Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Teaching kids about scarcity

[This is a guest post from my wife, Ellen. Check out her posts on our family blog.]

I was listening to Midday Connection, and they were talking with William C. Wood, author of Getting a Grip on Your Money. The section I heard was on teaching kids about money. One of the things William mentioned was the importance of teaching kids the concept of scarcity, the idea that we can't always go out and get whatever we want. It struck me that this can be a hard concept to teach. I know that our family struggles with this.

I grew up in a family where we were frequently told, "We can't afford it." A trip to the ice cream store was a treat because we knew that we could not afford to go out and buy ice cream any time we wanted. Birthday cards from my extended family would contain one or two dollars. Now our kids get twenty dollars (or more!) in their birthday cards, and although trips to get ice cream are still special it's more because we don't want to spend $3 each for a cone than because we can't afford it.

I can tell that our five-year-old does not understand scarcity well. If he asks for something and we tell him that we do not have any he responds, "That's okay. We can go to the store and buy it." He has recently added, "You use your money, Mommy." The other day he tried to talk us into giving him $20 a week for his allowance (which is better than the 1 million dollars he originally proposed).

When our son asks for something at the store we will often say, "Okay, but you will have to use your own money." We hope this will help him begin to understand that you cannot always buy whatever you want and help him make wise choices. He is pretty savvy with his spending and won't buy something if he thinks it is too expensive or if he is saving up for something else.

The problem is when we want something we are often all to quick to run out to the store and buy it. Don't get me wrong, we are a fairly frugal family and are careful not to buy what we cannot afford. But we can afford more than we need and end up spending a lot of time at Target and Dominick's. We may know that we are not buying everything we want, but I imagine that this is not as obvious to our sons.

I recently tried to talk to Josiah about where money comes from (we have to earn it by working, etc.) and how a lot of people don't have enough money to go to the store and buy everything they need. I talked about some of the ways our family helps other people and he said, "We should share our money with other people." I thought, "This is great!" So I offered to show Josiah some places where he can give some of his money to help other people. He said, "I don't want to give them my money. Then I will not have money to buy my own things."

I guess we still have some work to do. Does anyone have suggestions for teaching kids about scarcity? How do we encourage them to help other people for whom scarcity is their day-to-day reality and not just a concept to learn?


Kevin said...

Recovering Sexuality and Marriage from a Fallen Economy (I think that's the title) by Carrie Miles suggests that the detriment to sexuality (and I could expand her thesis to include all facets of humanity) comes from the idea that we live in the unredeemed world with an economics of scarcity. This makes us compete and horde and all the "responsible" things. But as Christians we believe that we live in a redeemed economy of abundance like that of the garden. This does not mean buy more useless things, which is part of the fallen economy of scarcity (buy, buy, buy in case we won't have it tomorrow), but rather it means that more can be accomplished with our money if we set our sights on Kingdom living.

It is a pretty good book and has allowed me to be free to be more "irresponsible" but not foolish with my money. I feel more free to invest capital in non-profit returning ventures that benefit others.

Rob Brink said...

First off, congrats on his amazing response. It shows that he really is beginning to click on an understanding of budgeting. I see soooo many kids that have no clue about this. The way you are using an allowance as a teaching opportunity seems to be paying off.
Delayed gratification is a HUGE developmental milestone.

I have an issue with scarcity on economic and theological grounds. Economically, I believe that we can create wealth, and we create it through mutually beneficial exchange. When we consume all our income ourselves, we have nothing left to exchange, and so everyone loses. When we focus on scarcity, we hoard more and exchange less, which is a lose/lose situation too.

Theologically, I believe we serve a God of loving abundance. When we remember that, it frees us from fear and motivates us to reach out. We realize that we can give without starving, and we understand that those people over there are our family too.

Perhaps working together to purchase something through the heifer project would help him to connect this. Then it's not dropping money in a nameless pot; it's giving something real, that will make a real difference, to a real family.

Lastly and most obviously, your actions will always speak louder than your words. Make sure he sees you giving. (I'm sure you already do this, but it wouldn't be a complete post without mentioning it)

Al Hsu said...

It's true that God is a God of abundance, but it's also true that we live in a world of limited resources, both in terms of environmental stewardship as well as personal finance. Sure, we can encourage our kids to create wealth, but we also need to teach them that the money in their wallets and in mom and dad's bank accounts is not limitless.

In terms of suburban discipleship, we live in a culture of (seeming) abundance and affluence, where everything is available 24/7 and there is no notion of scarcity. If we need something, we go to the store to get it. After all, stuff is always there. (Contrast this with the experience in the majority world, or Cold War-era Soviet Union where stores were empty and people were necessarily far more frugal.) The absence of scarcity feeds our consumer culture. To reinstitute the concept of scarcity, as a form of self-imposed spiritual discipline, can be radically countercultural in a suburban context.

Of course, we'd all agree that we need to balance stewardship and generosity. Two sides of the same coin, so to speak. So perhaps we can paradoxically affirm an economy of scarcity and abundance simultaneously.

Anonymous said...

Check out the work of Nathan Dungan at www.sharesavespend.com. Nathan has done wonderful work in the area of helping parents raise children who are fiancially wise and generous through his Share Save Spend methodology. He is the author of Prodigal Sons and Material Girls - How Not to Be Your Child's ATM.

Ellen said...

Al's comment reflects a lot of what I was thinking. Maybe "scarcity" isn't the best word, but I don't want our kids to take for granted the fact that we have enough food to eat and a comfortable place to sleep. I don't want them to assume that everyone has the ability to go out and buy whatever they need.

I want them to be compassionately aware of and generous with people who are poor and marginalized. I want them to grow into financially responsible adults so that they can afford to be generous with others.

I also want them to understand God's abundance as much more than just material things.

The Aesthetic Elevator said...

Great post. I don't have kids yet so can't exactly empathize, but easily sympathize.

Made me think also of a series on my own blog I recently began about Entitlement in American culture. I haven't mentioned kids in the series yet — other than a brief reference to a book I'm reading titled BRANDED, THE BUYING AND SELLING OF TEENAGES — but it still seems applicable to this post.

You can read my entries here: http://theaestheticelevator.com/tag/entitlement/

Mark Goodyear said...

Al and Ellen, I love this post! I started to respond here and it got out of control, so I'm organizing my thoughts for a post over at my blog.