Good manners don't come naturally. Left to their own devices, young children will quite happily slurp their soup and talk with their mouth full. The same is true of financial etiquette: Unless they're taught otherwise, kids will inevitably brag about their newest toys, run around in stores, divulge information about their family's finances, or ask other people direct questions about theirs.
"What's considered polite when it comes to money often involves going against a child's instincts," says etiquette columnist Carol McD. Wallace, author of Elbows Off the Table, Napkin in the Lap, No Video Games During Dinner: The Modern Guide to Teaching Children Good Manners. "It's up to parents to explain rules."
Chances are good that you'll find a receptive audience. "Children often worry about doing the wrong thing or being laughed at, so they really want to know how to behave correctly," says Wallace.
Some of the key skills they need:
What kids need to know: Don't race around the store or yell out to parents or friends. Don't handle the merchandise, unless there's a chance you may buy the item (and, even then, be very careful).
How to teach them: Tell your child exactly what's expected of her. "Even 3- and 4-year-olds can understand the basics, as long as you put it to them in their language," says Maura Graber, director of the RSVP Institute of Etiquette, which offers manners classes for children throughout Southern California. In the case of a shopping trip, Graber suggests discussing the rules for polite behavior before you leave the house; perhaps compare the experience of visiting a store to visiting someone in their home. After all, you can point out, would you like it if your friends came to visit and stormed through your room, playing with all your favorite toys without your permission and making a big mess?
Be prepared to gently remind your youngster about the rules before each shopping expedition. And don't expect complete compliance on every outing, especially among the preschool set. "Most 3-year-olds don't have the ability to be still for 15 minutes -- it's just not likely," notes Graber, who bought a stash of lollipops for when her now school-age children had to accompany her to the store when they were younger.
What kids need to know: Wait your turn on line. Have your money ready, so you don't keep others waiting. Say "please" and "thank you" to the cashier.
How to teach them: With many years of shopping and thousands of sales transactions under your belt, you may not remember just how intimidating the process of buying something at a store can be to the uninitiated. "To make a purchase on his own, a child has to interact with a strange adult in a public setting while handling cash," notes Wallace. "Those are big challenges to handle all at once if you're a kid." Nor can you assume that your child knows what to do simply because he's been observing you buying stuff at various stores for most of his pampered young life.
To mitigate the intimidation factor, describe the procedure, step by painstaking step, before you venture out to the store. Explain to your child that he'll need to take the item he wants to the register, wait on line, and when it's his turn, set the item on the counter and say to the cashier, "I'd like to buy this, please." (The right language is important here -- "I want this" or "How much?" just won't do.) Then instruct him to wait for the cashier to tell him how much he owes before handing over any cash, and that after the cashier hands him his purchase and receipt, he should say, "Thank you."
An entertaining way to make the point: Play a few rounds of pretend store, being sure to take turns being the customer.
What kids need to know: Don't ask anyone pointed questions about their money, or share details about your family's finances. Don't brag. And never tease someone about their financial situation.
How to teach them: Young children understand the concept of privacy as it relates to their bodies, so you can use this notion to explain our society's taboos about talking about money. Let your youngster know that the cost of most things her friends or their families own is considered private information, as is the amount of money they get for their allowance or from their job.
Explain that financial privacy works both ways. Just as it's impolite to ask questions like "Are you rich?" she shouldn't feel obliged to answer those kinds of questions either. "Most kids feel more comfortable with refusing to answer another child if they can shift the blame onto a grown-up," says Graber. "So you might instruct your child to say something like, 'My mom says it's rude to talk about money.'"
Perhaps the most common form of bad money manners among kids is bragging -- the sometimes unstoppable impulse to show off the hot new toy they just got. The ultimate no-no, of course, is to comment on or tease another child about his or her financial situation. "Whether people have less money than you or more," Wallace points out, "it's rarely something they can laugh about. "Appeal to your child's empathetic instincts. Pose questions that begin with, "How would you feel if...?" Says Wallace, "Very young children can understand that showing off almost always makes someone else feel diminished."
If, as you're trying to teach your child money manners, she doesn't appear to be absorbing (or practicing) anything you say, don't worry. "No matter what your child's immediate response is, some of this information will inevitably leak into her brain," says Letitia Baldrige, author of Letitia Baldrige's More Than Manners! Raising Today's Kids to Have Kind Manners and Good Hearts. "Even if they take in just a quarter or an eighth of what you're saying, that's a great start."
Contributing editor Diane Harris is coauthor of It Takes Money, Honey, a book on personal finance for women.