"The Talk" About Money

I will admit that when I first saw a Billfold.com post about this PSA campaign from The National Financial Educators Council, I just about blew a gasket. But since this campaign is supposed to "elicit an emotional response that encourages parents to talk with their kids about money," I guess that's sort of the point. My reaction was less about the appropriateness of the images, though, and more utter amazement that financial literacy is being pitched as "a talk," emphasis on the "a."

Teaching your kids about money is not a one time event. It's not a conversation, a booklet, or even an all-day seminar where you play Tony Robbins and motivate your kids to unleash the power of their bank account. Teaching your kids about money involves being a full-time, round-the-clock role model for financial behavior. And if you think your kids aren't paying attention, think again.

Children, especially young children, are incredibly sensitive to parents' emotions. When your entire security depends on the stability of the two (or one) central adults in your life, it pays to pick up on cues as to whether mom is overwhelmed or dad is prone to lash out. So what children are constantly picking up with their little kid antennae are the emotional signals you send out when you handle money tasks.

When you get agitated watching the cash register number creep up at the grocery store, little Suzy registers your stress level creeping up, too. Or when you go on a spending spree only to collapse later in guilt (or get in an argument with your spouse), little Billy might choose to play outside and stay out of the way. Of course, one or two or a few instances of these behaviors isn't a big deal -- it's the overall pattern that makes an indelible imprint on your child.

Which is not to say that I don't think you should talk about money with your kids. You should. You should do it often. By all means talk to them about compound interest and how to open a 401(k) and warn them about high-interest debt. But in my experience it's not a lack of information that gets people in serious trouble, it's a lack of emotional regulation. It's difficulty paying attention to stressful tasks. It's putting money in the place of love, or self-esteem, or self-care.

As a parent and role model, you don't have to be perfect. Even your money mistakes can be constructive, if you communicate about your struggles in an age-appropriate way and demonstrate sincere efforts to improve your behavior. It's healthy for children to see adults dealing with the consequences of their mistakes.

I appreciate that this PSA campaign is trying to get parents to associate financial literacy with other forms of keeping their kids safe. But I wish there were more tools to help parents deal with the truly hard parts of "The Talk," like why it's hard to keep on a budget, how to talk finances with a partner without arguing, and how to translate personal values into financial goals. Sigh, if I only had the money to create my own PSA campaign (or was even remotely savvy with Photoshop).