Do You Parent with Your Wallet? (Or Know Someone Who Does?)

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Do You Parent with Your Wallet? (Or Know Someone Who Does?)

What kid doesn’t love it when Mom or Dad spends money on them? When you can afford it, buying things for your children is fun. But there’s a point where we buy things for our kids for the wrong reasons: to win their allegiance or simply to get them to stop screaming. Where is the line between generosity and parenting with your wallet, and what’s the danger of crossing that line? What’s the best approach to take when your ex-spouse spends on the kids instead of parenting them? James Lehman explains.

"There’s nothing more destructive than kids getting a false sense of entitlement."

One of the ineffective roles parents fall into is what I call “Deep Pockets.” In the deep pockets style of parenting, parents buy things that their children demand in order to promote appropriate functioning in their children. There’s a difference between buying things to reward your child’s appropriate functioning and buying things in an attempt to get your child to function appropriately. When you buy your daughter a new hoodie because you asked her to do the dishes this week and she did it, that’s a reward. When you buy your daughter a new hoodie because she’s talking ugly to you and her siblings and you want her to stop or you’re afraid of her outburst if you say no, that’s deep pockets parenting.

How much is too much? When your child feels “entitled.”

When you spend money on your child based on his performance, what you’re teaching is “I love you, I want to share with you, and you’re worthwhile.” The child learns that appropriate functioning earns him good things. But when you buy things for your child to avoid his wrath or as a bribe for appropriate functioning, the child learns, “I don’t have to earn anything. It’s easy to get things. I’m more powerful than my parents are. There’s a reward for manipulating my parents, and I’m entitled to all the good things.” There’s nothing more destructive than kids getting a false sense of entitlement. It’s one of the big problems with kids and teenagers today, and it really affects their work ethic. When you talk to kids, they think they’re going to be rappers, athletes and superstars. But when you ask them what they’re doing to prepare for that now or how they’re going to get there, they have no idea.

A child is entitled to be treated lovingly and respectfully by his parents and have his needs met—food, shelter and the things the family can afford. He’s not entitled to a $150 pair of sneakers, especially when his little sister has to wear a $12 pair. Parents unknowingly promote this false sense of entitlement in pre-adolescence. Then in adolescence and the later teen years, when the kid is demanding things, they don’t know how to make it stop. I’ve worked with parents who can’t imagine taking the kid’s car away when the kid is verbally abusing them and doing bad things to his siblings. The parents have the idea that he’s entitled to the car, the kid has the same idea, and if they take away the car, who knows what’s going to happen? They live in fear of the kid’s sense of entitlement. They have backed themselves into a tough corner.

The Dos and Don’ts of Spending on Kids

There’s nothing wrong with giving kids things you can afford. They don’t get spoiled by that. They get spoiled by not having to meet their responsibilities. If a kid is meeting his responsibilities, if he’s respectful at home, and you’ve got some money, buy him the video game. If it fits in with your lifestyle, family and budget, don’t worry about over-rewarding appropriate performance. But it should be based on the child’s performance and it has to be consistent with your honest lifestyle. You have to live within your value structure when it comes to spending on your kids. For example, if your family has rules about no violence in the home, then don’t reward with violent video games.

Don’t get into debt to get your kids things they want. If you’re uncomfortable with the price, share that with the child. “We can’t afford it” is a fair thing to say. There’s no shame in this. It’s a way to teach your child that we all have to live within our means. My son used to ask us why my wife and I both had to work, because he had to go to an after school program for a couple of hours. We would be honest with him and say that we had to work to afford our lifestyle. If he wanted the things that he wanted, we both had to work. If we couldn’t afford something, we told him flat out, “We can’t afford it.”

Don’t use money or material goodies as a shortcut for doing the work of parenting. If you’re buying your kid things in order to get peace in the home, it’s not real peace. You can get out of this ineffective “deep pockets” role by having a discussion with your child. I’ll show you what that discussion looks like below.

If you have an ex-spouse who uses deep pockets…

Many divorced families have a dynamic where one parent (often the parent who does not have primary custody) overspends, out of guilt, to use bribery to get allegiance, or simply because they lack effective parenting skills. Separated or divorced parents should not “confront” one another because there’s too much unfinished business in these relationships to take on a confrontation. But they should discuss with the other parent how much is being spent and on what. If you’re the parent with less financial security, remember two things. 1.) It’s okay to explain to the child that you have less money than the other parent. It’s this simple: “I have less money than daddy because my money has to go further.” 2.) It’s not okay to say Daddy’s cheap or Daddy’s bad. Don’t get into that. If you do, then you force your child to defend his father. If the child doesn’t defend him verbally, he’s going to do it internally. So you don’t want to label daddy. You just want to say, “I don’t have the money.” Is it ok to say, “Daddy didn’t send the check?” Yes. Is it okay to make judgments around daddy because he didn’t send the check? No. Provide the information, not the characterization.

In a separation or divorce situation, when one parent asks the other to reduce their spending on the kids, the spending parent hears, “You’re trying to take my power away from me.” Power is a big issue in separated and divorced parenting. But if Daddy is buying the child too many toys, one thing a parent can do is make it clear that those toys stay at Daddy’s. There will be some anger about that from both the Daddy and the child. But you have to establish that it’s a rule in your home. Just like you have different rules about bedtime. You go to bed at 10 o’clock at Daddy’s. You go to bed a 9 o’clock here. You can play with those toys at Daddy’s. You can’t play with them here. If the child argues with you and asks why he can’t have the toys here that he has at Daddy’s, talk to him when he’s calm, and explain that they have to stay at Daddy’s because he bought them for you. Mommy and Daddy are not together anymore. It gets harder as the child gets older and the money gets spent in larger sums. But, no matter what, don’t make angry comments about your ex to your child.

If you have a spouse who uses deep pockets…

Again, don’t confront. In this case, you have to sit down with your spouse and get on the same page. Maybe one parent has to increase their level of rewards and their delivery system for it. Maybe the other parent needs to leave the wallet in his pocket or her purse and work on setting a limit with the child instead of buying appropriate behavior. Identify where the spending is going overboard and discuss it together, not in front of the kids. If you’re going into debt because one parent’s pockets are too deep, and the parent won’t look at this, it’s a marital communication problem, not a parent child problem. Don’t argue it out with the child or play out your issue with your spouse through your child.

If you are parenting with your wallet and you want to stop…

When things are going well, sit down with the child and have a little talk. Keep a nice smile on your face so the child doesn’t get defensive. Say, “I’ve decided to make a change. I think sometimes we go to the mall too much, and we’re spending too much money. So from now on, I’m going to do the work I need to do here at the house and I’m going to ask you to help me with some things. And when the work gets done, we’ll treat ourselves. And it won’t always be going to the mall or buying things. And we’re going to start this today. Do you have any questions?”

If the child starts fighting or yelling, then walk away and leave the room. Continue to talk to the child about this only when he’s calm.

Spending money on a child may feel like the quickest way to win compliance, allegiance or peace, but it’s a temporary solution that can cause the permanent problem of false entitlement. If you’re a deep pockets parent, you can change to a more effective role. Think before you spend. Will your child learn and gain more if you spend your time rather than your money with him? The answer is yes.

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About James Lehman, MSW

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

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