Punchinello’s Chronicles

October 16, 2008

Teaching Children Uncertainty

Filed under: View from the Bottom — Punchinello @ 6:37 pm
Tags: , , , ,

We bought a new machine today, and it was almost a spur-of-the-moment event. “Almost” in that we’ve been looking at various machines for a year, doing a lot of research and comparisons. Not only have we compared functionality, but also prices.

Knowing the constant price, when we learned we could save $50, finding out only the last day of an annual sale, we jumped at the opportunity. This machine rarely goes on sale, and then, only once a year. We’d thought we’d get a note from the store, but must have missed it this year.

I got to thinking about how we teach our children to be anxious, uncertain, indecisive, and afraid to commit to anything.

A typical adult situation is where a husband and wife get into arguments over purchases, usually things over a hundred dollars. Purchases don’t have to be big-ticket items, but like a household machine, TV, bed, small furniture item, whatever. One of them buys something without consulting the other, then shows off the purchase.

What the buyer expects is that the other person should be as excited and thrilled, and to join in with the sense of fun and amazement. More often than not, what happens? The husband or wife who didn’t make the purchase says something like:

  • Oh, I coulda got it cheaper. Ya shoulda asked me.
  • Well where the hell are we gonna get the money for this!?
  • Damn! I was thinking we coulda used that money for this other thing.
  • Well, there goes the beer money.
  • Okay, it’s nice, but did you notice this was missing and that doesn’t work?
  • For a coupla bucks more you coulda got this even better thing. If only you’d waited.


Now think about being a kid, growing up, not knowing YET how to do research, calculate cost-benefits, or how to plan into the future. Kids don’t know how to make long-term plans, analyses. They don’t understand money, options, shopping, comparisons, reading reviews. A lot of kids can buy something, and they don’t even know how to read yet; they aren’t old enough.

So your child gets all excited, has a dollar they’ve saved up from an allowance, and makes a spontaneous purchase of something they really really really want, right now! Isn’t the whole point of gving a child an allowances is to teach them how money works?

No, a lot of parents believe the allowance is to teach the “value of money.” In so many instances, “value” means “coulda-shoulda-woulda.” When does the child learn how to have fun in life, enjoy purchasing things, and how to be excited about what money can bring into their lives?

Children don’t need to learn how money works, they’ll get plenty of lessons on that on a daily basis. But what they do need to learn is how to think about a purchase. They need to learn when to research, how long to research, and most importantly, when to make a decision! They need to feel certain that they decided. They need to know they made a good decision. Even if it wasn’t all that good a decision, the time to criticize isn’t when they’re showing off that purchase, when they’re all excited.

All of us need to learn how to trust our decision-making skills. Kids need to be rewarded for making a decision; that’s how they learn certainty. Later, after the excitement has calmed down, the celebration has moved on into enjoying the purchase, that’s when a parent can ask a couple of questions.

Criticizing a purchase, and the thought that went into it, shouldn’t apply to little kids. They’ll learn soon enough about shoddy quality, cheap manufacturing, overblown promises, and fake pictures. Besides, there’s a difference between criticizing and educating. And that education should be in the field of prior research, not in how to spend money.

Children and adults both need to separate out the excitement of getting something new from the analytics of choosing. There’s a difference between choosing and buying, thinking and deciding. When we’re criticized after the fact, the lesson we learn is to be uncertain of our own mind.



  1. I think parents should make the connection between work and earnings. When I was growing up, I was expected to mow the lawn, chop firewood, help clear fallen trees, clean the cars, and other random things. I got an allowance, but the work and effort it took to get it made me think twice about buying stuff.

    Many kids ( I say kids but really this applies all the way up to young adults and even full adults) never learn this connection. We had this woman in our office. She was in her 30’s. Her Dad actually helped her buy a house- no easy feat being that this is San Jose where houses are really expensive. He bought her a car too. She worked for about a year, then decided to go back to school because she wasn’t happy with the work she was doing. Perhaps that makes sense. But at the same time, since she had no financial responsibility, she also lacked the ability to be creative with her life’s choices. I went to college with a lot of kids who wound up getting useless degrees. They did so because the idea of procuring education for professional reasons was beyond them and college was simply something Mom and Dad wanted them to do, not something they felt compelled to complete.

    America is a land of debtors. The average national savings rate was -0.08% last year. Its probably higher this year. No doubt that many people fail to grasp the idea of saving money as a hedge against unforeseen events such as job losses, children, replacing a car, or paying for their child’s college. In this way, we land ourselves into the ever-lasting indebtedness we live in now.

    Comment by bob — October 17, 2008 @ 11:40 am | Reply

  2. We agree. I grew up in a middle class family, and when many of my friends were being given a car or bike, whatever, I had to mostly earn the monoey myself. For large things (in context with being a kid), my parents would either help with a gift subsidy matching my earnings, or they’d act as a bank and offer a loan.

    More importantly, my parents had a sense of what values I should develop myself, versus what would be very hard to get based only on age. They wanted things like a car to be highly important. So they didn’t buy me a car, I had to come up with the money and they’d cosign a loan.

    Even so, there was also this whole concept of the thought and research, plans and process that went into buying something. I hadn’t realized how that’s a fundamental part of learning certainty. In particular, how easy it is to adversely affect this emerging certainty in a toddler.

    Comment by Punchinello — October 17, 2008 @ 1:27 pm | Reply

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