You can talk to kids about family wealth without talking about money.
You can talk about money without mentioning numbers.
These principles are the essence of the philosophy I use when coaching parents of young children in financially wealthy families. I use the term “financial wealth” to refer to wealth based on money. There are other aspects of wealth – health, community, family relationships, social support — and it is important to recognize all kinds of wealth in discussions with kids, not only money.
The parents I coach are often terrified of raising kids who are entitled, spoiled, unproductive, even nasty to other people. They are equally fearful that discussion of their family’s wealth will have the effect of eliminating motivation in their kids, who will then sit back and wait for their inheritance and cease to be productive members of society.
This fear is real and is more likely to come to fruition when parents do not integrate the principles above, teaching their kids in small steps from young ages – before they understand much about money. These principles require incremental steps to put family wealth in context in developmentally appropriate ways. The key is to tell the family’s story early and often and then to explain what money is in the context of family values and social impact.
An attorney who knows me and my work coaching wealthy parents regarding raising young children who are motivated and have strong character was recently at an event for very wealthy people and heard a new member introduce himself as follows:
“I’m 35 and I just sold my second business for $600 million dollars. I have a one-year-old and my wife is giving birth next week. I just don’t want to raise kids who are a—holes. It is all I think about.” The attorney introduced this person to me, and I shared and explained the principles above. This helped to calm the anxious dad down and give him a roadmap for raising his kids while having wealth serve the family in healthy and productive ways. I’ll explain each of the two principles further in the next section.
Discussing Wealth Without Talking About Money
The most effective way of discussing wealth with young children without mentioning money essentially comes down to sharing stories about the wealth creators, for example: the relative who had a smart idea; the uncle who worked unbelievably hard doing manual labor until the business gained momentum; the grandmother who risked her own home by using the equity to try and start a business; the great-grandmother who escaped genocide and lost everything before travelling to a new country; or the dad who studied hard and worked two jobs in high school to be able to go to college — and kept both jobs all through college. I can go on and on (and all these examples come from actual families I have worked with). Even before kindergarten, children can internalize values through stories shared with them at their developmental level by parents and other trusted adults. The key is to keep the stories simple with easy-to-understand lessons. Early on, there is no need to connect the stories to the financial wealth created.
- Example: Grandpa did not graduate high school because he had to work to make money for the family. The family did not have much and they needed money for a place to live and for food. He had a few old garden tools and worked long, hard days fixing up yards for people. He saved as much as he could and was always honest with customers. People loved that he always told the truth, charged fair prices and worked very hard for customers and they would tell their friends to hire him. Over many years of hard work, he was able to grow the business so that when he was older, other people did the hard work and he was more of a teacher. He always paid his workers well to show his appreciation for what they were doing for his business.
***Lessons: family cohesiveness, hard work, honesty, appreciation/gratitude
- Example: Grandma and her parents and sister had to run away from Germany when they were young because Jewish people were not treated well. People were very mean to them. They left their bakery with everything in it and ran away. When they came to America, they moved to a town where lots of German people were moving to start a new life, and there was no German bakery there yet. As a family, they took the money they had escaped with and started the first German bakery in this new town. All the Germans who moved there to be safe in America loved the food that reminded them of their favorites back in Germany. It was so popular that they opened five stores and were able to hire many people who also ran away to America. When they did not have room to hire more German friends, they always helped them out with food and even money to help them get by until they could find a job. They were known and appreciated by many people for yummy cookies, cakes and pies and also for helping other people.
***Lessons: resilience, perseverance, helping others less fortunate, cultural identity, entrepreneurial spirit
These are two of many examples I could share based on my work with families who want to put financial wealth in context. When children understand family history based on stories of their relatives’ hardship and success, and the values that sustained them through their struggles, a pride develops which has nothing to do with money. What this proud feeling is, though, is an important foundation for kids to feel part of something meaningful and bigger than themselves and a means for them to internalize the family values demonstrated in the stories.
You can talk about money without mentioning numbers.
