Helping kids understand family finances

You can't completely shield children from economic hard times, so reassurance is key to helping them through it

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Correspondent / November 16, 2008
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Not long ago, Marcelo Felisberto overheard an exchange between his two sons that made him glow with pride.

Marlon, 11, and Kyle, 9, were clambering up the stairs from the family room to the kitchen when Marlon said, "We have to go back. We didn't turn off the TV or the lights."

"Oh yeah," said Kyle. "I remember. Dad said wasting electricity is money out of our pocket."

Like many Americans hard hit by the economic downturn, the Felisbertos of Wilmington are trying to cut expenses. Felisberto owns a small cleaning business and recently lost four clients. His wife, Drucila, is a housekeeper. With changes in the household, they struggle with how to tell their kids about what's happening in the country and at home.

On the one hand, they don't want to unnecessarily worry their sons. On the other hand, Felisberto says, "We believe in having them involved. When there's a problem in the family, we bring their attention to it."

Right now, the attention is on saving money by not wasting. He says, "We told the boys, 'Countries have financial ups and downs. This is a down time. Our family is not in trouble, but as a precaution, we are rearranging our budget. You guys can help.' "

Child development specialists couldn't put it better. First and foremost, they say, children of all ages need to be reassured about their families' well-being.

"Don't lie if things are bad or if there's a noticeable change in your family's circumstances," says clinical child psychologist Keith Crinc of Arizona State University.

Nonetheless, he tells parents to find some way to put a positive spin on things. Since that can be hard when you are feeling anything but upbeat, keep in mind that the goal is to help children adapt under stress and anxiety.

"Even teens need to hear parents express a sense of confidence and competence," Crinc says: "Dad lost his job, but he has a plan for finding a new one. In the meantime, we're being careful to make sure we'll be OK."

Specialists also say even if a family's lifestyle isn't changing because of the downturn, children still need reassurance. "By 6 and 7, kids hear from peers what's happening in other families and they know something is happening to upset grown-ups in general," says Diane Levin, a professor at Wheelock College who lectures internationally on how societal changes affect children.

What's more, when a family's spending patterns change, children can be confused. "Kids today were born into a commercial culture where buying is held up as the road to happiness. When they can't have what they are used to having, the world feels topsy-turvy to them," she says.

And oftentimes, parents begin acting differently toward their children. For years, studies have shown that when parents experience financial strain, they are less effective as parents, says Boston College researcher Rebekah LevineColey. She's worried about a spike in the number of children who are stressed by parents who are experiencing financial difficulty for the first time, parenting differently and not realizing it.

"They are less likely to be warm and responsive, more likely to be harsh, short-tempered, inconsistent, and distant," she said about parents.

Any change in routine or affect - a parent who cuts bedtime reading short because she's too anxious to sit still; a hush over dinner because dad's depressed - can feed insecurity, worry, or guilt.

"In the absence of an explanation, they think it's their fault: 'Mom doesn't want to read to me in bed, I must have been bad; dad is always grumpy. He's mad at me,"' says Ellen Hock, an Ohio University psychologist and one of the nation's premier researchers on family responses to stress.

Hock suggests one way to move the family forward is to admit you are stuck: "We're all feeling low. We need to do something fun. Who's got an idea?"

The Felisbertos say they have engaged in simple, honest, age-appropriate communication, although Marcelo is quick to credit his sons.

"We're blessed. They have good dispositions," he said.

When they decided to save money by doing away with takeout meals, Marlon, the oldest, quickly exclaimed, "Good thing our parents are good cooks!"

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