For years, your child may have been content with library books and the occasional Lego set. As they mature, however, their tastes in gifts will mostly likely get more expensive. Unfortunately, in a capitalist culture like the United States, children are socialized to equate material goods to status. In middle school, when your child is renegotiating peer relationships, evaluating their desire for popularity, and finding various ways to establish their identity, purchasing material goods becomes especially important.
Generally, parenting experts recommend letting young people find a way to pay for their more extravagant desires, whether by getting a job or saving their allowance. (It should be noted that in many families, parents simply can’t afford what their young people want, and so this becomes the only option by default.) But what happens after your child gets the big ticket item they’ve been craving? Will they cherish it, care for it, and treasure it always?
The answer, sadly, is probably not.
Here are some tips you can use to help your child value and care for their possessions – and to keep you calm when, inevitably, they make (potentially expensive) mistakes.
Teach Your Child the Basics
While many young people say that they want designer clothes or a new car or a fancy bicycle, they probably don’t know yet how to care for these items. Teach your child how to wash clothes by hand, and how to tell if they need to be dry cleaned. Show them how to pump gas, and how to either pay for or do an oil change. Remind them to purchase a bike lock and, for the first few days, remind them to use it. Not only will these lessons prepare your middle schooler for adult life but will also reinforce the value of caring for your purchases.
As children get older, they may start borrowing your things. Make sure that you have a clear idea of your comfort with this, and use this clarity to set explicit and consistent guidelines. Articulate to your child which of your items are off-limits, and which can be used with your permission. Explain the consequences of mistreating or losing anything. If your child fails to follow the rules you set, make sure to take away the privilege until you feel they can handle it.
Model financial decision-making based on your own values
Chances are at some point during your child’s teenage years, you will have to budget for a purchase that you really want. Be transparent about your thought process, and bring your child into the conversation. You might say something like, “I really like that dress, but I’d rather spend the money on concert tickets. I’ve noticed that experiences make me happier than stuff.” Or, “We need a new car, but we’re not there yet financially. While we save, here is what we can afford to do to upgrade this car and make it work.” Or, “Can you believe I’ve had this sweater for 20 years? I spend time taking care of it because I love it, and want it to last.” Showing your child how you make decisions about budgets, as well as how you maintain the items you already have, will model the kind of behavior that will serve them well in the long run.
Implement Appropriate Consequences
Your child will, inevitably, make mistakes. They will shrink their clothes in the dryer, lose their brand name purse, or forget to lock their bike overnight. The temptation here may be to step in and solve the problem for your child, or to get angry and punish them severely. Take a deep breath and a step back, and design consequences that reflect real life. Often, you will probably find that you don’t actually need to do anything except step back and let your child solve the problem. The pain of losing or damaging an item they cared about will be more than enough to teach your child a life lesson, and the process of raising the money to fix or replace the purchase is another opportunity to practice financial literacy. Most importantly, forgive your child: they’re still learning, and your quiet faith in their ability to bounce back will mean the world to them.