Celebrate Your Child!

Apr 23, 2009

Kids and Money: What to Expect and When

When will your child understand that money is earned – not waiting in infinite supply at the ATM? And when, oh when, will she realize that she doesn't "need" that glittery tiara in the same sense that she needs a warm jacket? We tapped the fiscal and educational experts to give you some idea about what to expect year to year as your child learns about the world of dollars and cents.

Your 2-year-old

Give a 2-year-old a quarter, and she's as likely to drop it down the air vent as to put it in a piggy bank. She doesn't yet understand that the shiny circles in Mommy's purse are worth more than a jelly bean or a big acorn. "Money is a concrete representation of an abstract idea, and 2-year-olds don't have the representational thought to understand that," explains preschool director Megan Hans.

However, your little one can understand the most concrete definition of money – that "money" means dollars and coins – and she can learn that it's something we use at the store. She may enjoy hearing you say the names of the coins and repeating these words herself. And she probably loves sliding play dollars into a toy cash register or pennies into a piggy bank.

Just never let her handle coins unsupervised – they're one of the biggest choking hazards around. That means keeping your purse out of reach, too, until she's old enough to be trusted not to pop spare change into her mouth.

Your 3-year-old

Some 3-year-olds can begin identifying coins by type – if they've had enough exposure, says Jerlean Daniel, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

And as representational thought develops and a child witnesses more cash transactions, she begins to grasp that money has some value. Give your 3-year-old a quarter, and she may understand that she can "buy" a treat – but she may still be bewildered when the cashier doesn't give the quarter back.

Your 4-year-old

Many 4-year-olds can understand the "trade aspect" of money, so they know they won't get a coin back after handing it to a cashier. But give your 4-year-old that quarter, and you may hear her planning to buy a jungle gym with it. Most 4-year-olds can't comprehend the magnitude of price differences. "But they're starting to grasp that a quarter is worth something different than a nickel," says Laura Busque, outreach manager for the Ohio Credit Union League and a former teacher.

Many 4-year-olds can appreciate that money comes from a job and that pay is limited. They can also understand that some people have less money than others and that those with more can help those with less.

Your 5-year-old

At 5, your child will probably begin developing a slightly more realistic idea of money –many parents even start a small allowance around this age.

So if you explain that $10 will buy a set of art supplies, while a quarter will only buy a piece of candy, your child will be more likely to accept this. But it doesn't mean she'll want to save up for those art supplies; she'll probably opt for the candy. Kinder­gartners are still very invested in the present moment.

Still, a piggy bank is a good idea, because 5-year-olds can understand that money belongs in a safe place. In one way, your child's focus on the present can work to her benefit; after the quarter clangs into the piggy bank, she may forget all about it.

Your 6-year-old

The concept of "saving up" will make more sense at this age. But because the future is still a murky concept, shorter-term savings goals will be easier to grasp. So hand your budding money manager that quarter, and she might deposit it in her piggy bank for a couple of days, sweet-talk another quarter from Grandpa, and immediately buy a pack of gum.

During the first-grade school year, many children start learning how to count by fives and tens, so they'll be able to add up nickels and dimes. And at 6, your child will likely get the difference between a "want" and a "need," says elementary school teacher Laura Gerrity.

Your 7-year-old

Your child is starting to appreciate that she has choices when it comes to money. Give her a quarter, and you may see the wheels spinning as she weighs putting it into the piggy bank versus popping it into the nearest gumball machine. She's also bound to realize by now that a quarter isn't much to get excited about!

Budding math skills enable many second graders to add combinations of nickels, dimes, and quarters together.

Your 8-year-old

"By age 7 or 8, children will have a good notion of what the real value of a quarter is. They'll know that it's five fives, or 25 ones," says Daniel. So the gift of a quarter may inspire a jaded eye-roll rather than bouncing glee.

But the good news is that your 8-year-old is getting better at "delayed gratification." She also has a better grasp of the future. So longer-term savings goals are much more feasible at this age. If your child has been exposed to the idea that "every little bit counts," she may piggy bank the quarter with a sense of satisfaction that she's a little closer to buying that scooter.

What to do at home if your child is having behavior problems at school

Don't punish your child.

Children aren't to blame for having bad feelings, says Wipfler. "It's not something they asked for. Your child isn't bad, and you're not bad for having a child with a behavior problem; these things just happen." Punishment for bad behavior will only make your child feel terrible about himself and prolong the difficulty by further shutting down his thinking.

Think about what's going on in your child's life.

Is he dealing with a big, one-time event, like a divorce or a death in the family, or smaller stressors over the long term, like teasing from an older sibling or pressure from a critical parent? Criticism can sap a child's positive feelings about himself; teasing can leave him looking for someone smaller or younger to take it out on. If your whole family is weathering a trauma, your child may be trying to handle strong feelings on his own without adding to your burden. You may never know exactly what's at the root of his difficulty with school, but you don't need to know in order to help him.

Try talking.

Your child may be able to tell you straight out what's bothering him, or you may have to set up certain conditions first. Children talk to adults when they feel safe, loved, and close. You can give your child that sense of contact either by playing with him vigorously and generously, or by listening to him without judgment or interruption.

Your child may also be more willing to open up if you ask him a positive question first.

Someday when you're lying in the grass at the park, or out for a walk, or riding in the car without being in a hurry, ask in a relaxed tone, "If you could make school any way you wanted, what would it be like?" or "If you could make recess perfect, how would you change it?" You'll hear about what's hard at school, but you'll have bypassed the hopeless feelings that can make children reluctant to talk.

Let your child fall apart.

Children keep a lot inside but are always looking for ways to get their feelings out. You can help, says Wipfler, by being ready for "a tantrum, or a rage, or an insistence that something be done in a very particular way or his world will crash: 'You have to put butter on my mashed potatoes — it can't be margarine' or 'I will not turn off the TV.' Children will get very particular about a small thing because they have a little volcano of feelings inside that has nothing to do with what they're getting upset about. But it's the only way they know to address what they feel."

This won't be easy for you as a parent.

You may be every bit as cranky as your child at the moment he picks to fall apart, or you may be under a lot of pressure to get something done. But your child will benefit tremendously if you can go down on one knee, put an arm around him, and listen while he cries as long as he needs to. Your child may say things that are difficult to hear — criticism of you, perhaps, or revelations of difficulties you didn't know he was having. But if he can cry all the way through these feelings, using you as a target, your child will feel heard and understood and will be able to think better in situations that might otherwise throw him. The day after a big emotional release, his behavior in school (and with his friends and with you) will most likely be profoundly better.

Stay close to your child.

You can always help your child have a better day at school if you take time for closeness. Get up a bit earlier to carve out some relaxed time with your child as the day begins; a little bit of snuggling or playful cuddling in the morning can set him up for a better day. He'll go to school feeling more connected to you, and a little sturdier when he encounters a trigger that usually sets him off.

Play with your child.

Set up playtimes with your child so he can get some of the attention he's seeking by misbehaving at school; you may also get a better sense of what's on his mind. In his book Building Healthy Minds, Stanley Greenspan, a child psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington Medical School, advocates "floor time," or play, as a way to discover what's bothering a child. "When a child is misbehaving, pretend play can sometimes help reveal what's on his mind, why he's so angry and provocative."

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