Children are ever-changing beings, but when it comes to money and materialism, too many parents think that their older offspring are not malleable at all.
So a few years back, a couple of parents who happen to be two of the nation's leading experts on these topics got curious about whether an intervention that focused on money and materialism might turn children ages 10 to 17 around. They devised a sort of financial de-lousing process and set up an experiment to see if it would work.
One protagonist in this story is Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College and the author of The High Price of Materialism. His work over the years has helped cement, via social science, the gut feelings many of us have about the negative effects of covetousness on our psychological well-being.
The other main character is Nathan Dungan, who runs a financial consulting and education firm called Share Save Spend for families and others who want to get smarter about money conversations. I've met them both over the years and model some of my own parenting after the way they raise their own children.
Along with a handful of colleagues, the pair found a group of 71 families in which the children scored high (that is, badly) on a series of materialism tests. Half of them got no treatment at all, so they served as a randomly assigned control group. Mr. Dungan put the rest of the children through a series of drills, over several sessions, that included allowance tracking, a focus on giving, and ongoing family conversations about the connection between money and values.
The intervention worked. By the end of the eight-week process, the children who passed through the program saw their materialism scores decrease and also saw marked increases in self esteem. Moreover, the effects were lasting; eight months later, the changes were sticking. Instagram envy and the like had not marred their psyches permanently.
Key to the findings, however, was the fact that out in the real world, parents would have to lead the process themselves, since Mr. Dungan could not come and sit at the head of their dinner tables. Six steps appear to be essential for any parent who wants to try to replicate the process at home.
The first one is foundational: A regular allowance and a place to put it. The amount of the allowance doesn't matter so much, as it will depend on what expenses you're asking a child to pay for. As to where to put it, a few jars are fine, or you can use apps to track it electronically. What's critical is dividing the money into three categories: spending, saving and giving. This, after all, is how most grownups begin to sort their financial lives, so it makes sense to set kids up this way.
Family conversations about money are the next step. If you're tempted to tell children that financial matters are none of their business, please don't. It's not true, as your income and expenses impact them. Plus, talking about how you make these decisions will teach them plenty about tradeoffs. Use discussion cards like the ones I've written about before if that helps or bring things up casually when you see an opening, but make these talks regular family events.
The third step follows directly from the second and it's to draw a clear line between wants and needs. Quite often this is a continuum or will depend on the category, as your family may live in a modest home but spend a lot on vacations and other experiences. Explain why. The process is healthy for adults too, particularly couples who bicker about spending and have not stopped to define precisely the things that are most important to them.
Step four is keeping score, not just of what your children spend but what drives them to spend, save or give and how they feel about it afterward. Mr. Dungan and Dr. Kasser are both involved with the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, so they come with their own strong feelings about how marketers get inside children's heads. Dr. Kasser and his sons sometimes watch television commercials just to spontaneously provide their own mocking scripts and commentary in real time.
Step five involves seeking out a money mentor of sorts. Are there people in your family's orbit who have done a great job of keeping their emotions in check when it comes to their financial affairs? They don't have to be rich. In fact, people with modest incomes may have more to teach about how to figure out what sort of spending and giving is most fulfilling.
Finally, figure out a way to keep the money conversations alive in the years to come. This need not feel forced. It can be as simple as reminding yourself to narrate your own tricky financial decisions to your children when the opportunity arises.
Or, check in with them about the bigger purchases they've made. How did they feel about them afterward? And, perhaps most important, what will they do differently the next time?