstances.

References and Resources

1. T. Rowe Price. Money Confident Kids site to assist parents, educators and kids on the practicalities of learning about money.

2. Froh, J.J. & Bono, G. (2014). Making Grateful Kids. The Science of Building Character. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.

3. Payne, R.K. (1996). A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Highlands, TX: aha! Process.

Hidden Rules among Classes Video, http://www.ahaprocess.com/homepage/content-form/

4. Richards, C. (2012). The Psychology of Wealth. Understanding your Relationship with Money and Achieve Prosperity. NY: McGraw-Hill.

5. Parker, M. (2012). Talk with your Kids. Conversations about Ethics, Honesty, Friendship, Sensitivity, Fairness, Dedication, Individuality and 103 Other Things that Really Matter. NY: Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers.

6. Diekmann, A. 92004). The Power of Reciprocity. Fairness, Reciprocity and Stakes in Variants of the Dictator Game. Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 48, No. 4, August, 487-505.

And check out this book which contains guidance on this important topic from regular reader and commenter, Dr. James Casale!


Wise Up and be the Solution; How to Create a Culture of Learning at Home and Make your Child a Success in School by James Casale

5 Comments on “Teaching Kids Empathy and Ethics with Money”

  1. Good stuff as usual. I cover some of this in my book,”Wise Up and be the Solution;How to create a culture of learning at home and make your child a success in school.”
    Skyhorse Publishing(NYC)

  2. Never thought of sharing my values with my son with a lesson on money before. This was an interesting read. Thank you for sharing. Ethics and empathy are definitely important life lessons. I’ll have to share this with my sister and her family! Thanks!

    • Thank you so much for this comment! I think most of us don’t consider those conversations and are trying to figure out ways to simple teach about money management since it’s unfortunately omitted from our children’s schooling (not sure why that decision is consistently made!). But when we teach our children skills with money, it’s such an important opportunity to discuss racial and economic inequities, how lives are different when they do not have the money they require for basics, and how differing levels of income tends to shape beliefs and daily lives. Eliciting empathy and practicing compassion along the way will prepare our children for the complexities that go with any kind of money management so that they engage with it in responsible, socially aware ways. Thanks for your comment and for sharing! All the best!

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