How to Talk to Your Kids About the Economy

From Wall Street to Main Street, what's the best way to talk to kids about financial news?




Should you bring up the subject of a troubled economy with your kids? And if so, what should you say, and how can you reassure them? For answers and advice, we turned to psychologist and Scholastic author Adele Brodkin.

Is it a good idea to broach the topic of the economy with our kids because it’s in the news?

Adele Brodkin: Broadly speaking, probably not, but a lot depends on the kids’ ages and the family’s economic situation. Of course, parents are encouraged to answer any question a child raises in as simple terms as possible. But there is no point in raising the subject with children under age 9, unless the family has been so clearly affected by the downturn in the economy that one or both parents are under great stress or certain obvious aspects of their lifestyle has had to change

Let’s say the family has been affected by the downturn. What do you say?

Brodkin: My suggestion then is to go low-key on the topic and make it very concrete and specific. “We didn’t make as much money this year as last year, so we won’t be going away for the holidays. Hopefully next year, jobs will be paying people better again.” Do your best to add reassurance such as, “We can have plenty of fun at home . . .” What children this young care about most is the mood in the family. If they sense unusual anxiety, they too can get upset. So parents can help everyone by doing their best not to let the economy get them down.

Are there different ways parents should talk about the economy with younger children compared to older?

Brodkin: With younger children, answer questions as simply and concretely as possible. A lot of what has been going on is very complex, not even clear to the majority of adults, so it is doubtful that children not yet in middle school will grasp it. I don’t think this is the time to teach economic theory or political conflict to young children. Middle and high school–aged children are probably hearing about the current economic woes in school. Start with any questions they might have about what it all means and particularly what it could mean for your family. If certain luxuries have to be given up at this time, explain that almost everyone is feeling the pinch of a troubled economy. The government and private citizens are working on helping things to improve. Above all, try to convey confidence that it will all turn out OK. There are always ups and downs in the economy; historically, what has gone down has recovered, though it may take a little while.

How can a parent explain that he has lost his job or fears that he may?

Brodkin: Again, the age of the children makes a difference in how much can be explained and how easy it is to reassure them. If the parent is very anxious or irritable, young children in particular are inclined to personalize that mood change — blame themselves — so explaining that you have this worry on your mind and that it may be the reason for your distractedness can relieve them. Then be sure to add that you’re going to find another job in time, and that you’ll be OK, even if you’re not so convinced about that yourself. Many children of 11 or older will ask questions about the overall economic situation and how it can affect them. Make your answers direct, simple, and as reassuring as possible.

How do you explain to your child that her family cannot afford something it previously enjoyed? 

Brodkin: Remember to pitch the answer to the age and comprehension level of your child and present it as a simple fact, not a tragedy, making sure you emphasize two things: the temporary nature of this change and the fact that almost all Americans and even people in many other countries are in the same boat. Hard times come and go, as do good times. As long as you are all together and well, it will be fine.

What advice do you have for parents about helping young children who happen to see headlines or TV news stories about the economy?

Brodkin: I don’t think those headlines or news stories are likely to alarm most children, unless their parents are visibly troubled by them. Answer any questions they may ask directly and calmly, in that same spirit of reassurance as I mentioned before.

How about for helping older children?

Brodkin: They may show some purely intellectual interest in the issues once they’re sure they’re safe. You can pursue their questions in the same way you might any other scientific or social scientific question. Go to your usual sources — on the Internet or in books or periodical articles that are informative and at a suitable level of complexity. History can help to show that ups and downs are a fact of economic reality. Personalize it by discussing any important family safeguards, such as savings, insurance, rainy-day funds, or extended family readiness to assist. Be sure you know whether the questions you are answering are about the child’s worries or the principles of economics or both.

Are there any warning signs parents should look for in their children that they may be upset by news about the economy, and what should parents do?

Brodkin: Changes in sleeping, eating, or mood are some possible signs of distress. But don't assume it's about the economy or at least not the economy as we understand that term. A child may be worried about whether you will have time and money to take him to a ball game or her to see the American Girl movie, etc. Your child could just be bummed because her soccer team messed up an easy game. Bottom line, be sure to ask if anything is worrying him or her. But don't probe. You'll be the first to know if it's a lasting concern.

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