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Money Messages

Message #1: "We can't afford that!"

Sound familiar?

The emotional cost: Regardless of your intent, claiming poverty when you're not impoverished might send your child the message that you think he's greedy. And what do statements like that really mean, anyway? That you can't afford it today? Can't afford it ever? Can afford it, but it seems like a waste of money?

Checks and balances: To temper genuine financial limits with a healthy enjoyment of money, experts often recommend a monthly plan. "Gather the family together and take turns talking about things you'd like," says Danes. "Make a list, and explain which items are unrealistic. Then plan some purchases on a rotating basis. One week (or one month), a child gets something. The following week or month, it's Mom's or Dad's turn. The consistent message is that you have to take turns, that everyone deserves treats, and that saving and waiting don't negate the pleasure of sometimes getting to buy the thing you want or need."

Here's how it broke down for us: First, my husband, Steve, and I decided we'd put aside $50 for a rotating monthly indulgence, and then we called in the troops. Maggie wanted a new pair of winter boots. Lucy wanted sneakers with wheels. I longed for a new comforter, and Steve wanted to replace a stolen iPod. Since it was coming on winter, we decided the boots and comforter could be the first two items purchased. Lucy agreed to wait until spring for her Heelys, and Steve knew he'd have to save up a few turns for his iPod. Upon hearing that, Maggie offered to let Steve use her iPod until then. Everyone left the table satisfied, and Maggie showed encouraging generosity.

Kids of any age can sit and listen to the conversation. Sure, they might be too young to understand the concept (you can almost hear a 3-year-old's list: pony, castle, rainbow), but they will get it eventually, says Danes. "And it's never too early to start teaching your children about money and responsibility."

Message #2: "Whatever you want, honey"

"My parents completely indulged me," says S.K. (who wishes to remain anonymous), mom of 7- and 4-year-old daughters in Princeton, New Jersey. "We'd go to a store and they'd buy everything. And now I find myself buying things for my daughters I know they don't need."

The emotional cost: Kids can become, in a word, spoiled. "We went shopping for a birthday present for a classmate," says S.K., "and walked out with new toys for my girls, too. This happens all the time. The only problem is that now when I try to say no, the girls won't take no for an answer. I've had some really embarrassing moments at Target. And I usually cave."

"If you teach a child that the money will always be there or that price is no object, it prevents him from developing a good work ethic and can set him up for a lifetime of thinking the world owes him a living," says Kahler.

Checks and balances: "Some parents think that if they don't spend a lot on toys and gifts, it means they don't love their children," says Kahler. "If you change that thinking, that spending means love, you can change the behavior." All well and good, but that nice realization may not play with your toy-lusting kid. "The easiest and best strategy is to avoid temptation," he suggests. "If you can't stay away from stores, make it clear to your children beforehand that you're only going to buy the items on your list." Reconditioning an entitled child takes some time and might mean dealing with a few tantrums. "But kids adapt faster than parents think they will," says Kahler.