Many parents fear talking about money will lead to a focus only on money, material possessions and a sense of entitlement, which will overtake selflessness and productivity. Putting aside numbers and amounts up front often relieves the fear parents have and opens up a more general money-conversation which puts money in context until the time when parents believe their kids are ready to understand the details.
Teaching kids the basics of money and how it fits into life was a lot easier in the days of cash – when paper bills and coins kids could see were handed over for food, clothes, gas and more — as these things were purchased live in brick-and-mortar stores. There were daily opportunities to view money in action and understand it.
Today, a good deal of purchasing is done with electronic payments through online retailers. So more effort is required to help young kids understand the connection between work of some sort (see stories above), money earned and how money is needed to have a place to live, food to eat and everything a family buys, uses and owns. It is important to explain how credit cards and online payment systems connect to money from a business or other form of work, so kids understand the crucial connection between hard work, building financial resources and the opportunities this wealth enables to impact the world (as well as buy stuff).
It is essential that kids learn that money can be saved, spent and shared and that parents provide opportunities for kids to practice these behaviors through allowance and monetary gifts they receive. Philanthropy is also effective in showing how money can be used to reflect family values and make an impact in the world. It is especially powerful when coupled with hands-on volunteering to add more personal effort to making the impact.
A conversation about wants and needs is also a powerful way to lay more of the foundation. Ask children to name things they want and things they need to live. Once again, young children often surprise with wisdom. If they struggle to make the distinction, parents can explain that needs are so important that life is very difficult without them and you might even die if you don’t have them, while wants are nice to have, but you can live without them even if it is disappointing to not have them. Food, clothing and a place to live are needs. A swimming pool, car, fancy clothes and toys are wants.
I was facilitating a family meeting a while back and the 8-year-old in attendance made a significant contribution during the wants versus needs exercise (he almost was not part of the family meeting as the parents felt he was too young. I encouraged them to have him join us and told them that often the youngest family members have great wisdom). The 8-year-old suggested that friendship is a need. All the older family members argued that you can live without friends, you would not die. But this young person stood his ground and made the case that a life without friends is not a good life at all. He had the family in tears — and in agreement – friends, they agreed, are indeed a need.
Even very young kids can understand that there are people who do not have enough money for their needs — food, clothing and a place to live – especially if these folks are encountered on trips to places where homeless people are in plain view. Parents can wonder with young kids what this must be like for them, creating empathy for those with much less. Then the conversation can shift to what life is like for people who have enough money for basic needs — enough for food, clothing and a place to live but not much more. They can wonder together what these families do with just a little money left over after essentials.
Parents can further develop this to the level of what life is like for families who can afford the basic needs and have some money left over for wants – what is a smart way to handle the extra money? Finally, parents can introduce the question of what is life like for people who have the basics covered and a lot left over? Is there such a thing as too much money? Can it be bad to have so much extra? Can it be good?
Parents can help young children think through these questions – again, all without specific numbers. I’ve seen young children thoughtfully consider these ideas and offer that with a lot of extra money, after needs are met, people might get lazy and not feel they need to work. At the same time, they often think about how the money can help people who do not have enough – truly inspiring.
No numbers have been mentioned in the above examples and yet money was talked about in a fruitful way. It is being put in context. Combined with family stories, it is possible for young members of the next generation to develop healthy ideas about money, how it connects to work, and its purpose. As parents see a healthy understanding about money, life and values developing in their young ones, they can move toward being more specific about their family’s status of having much more than necessary for needs. This leads to great conversations about what to do with the rest.
Parents often avoid opening healthy discussions about money until kids have developed their own ideas often through friends and the media they consume. But by then it is too late to easily make an impact. Through compelling family story-telling, weaving conversations about where money comes from and how it can be used into daily life, and simple conversations like “wants and needs,” parents can have potent and positive influence on their children’s internal money scripts as these notions are developing. When done consistently, these steps can lead to a maturity in a child’s understanding of what money is and how to responsibly use it. And parents often come to the conclusion, sooner than later, the numbers are not that big a deal.