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Money Messages

Message #3: "Mommy has to work to buy you all the things you love"

"I'm the sole breadwinner in our family, and I need to work a lot to keep up," says Judith Newman, mom of 5-year-old twin boys in New York City. "I'm constantly telling my sons that I can't play with them now, I have to work to buy them the toys they like so much. Last week, Henry cried outside my door and said, 'I don't want any more toys.' It just about broke my heart. But then I had to get back to my job. The sentiment was short-lived for him, too. A few days later he came up to me and said, 'Mom, I think I need more toys. Are you working today?'"

The emotional cost: Whether it's devotion to work or the prod of financial pressure that's turning you into a workaholic, it doesn't matter to a kid. Even though you're trying to explain the reason in a way your child can understand, she only sees your unavailability and feels abandoned.

Checks and balances: Instead of ignoring your child's perspective, address it right away. Danes suggests telling your child, "It sounds like we need more time together; let's plan a date right now." And use that time -- whether it's that afternoon or the following weekend -- to be with her, without interruptions from the phone, BlackBerry, or e-mail.

Message #4: "I don't care how many dolls your friend has. One is enough for you"

My daughter Lucy often comes home from playdates with vivid descriptions of the bounty she finds in her friends' rooms. A shoebox full of Game Boy cartridges. An army of AmericanGirl dolls. I immediately get defensive and start telling her that one Samantha is all any girl needs. So what if her friend has four? Lucy tells me, "Okay, okay, I hear you," but I doubt my words penetrate past the image she's got in her head of a bed crammed with coveted dolls.

The emotional cost: The real problem isn't the culture of acquisition, it's my immediate, knee-jerk assumption that my kids are being greedy. "Is it that she wants more AmericanGirl dolls, or is she just reporting what she observed?" asks Danes. Your child, after all, is only starting to learn about relative wealth and plenty. "If you react negatively, she's likely to see only that Mommy is angry at her, but she won't understand why," she says. (And if you buy another pair of shoes the next day, you'll just look like a hypocrite.)

Checks and balances: Bite your tongue. Don't get defensive when your daughter comes home talking about her friends' stuff, says Danes. Before you start a lecture on the perils of materialism, pause for a moment and find out what your child's really saying. Ask her what she thinks, instead of simply telling her what you think. The last thing you want to do is cut off the flow of conversation. Today, the topic is toys. But tomorrow, next week, ten years from now, it will be more complex.

Talk isn't cheap. Not when it's honest and open with our kids. Let that be the ultimate healthy fiscal message for them and ourselves: A parent can teach her children to be more at ease with money matters simply by paying...attention.