FAMILY FINANCE

By Ma. Salve Duplito

Should You Tell Your Child You’re Broke?

Money problems have a way of keeping us parents awake at night, bathing dinner conversations with tension even when we try to be cheerful, or worse, turning us into super serious mommies and daddies who have momentarily forgotten how to simply have fun.

Sure, 2008’s holidays were probably still warm and fuzzy with the financial crisis feeling like a distant relative in the United States losing his job. But I bet that with the festivities over, the overspending is causing big reality bites.

Unless you live under a rock, you know that 2009 will be tough. The economic nausea that has rocked Wall Street has turned into a major, global vertigo. Everybody’s getting dizzy. It would be foolish to think that Filipinos can escape the ramifications of Wall Street’s excesses. At one level or another, we’ll all have to deal with yet another economic downturn.

Should we shield our children from all these worries? Or are we allowed to dump on them our troubles? In my view, there’s a fine line that separates being open and frank, and treating them as our therapists. Stay balanced. Children know a lot more than we think they know. They can understand and they can make adjustments, and most likely amaze us with their deep insights along the way.

Adult worries can get blown up into giant, unknown monsters in the mind of a child. I remember taking out a couple of pre-teenagers I know at church one day for an early, fast food dinner. One girl had been having a really tough time because her father had disappeared, leaving her unemployed mother to take care of four children, all under 18 years of age.

They had been living in relative affluence all their lives, and I’ve watched from the sidelines as the family tried to cope with the fears, the insecurities, the loneliness and the uncertainty of not knowing where to find money for the next meal. I know how it felt; I’ve been there when I was young and my father left my mom and five young girls.

“Where would you like to eat?” I asked the group of five kids with a light voice. “Pancake House sounds good to me,” I said.

“Tita, why not try KFC? It’s not too expensive and then we can eat more,” she says in a little, shy voice. I had a little lump in my throat at that.

I let them decide so they felt empowered, and we ended up eating in KFC, so they could eat to their heart’s content.

There wasn’t a lot of open talk in this little family. Burdened by her own personal monsters, the mother could barely keep her head above the din created by her inner demons. Her mood fluctuates wildly from hope to suicide. Her children, who are still grappling with the change in lifestyle and complain when they can’t buy materials for their projects, for example, could hear her sometimes threatening to leave them.

My heart often went out to the mother when I visit and talk to her. Her situation taught me several things: it’s that children need to know with clarity what is happening, and yet they need to know there is hope that everything will turn out all right. It’s that we need to be frank and honest, using words that they can understand (no hedge funds and credit default swaps, please) but never talk down to them. Children can often think of solutions that are more creative than adults, unfettered as they are by traditions and rules that make us parents think in a box.

A child’s mind is amazing. They don’t need to be shielded from a financial crisis. They need to be included in the family team. Only then can we expect them to play their best to reach the goal—the financial goals that we seek for them.

There’s a fine line that separates being open and frank, and treating them as our therapists. Stay balanced.

Ma. Salve Duplito is a financial journalist writing about personal finance for more than 10 years. She is editor of INQUIRER.net and writes a blog called MoneySmarts (blogs.inquirer.net/moneysmarts), one of the most-read blog in the INQUIRER.net network. She is also co-editor of the best-selling books Pwede Na: The Pinoy Guide to Personal Finance and Pwede Na2: The Pinoy Guide to Estate and Retirement Planning. More importantly, she is a mother of three, has been married for more than 10 years, and has been through a lot of the struggles in family finance. E-mail her at lightdream@gmail.com.

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