Rubina Ahmed-Haq: Parenting by the Numbers


Do Imaginary Santa Stories Set Our Kids up for Financial Failure?

Should you Stop telling them Santa Claus is real?

Santa and kids financial literacy

It just happened again. A parent lied to their child in front of me and then looked my way with pierced eyes to back up their story. No way lady!  I’m raising my kids on the truth.

This time it was the doctor’s office and the story was about a troll who eats the gold coins at the parking gate. It was all a way to convince her child not to ask for the token or “gold coin” that the doctor’s office graciously provides so patients can park for free.

Her son is four (I know because she told me) and if I was her, I would have used this as a teaching opportunity. Something like, “if we lose this coin we won’t be able to get out of the parking lot and we’ll have to pay money to have the gate opened.”  

But instead of giving her this unsolicited advice, I nodded. That’s my passive aggressive way of not participating.

It’s not just some gold coin-eating troll that gets me angry; it is fibs about the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and especially Santa Claus. Fictional characters who take your money or leave you money and gifts. Fibs we peddle to our kids thinking it will give them childhood memories.

We think we are doing no harm. But in my opinion we are setting them up for financial failure.

In 2014 scientists at MIT tackled the subtle issue of whether children could tell if adults were lying. What they concluded is that children can tell when we lie to them. It also showed those kids find it hard to trust those adults later in life.  

Hyowon Gweon is the MIT post doc and lead author of a paper. He says, “When someone provides us information, we not only learn about what is being taught; we also learn something about that person. If the information is accurate and complete, then you might also trust that person in the future,” Gweon adds. “But if this person has taught you something wrong, has made a mistake, or has omitted something that’s important for you to know, then you might want to suspend your trust, be skeptical of the information he provides in the future, and even seek other sources of information.”

You can imagine how the lies we tell our kids about fictional characters would make it hard for parents to teach older kids about money.  

Now parents might say that when kids realize, for example, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy aren’t real, that they will quickly understand why you told that lie. But the problem is you have left years of positive learning behind you.

All the times you could have taught them about money, you lied about it instead. Maybe because you thought it was too complicated for them to understand, or maybe you can’t be bothered to explain it.

Both are excuses. Children as young at three can easily be taught simple concepts of money. How much things cost and why we can’t buy everything that we want.

When talking to them about Santa, tell them it’s a fantasy character to represent the holidays. Like Halloween, it’s a real man dressed up in a costume, to celebrate a wonderful time of year when we give gifts to each other and spend time with the ones we love.

The token troll was not a story I had to deal with for too long, as my daughter immediately understood it wasn’t true. But in another example a parent told  a lie that took me weeks to undo.

It happened at the Royal Winter Fair this year.

A nice dad and his son were sharing the picnic bench with us at lunch time in the food court. We started talking about what we liked about the fair. He was pleasant. Right before he got up to leave, he turns to me and asked, "Do you want a parenting tip?" I thought, okay; where is this going?

He answered, "If your kids have too much candy leftover from Halloween, tell them the ‘switch witch’ can take it."

He went on to explain he and his wife made up this imaginary figure (like we didn’t have enough) in order to take away his candy without a struggle. In the "switch," his son gets a toy.

I think this is the worst way to teach your kids about sacrifice. I also spent the better part of two weeks explaining to my daughter that the “switch witch” was not real.

Get your kids involved with making decisions about money. Asking them what gift they want to buy their friends, getting them to check the price or when they loose a tooth, give them money from you as a way to celebrate the occasion. Get them to save that money for a bigger purchase.

If we want kids to learn how money works, we have to stop telling them about imaginary beings that bring them money and toys, and start telling them the truth.

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