Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Scary Economy and the Trick for Our Kids

This past month or two has hardly been a treat for our town and our country, to say the least. Reeling, frightened and cautious, most of us have had to cut back or cut out certain expenditures. As the grown-ups - many of who have lived through a recession or two in our lifetimes - we understand what is required to trim spending no matter how unhappy or uneasy (or both) it makes us. Our kids on the other hand, denied of "wants" for perhaps the first time in their lives, are shaking their heads: "Huh? What are you talking about?!"

Depending upon your level of wealth(and the majority of families here in New Canaan are in the upper end of the spectrum), your children have rarely had to do without the latest video game, piece of sporting equipment, footwear or fashion item, advanced piece of technology, etc. Sally needs a cell phone with numerous bells and whistles? No problem. Johnny has to have the newest version of X-Box? Why of course! Does Sara ask for $50 to purchase some must-have item along Elm Street? Consider it done. It's almost automatic. Maybe a lot of us did without during our childhood and so we want our children to have all or most of which we were unable. Probably a hefty percentage of kids age one to 21-ish feel entitled to whatever costly whim blows through their vision. And now, the gravy train has more than likely come abruptly to a screeching halt. The trick for us as parents is teaching them that less is not necessarily the end of and to their world, and that gravity can work in the reverse: What goes down can - and does eventually - go up again. They will live anew to wear $150-plus Nikes or the hottest Juicy Couture. Sometime. Just not necessarily now.

Our high school sophomore, Jess, had to settle for Target and H&M fashions to wear up at boarding school this year. We didn't even set foot inside Hollister or Abercrombie or even some of the more upscale (and coveted by her) stores in New Canaan. Her school often offers weekend trips to a local "movie-mall" and she has grown accustomed to phoning us up and asking that an extra $20 be immediately transferred into her debit account. After initial grumbling, Jon will pad over to the computer, granting her wish. She attempted this particular brand of phone call last weekend and was met with an unfamiliar "no." Jon calmly, but firmly, suggested that she needed to learn to budget the weekly $20 we already put into her account better: For instance, cut back on random junk food and yet another Jonas Brothers t-shirt for sale at the mall. Surely the 12-zillion you already posses are enough. I explained that the denied additional $20 didn't mean we were suddenly in danger of being in the poor house, but that expenses big and small needed to be pruned.

"We're not the only ones in town, honey," I reassured her. "Families all over the country need to tighten their belts a bit." And to her credit, she was sympathetic and decidedly un-whiny.

I think the key to calming our own fears, and the frustrations or anxieties of our children, is not to make drastic spending reductions (unless that is financially impossible). If our kids see us panic, well, they will certainly mimic that worry. But if we calmly curtail certain expenses while still allowing some treats it's perhaps more of a win-win situation between parent and child.

While the disposable income of many Americans is not as readily disposable, our children can still be made to feel that the shaky economy is not as mean a trick as it appears. They can learn to do their part in pruning expenses in small ways such as agreeing to rent - rather than buy - that hot, new video game, or helping with the electric bill by turning off lights, computers, televisions and game systems when not in use. My own two younger children - whose cell phones are not in perfect working order - are resigned to do their part and wait until Christmas for their upgrades and/or replacements. I was both shocked and impressed by them agreeing to delay their need for instant gratification; talk about a treat!

Wall Street has most likely (hopefully) blurted out its final "Boo!" So tomorrow night, when your child comes home laden with sweets, let them enjoy their abundance of riches. But not too much; safely saving a piece or two or three for a rainy day is always a good drill to teach. Because you never know...

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