Children and Hard Times

Economic news remains dire these days, and unemployment continues to affect many families. But, since the end of the Second World War in the mid-twentieth century, money and economic conditions are an aspect of life that adults have usually stopped sharing with children.
These are hard things to explain at any age; we all struggle with tough questions about the difficulties of life and society. Current economic conditions have brought this closer to home for all of us. Having to explain them to our children is a challenge that gives us a chance to think about these issues and what we feel for ourselves.
There doesn’t seem to be much out there about the impact of job instability and economic uncertainty on children. We do know that uncertainty and change ordinarily make children worry. When times are very tough, children may sense the trouble, but adults, wishing to shield them and preoccupied with their own worries, may not think to talk about these matters.
We don’t think the solution is to avoid teaching children about reality. Shielding them just makes things worse. Rather we suggest that parents find ways to tell children about the world while reassuring them about their love, care, and protection. This is an opportunity to teach more about a number of things that will help as children take their place in the wider world.
How adults provide for children is a very good example of cause and effect, a basic principle that children have to master in many contexts. Here, for instance, you can explain about why grownups work. “Moms and Dads go to work to earn money, so that we can pay for the electricity that gives us light, and buy food at the market so we can have your favorite nachos, and have a place to live, and clothes and shoes.” It is important for children to know that the things they need don’t just appear – their parents provide them with money they work hard to earn. “Children go to school to learn things they will use for working later.” This gives them an idea of how they can be effective when they grow up, a good ideal to strive for.
It’s important to say that “Sometimes, no matter how much a parent may want to work, jobs are lost, or may be hard to find.” This is an opportunity to explain about saving money, why parents make choices so that they will be able to have savings. This is a chance to foster the growth of emotional muscle around the idea that choosing means getting something, and also giving something up. When do we think it’s worth having something right now and when is it worth giving up the immediate pleasure for the sake of something later? These are the ideas behind learning the practical realities of how money works, how we save up for something desired, how we tolerate waiting.
The preschool years are not too early to begin learning about these things. You can use bills and coins (coins work well because there are lots of them) to show your child how much it costs to have supper at a restaurant and how much it would cost to eat at home. Count out the difference. Maybe even put those coins in a glass jar and suggest that “every time we eat at home instead of going out we can save up that many dimes.”
Working as a family to understand these ideas allows parents to talk more about how they look for solutions to these challenges. “We keep trying to figure out ways to make ends meet.” Parents can describe how they are looking for another job or going back to school to learn new skills, so that there is some hope to offer children.
The idea of savings offers hope, but thoughtful children may realize that savings are finite. Then parents can explain with practical examples how they will manage, for instance, “I can work on my old car to help it go for another year, instead of buying a new one; I can get out my woodworking tools and make toys.”
In our book EMOTIONAL MUSCLE: STRONG PARENTS, STRONG CHILDREN we describe a group of parents who supported each other through a terrible economic recession. They said to their children, “Don’t forget - when people in our town need something, everyone helps. If we ever needed food, there would be friends and neighbors who would make sure we had enough. We will make sure that you always have what you need.”

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