I asked my friend and running partner Bonnie Federman, a mom of three, what worried her most about her kids and money. "Spoiled, spoiled, and spoiled," she replied. "That pretty much covers it for me."
As a mom of two girls, I have to agree. And parents have good reason to be more concerned than ever. Toy sales alone amounted to more than $20 billion last year, according to the Toy Industry Association, and even kids now view themselves as consumers: Children ages 4 to 12 spend billions on things like junk food, clothing, and toys.
Marketers are bypassing parents to target kids directly in increasingly sophisticated ways. For instance, Lisa Schifman, of Leawood, Kansas, took her grade-schooler to a winter soccer clinic, only to discover that the walls of the gym were covered with advertisements. "Why do I have to get nagged at a soccer practice?" she asks, reflecting the exasperation all of us now feel.
I don't have to tell you that this emphasis on stuff to buy isn't good for children; I haven't spoken to a single parent who isn't worried that her kids will come out with a skewed sense of what money can -- and can't -- do for them. The question now is what to do about it. How do you control the factors that are making your kids want more and more things? How do you say no fairly and consistently, even when you're tired of fighting? How do you teach them to delay their purchases and really value them? We talked to moms and financial experts for reality-tested answers to parents' top concerns:
"My kids want everything they see on TV"
"I let my kids watch television while I'm making dinner," says Susana MacLean, mom of a 5-year-old and 3-year-old in Westfield, New Jersey. "One day my daughter came running and said, 'Mommy, there are two new Barbies and I don't have them!'"
How to handle it: MacLean decided to limit her kids' access to commercial TV. While monitoring the shows your child watches is one way to respond, it's not your only option. Ads also provide teachable moments. When Schifman was at a toy store with her three sons, they saw the same chocolate-candy maker that the boys had seen on TV. "They looked at it, and thought it looked like a piece of junk, so we discussed how sometimes commercials have a way of making things look good that really aren't."
Carolyn Hoyt, a mom of two, writes for More and Organic Style.
Option to buy
"Every time we go to a store, my child pesters me to buy her something"
Sure, there was always candy in the checkout aisle, but toys, stuffed animals, and DVDs now show up in places that they never used to be, like the supermarket and the pharmacy. "I'm in the 'no-zone' for much of the day," says Ted Wilson of Arlington, Massachu-setts, about going out with his daughter, Jaime, 7.
How to handle it: Some parents try to schedule their shopping at times when they don't have to bring their kids. Others set clear ground rules (saying, for instance, "We're not buying anything that's not on our list") and hold firm even if their child has a major temper tantrum.
A middle ground some moms swear by is to limit your child to one inexpensive purchase a trip. The payoff: Making the decision about what that item will be may engage your child long enough to stave off more requests.
Wilson has recently begun an inoculation campaign with his daughter. "I plan shopping trips to see what her cousins might like for their birthdays," he says. "And I tell Jaime at the start that we're not buying anything for her that day, so she gets used to coming out of the store without something new."
The key is to build up these non-purchasing habits so that your child doesn't expect you to shell out for a stuffed animal every time you take him to the zoo. That's what Juliet Schor, author of Born to Buy, has done with her kids, ages 10 and 13. "When they were little, we almost never bought them souvenirs, so at this point our kids are so used to the way we do these things that they don't even bother to ask," she says.
"My kids beg for the toys their pals have"
"I remember when our neighbor got one of those electric jeeps for his kids; mine were absolutely green with envy," says Caroline Brokaw Tucker of New Canaan, Connecticut, mom of a 10-, 7-, and 4-year-old.
How to handle it: "When my kids asked if we could buy a jeep, I told them, 'No. There are so many other ways you can entertain yourselves,'" says Tucker.
It's important for your child to know how you decide to spend the family's money -- and that conversation can start while she's still a toddler. The next time you're at a store, you can point to something you'd love to buy and then explain how you think it's better to save that money for a longer-term goal like college. She won't understand this yet, but if you have these discussions often -- at the ATM, while paying bills -- she'll begin to grasp that there are trade-offs to every purchase. Plus, you'll be laying the groundwork for more sophisticated talks as she gets older.
The value of money
"How can I teach my child how much things cost?"
Jason Moscow, 6, of Baltimore, recently set his heart on an NFL football jersey with a steep price tag: $50.
How to handle it: His mom, Cindy Paradies, told him,"If you really want it, you can use the birthday money in your piggy bank."
Even a child of 3 can start learning how to spend his own money. When you go someplace special, give him a dollar or two to spend any way he wants. Encourage him to think about his decision: Does he want to buy something to eat, or a small toy? Which one does he think will last longer? Which will he enjoy more?
I've used this method quite successfully. At the American Girl doll store, I gave my 7-year-old a $25 spending limit and discussed with her the value of each item that caught her fancy, and how much she'd have left afterward. She didn't come home with any spare change, but her consumer behavior was more thoughtful than it would've been if I'd just whipped out my plastic.
And cutting down on the nag-beg-argue cycle let me have more fun.
Kids can learn similar lessons with an allowance. MacLean started to give her daughter Natalia $5 a week when she turned 5 and could count to a hundred. (Natalia gets to spend $2 of that; the rest is put in a savings account or given to charity.)
Younger preschoolers can earn their own cash by doing some simple household chore that's beyond their basic responsibility -- for example, you might pay your 3-year-old 25 cents to set the table if his only job is putting away his toys. Once he's earned the money, you help him decide whether he spends it now or saves it so he can buy a toy. For better or worse, your child is watching all your financial transactions. He's soaking up your attitude (and your spouse's), too. When I tell my girls that "money doesn't make people happy," they hear me, but they're skeptical. After all, a new swing set would do a lot, in their minds, to enhance their lives. So I try to keep a running conversation about the topic: This is how Mom and Dad make money; this is why we spend it on the things we do; this is what it says about us as a family.
Yes, I know. This conversation may seem a little esoteric while you're waiting at the checkout line and your toddler is whining for that balloon swaying so enticingly just beyond his reach. But try it anyway. After all, talking to your child about money is a way of teaching him who you are -- and what really matters to you.
"I have trouble saying no all the time"
There are some moms who are naturals at it. "I will not negotiate with terrorists," insists MacLean, who recently withstood her 3-year-old's 15-minute tantrum at the drugstore when he wanted her to buy more than two packs of stickers. And then there are the rest of us, just too beaten down to fight with our kids anymore.
How to handle it: Listen to your child's desires, then explain to him why your answer is -- and will remain for the foreseeable future -- no, says Schor, who does this with her children.
"I have zero tolerance for the nag factor," she says, "but, on the other hand, I don't want to exercise power in a way that seems arbitrary or unreasonable to my kids. Since they were preschoolers I've let them talk about their feelings when they want something they can't have." So when her son begged for a video game system last year, she shared with him her research about its negative effects.
But don't beat yourself up if you give in every now and then. Whether you want to buy yourself some peace and quiet or just give your child a special treat, remember, we've all been there.