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

by James Lehman, MSW
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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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."


I rate the article 3.8/5 . Kids now a days don't have respect for anything or anyone...if they do it is rare. They are a here and now generation and a disposable generation and if they can't have it now they can't imagine having to work for it and waite to get it. If it breaks just throw it away and get a new one. Their minds don't work the same way my generation's did. if it broke you fixed! what was that?! If it broke because of your misuse, oh well, maybe you would take care of it better next time.

Comment By : Judy

Right on straight forward advice

Comment By : Ellyn

Great article. I am dealing with an ex who overindulges my 16-year old daughter. She lives with him and he gives her complete freedom. She just got her learners permit and he bought her a brand new car and a brand new expensive cell phone, etc. etc. I do not engage in the game and never have. This one is his. I have a hostile relationship with him and cannot speak with him about it and even if I could it would do no good. But I do wonder what this will ultimately do to my daughter down the road.

Comment By : Kelly

Thank you for this article. I've been reading articles like this one on this website all morning, and I think my denial is slowly dissapearing.

Comment By : M C W

The comment by Judy says it all. I have found myself spending money out of guilt only to get kids who are dis-respectful and I have paid for it by losing both my teenage daughters to a bad-mouthing ex who tells the kids Daddy just tries to buy your love. Nothing could be farther from the truth but by doing to much I left myself open,

Comment By : Eric in Phoenix

My husband's ex has over-indulged their child from birth, providing her with literally piles of gifts at Christmas, Easter and her birthday. She even rewards a good grade on a test, mid-term grades, and report cards with very expensive items, such as a mini laptop computer, an mp3 player, a blackberry cell phone -- and the child is only 10! Mom has told dad several times that she wants her daughter to have all the things that she never had. Mom is the youngest of three and i think felt a lot of neglect when her parents divorced. Sadly, the child does not want for anything. She has never experienced what it is like to hope and wish and pray for something (a la a "red rider beebee gun" for example). If you ask her what she wants for her birthday, she gives you a blank stare and cannot think of a single thing. I have never seen anything like it. Over the past four years, tho, I have realized what she wants the most, which is for mommy and daddy to be back together, keeping me in the picture as well. She wants us all to live together, including her paternal grandparents in one household. This will obviously not happen, although her grandparents may move in with us in a couple of years. Realizing that we had no desire to enter into a contest as to who could give the child the most, the best expensive toys, what my husband and I have done instead is to give a token gift along with a promise for an adventure, such as horseback riding lessons, an overnight ski trip, a family trip to Florida on a plane. These are things that she will always remember, as opposed to some weird robotic dinasaur toy that she played with only twice. She loves these adventures, and one on one time with her dad, and days out shopping with me. Maybe we are teaching her the value of adventures and time together over material things? The sad thing is that

Comment By : Tia

This article is very good, but it does not say how to handle an ex-spouse who is "buying" my husband's middle son just to get custody of him again. (She had him originally, but he insisted on living with us, so we headed back to court, again, and won custody.) Now he wants to go back to live with his mom because he has more freedom, she bought him a fancy touch screen phone with unlimited text, calls and web access and has promised to buy him a new truck to drive (he's only 15). We don't want to lose custody of this child because we truly believe that we are the best parent to bring this child up properly to become a responsible, contributing adult. But because of his age, we fear that the magistrate will allow him to go with his mother (who, by the way is never home and when she is, she farms him out overnight to one of his friend's home). So, what do you do? Our court system is well known for supporting the mother regardless of whether the environment is right for the child. He is most definitely growing up with a sense of entitlement and not from us. (We do tell the boys we don't have the money and we truly don't as the ex continually insists on taking us back to court for something.)

Comment By : Lost

* Dear ‘Lost’: The situation you are in sounds truly frustrating and exhausting. We are unable to advise you as to how you should manage the behavior of your husband’s ex-spouse. It sounds like you are already doing everything you can. We recommend that you continue to utilize the support of your legal team and other professionals in your area. If you’d like to look into what other kinds of support are available near you (such as advocates, family counselors, support groups, etc,), it might be helpful to visit, an information and referral website operated by the United Way. Take care and hang in there.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

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