By Stephanie A, Master Tutor
From the next aisle, a child’s pleading voice can be heard: “But, Mommy, I neeeeed this.
Pleeeeease. Please can I have it? I need it.” Curious as to what is so “necessary” to this
youngster, you peek around the corner and see that the object deemed soooo necessary is the
Lego City Pickup and Caravan Kit. As patiently as she can, Mom explains to her son
that he doesn’t actually need the Lego City Pickup and Caravan Kit, but the reasonable
message is not registering with her strong-willed child. We’ve all been in that situation:
wary of causing a public scene, but also not inclined to purchase yet another toy, a
parent can struggle with the best way to teach a child the difference between want and
need. By doing so, however, we can actually impart valuable lessons to our children
about money–how to use it, save it, spend it, earn it and even how to share it.
Many child experts believe that children as young as three years old can grasp the key
concepts surrounding money. Long before they know math or anything about
economics, little kids have an understanding of value, sharing and exchanging and just a
few simple lessons can reinforce what they may already know:
- The next time you and your child are outdoors, ask him to look at the
trees around him and to see if he can find one that has money growing on
it. This silliness is a good way to introduce to your child the age-old
adage that money does not grow on trees. Since young children are
concrete learners, looking for trees that have money growing on them is a
good way to teach them that neither their supply of money or yours is
- Still outdoors, have him think about the clothes he has on. If it’s cold
outside, ask what he is wearing that is helping to keep him warm. If it’s
warm out, ask why he has to have clothes on.
- If it’s getting near lunch time, have him imagine what it would feel like not
to be able to go home and have something to eat.
A simple conversation about these three scenarios can go a long way in helping a young
child learn the difference between wanting something and needing something. (Humans
certainly need to breathe air, but that concept may be a little trickier to discuss with very
young children.) Once children learn the fundamental difference between wanting and
needing, dealing with the necessity of the latest Lego kit may get a little easier. It’s
tempting, when you find yourself in that situation when your child “neeeeds” something
to dismiss his exhortation by saying, “You don’t need a new toy,” but avoid missing an
opportunity for a teaching moment. If your child has learned his lessons about money
and trees, why we wear clothes and need to eat, you can actually ask him which of
those basic needs does the new Lego set meet. That conversation may stump him and
even frustrate him at first, but if he absorbs that vital lesson, he is on his way to also
learning the reward of waiting. By learning that lesson, as an adult he is likely to avoid
the pitfall of impulse buying, the source too often of financial distress.
The rewards of parenting are plentiful, but one of the more overlooked ones may be a particularly valuable one: sometimes, in teaching our children valuable life lessons, like how to manage our money, we reinforce lessons we ourselves may have forgotten.