The Right Way to Tell Your Kid She Can’t Have Something

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The Right Way to Tell Your Kid She Can't Have SomethingWhat’s a mom to say when her kid comes back from the first day of school asking for another American Girl doll, or horseback riding lessons, or just a better backpack than the one you lovingly picked out together the week before?

We can all recite what our parents said as if it were the response to a High Mass:

“Life isn’t fair.”
“I’m not Cecilia’s parents.”
“If Owen jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you want to do that, too?” (That last one might just be me … my mom’s pretty creative.)

These phrases did nothing but infuriate me as a kid. Whenever possible, I want to use these moments to actually teach something, but how can I do that without espousing the same old lame, boring go-to?

I decided to ask Alisa Weinstein, author of “Earn It, Learn It: Teach Your Child the Value of Money, Work, and Time Well Spent,” whose entire raison d’etre is helping us raise money-wise kids.

“Before I say one more word, I want to remind you that I’ve been working on this with my kids since my daughter was 4 and my son was 1,” she said, by way of a caveat.


In other words, don’t let this article be one more sledgehammer to the face of your parental self-esteem if the advice doesn’t seem to work right away. Parenting is as much of a process as growing up, and you don’t have to get it right the first time.

Noted. Now: What do we do? What follows is Weinstein’s four-step process for putting the whole “that’s not fair!” conversation behind us.

1. Stop Saying You’re Sorry

“The first thing is to stop apologizing to our kids,” Weinstein says. “We feel so guilty when we can’t provide something for our children. But our budget is what it is. It’s not good, it’s not bad. It just is.”

Even when it’s true that we feel awful about not being able to do as much as other parents, letting kids in on our self-flagellation sends the message that they’re entitled to everything they want, and we’re the meanies or failures for not giving it to them. That’s not true, and it’s not helpful, so as much as possible, take emotion out of the equation.

2. Show Some Understanding

Second, she says, is to acknowledge the desire. Some parents act like wanting things is a character flaw; others feel like the urge to spoil our kids is equally sinful.

“You can say, ‘You’re right. It’s not fair.’ You can say, ‘Man, I want that, too!’ You can even say, ‘It really stinks when we can’t have all the things we want,’” says Weinstein. Taking a page from “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk,” Weinstein takes pains not to squelch her kids’ feelings, but to acknowledge and respect them, and then brainstorm alternatives.

3. Teach the Lesson

Having taken the shame out of wanting things, Weinstein talks with her kids about the difference between envy (a feeling of discontent or covetousness with regard to another’s advantages, success, possessions,etc.), and jealousy (feeling resentment because of another’s success, advantage, etc.).

The first is benign, but the second is more harmful, she explains.

As a side note, yes, I know ridding ourselves of jealously completely is something even adults struggle with (at least not without a glass of Chardonnay, first). But at the very least, we can encourage our kids to try as hard as we do. (We talked more about how to fight money comparisonitis here.)

One way to make this easier is to ask: “How does it impact you if Jack has a new XBox?”

“It has no bearing on his life,” Weinstein says. “If he has what he needs, it doesn’t matter. If you have inner fulfillment, that’s what counts. And that’s what we want to model for our kids, and have them practice and adopt.”

4. Know When It’s Time to Make a Change

The good news is that if your kid is asking these questions and starting to understand the concept of budgeting and choosing, that’s a sign that you can start giving her some control over her money. “If she wants those jeans that her friends have, give her the money,” said Weinstein. “Tell her, ‘You can get ten pieces at Target, or one piece at Gap.’”

Make a list and help her prioritize the top necessities. Then (and this is the hard part), sit on your hands and allow her to succeed, or fail, with her spending choices, just like you sat on them when she was climbing the jungle gym.

At the end of the day, it’s most important to get the point across–your kid can’t have everything she asks for, and especially not when the reason is that her BFF Cassandra has one. What are kids like when they get everything they want? Unbearable. You literally can’t say “yes” to everything, or you’ll be broke and they’ll be spoiled. (We have more ways to tell if your kid is spoiled, and how to handle that, here.)