Leveling with your kids about tough economic times: How’s it done?

My dad lost his job for several weeks when I was little. I found this out years later. Didn’t strike me then that anything was wrong. Dad was just home. My parents didn’t talk about the financial hit they faced.

Hiding hardship these days is nearly impossible for some families in this economy. At some point you have have to say something to the kids.

Suzanne Stiff of St. Francis, Minn., got me thinking about that when she told us her economic outlook. It wasn’t great, with worries about her husband losing his construction job and her family unable to make it only on her paycheck. Any extra money in June will go to replace clothes the kids outgrew last summer and on driver training for her three teens.

We sacrifice for our kids. We don’t want them to worry. But at what point do you level with them about hard times? Stiff, a source in our Public Insight Network who’s also dealt with the strain of two kids with cancer, put it this way:

We have always been honest with our kids about our financial situation. But let’s face it; the stress in our house is overwhelming at times. They know when things are tight when the cupboards are bare. Still, we have tried to provide a “normal” life for our kids and to keep the stress of wondering how we will pay for groceries and household bills on the shoulders of us, the parents.

This was easier when the kids were younger. A five dollar toy or a trip to Como Zoo was a great reward our kiddos back then. Now they are teenagers and they desire cell phones, ipods, video games and laptop computers just like their friends. They want to open the fridge and see their favorite drinks and snacks – and they want to share them with the neighborhood!

Interestingly, their acceptance of our financial reality differs with age. Our 19 year-old who has taken a semester off from community college to save money and our 18 year-old college bound son, worry about the world they are heading into. They “get it” when I tell them what we can pay for and when. They want jobs of their own but are also competing with a huge applicant pool which includes retirees who have returned to the workforce.

On the other hand, our 14 and 12 year-old are in the “it’s all about me” years and are so easily influenced by peer pressure. When I told our daughter we could not afford a cell phone for her personal use, she whined, “But everyone has one!” When I firmly told her it was not in our budget she said, “It’s not MY fault we’re poor!”

On the positive side, one of my kids commented to me about how we seem to have more home cooked meals when we are short on money. This month we are planning our huge family garden. Our 10 year-old has even staked out a plot all for himself.

Sometimes I think if we have an attitude of “we’re all in this together” it makes it easier to get through the tough times.

The professional advice mirrors Stiff’s approach. The American Academy of Pediatrics says parents need to keep calm and keep the communication open. Kids depend on adults to help them feel secure and they pick up quickly on your anxiety.

Choose words carefully. Hyperbole, even when you’re trying to break the tension — “Hey kids, we’re probably heading for debtor’s prison!” — can make the situation worse.

The National Association of School Psychologists has tips for students on how to manage the stress at home and school.

There are few decent columns online with advice along these lines. But none better than what Stiff sent.

What are you telling your kids about the economy? Have you had to call on your kids to sacrifice because of the recession? Share a story with MPR News.

Comments are closed.