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How to Talk to Kids about the Recession

Grandma, on seeing the Big Bad Wolf, runs to the closet and hides. Surely that’s not right, I thought — the Big Bad Wolf eats Grandma! But of course, some caring editor had made a little revision. It reminded me that we shield our children from so much in the 21st century.

   Yet we can’t shield them from everything. More and more families this year have to explain to their children that the Big Bad Wolf of recession is at the door — that money is tight and perhaps that Mom or Dad has lost a job. If you, like just about everyone right now, are in this position, how do you talk to your kids about it? How much do you tell them and how do you avoid terrifying them?

   Most Americans would prefer to avoid the topic altogether. In a recent Marist poll, 68 percent of parents said they think it adds to family stress to talk to children about their difficulties making ends meet. The figure was even higher among younger parents. In all, less than a third of parents (27 percent) thought talking to their children reduces family stress.

   According to experts, though, it’s those 27 percent who are on the right track. Denise Daniels is a child development authority and co-founder of the National Childhood Grief Institute, who has partnered with Scholastic to create a new online resource for parents and children coping with financial stress. She says, “Talking about the recession is a teachable moment of epic proportions. The single most important tip a parent can remember is ‘What’s mentionable is manageable.’ Kids are intuitive and perceptive. They need and want age-appropriate and accurate information to help them understand the world in which they live and how the recession will impact their lives.”

   Daniels argues that being honest and open with your children allows them to gain a sense of trust and mastery over circumstances they cannot control, and can help them learn coping skills that will be useful well into adulthood. So how do you begin?

   “When you deliberately talk about your feelings,” says Daniels, “your children learn firsthand that verbally expressing your emotions is healthy and natural. If you have lost your job, try to assure them that in time you’ll find another, and that in the meantime you will do your best to take care of them.”

   Daniels recommends holding family meetings to talk about your situation. Discuss lifestyle adjustments that your family may have to make, and plan cost-saving changes.

   “Children like to feel that they're making a contribution,” she says. “As a family, it can be fun to hold a brainstorming session to talk about ways they can help with the family budget. Whatever the contribution, keeping children involved will help them feel effective and empowered during tough economic times.”

   If your children are feeling anxious and in need of extra support, Daniels’s online journal, “What Can I Do?”
(, guides them through various activities for expressing their anxieties and practical tips for overcoming them. The site also offers Spanish language resources for parents and children. With a little help and some good communication, your family can turn financial challenges into a learning opportunity — and send that Big Bad Wolf scampering back to the woods.

KIRSTEN DENKER is a freelance writer and mother of two who lives in Brooklyn.

I Wanna Help!

   If your kids are eager to contribute to the family budget and cost-cutting efforts, hold a family meeting and brainstorm ideas. Some suggestions:

• Pack a lunch at home instead of buying it at school.

• Instead of buying new books or renting DVDs, visit the local public library and borrow new titles.

• Assign a child to be responsible for making sure the lights are turned off when not in use.

• Collect coupons for groceries.

• Have fun making homemade gifts and giving them as birthday presents, etc.

• Trading with friends can be as much fun as getting new toys, books, and videogames.

— K.D.

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