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A psychotherapist once told me that it was easier for adult couples to talk about sex than money. Is it the same for parents and children?

Katarzyna Sekścińska: Undoubtedly, it is very difficult for us to talk about money. It can have two parallel functions – instrumental and symbolic. So it can be an instrument for us, a tool to buy something, or a value in itself, and an indicator of our value. If money is a bit of a taboo and we don't have the words to talk about it, there is a double difficulty. And even triple for a child, because three or four-year-olds do not completely know what money is.

In interviews as part of research at the University of Warsaw, we asked children, e.g. what a bank is. It's “a place where I put money and I can take out as much as I want from it”. Or “a bank is a place where money is printed”. The children were strongly convinced of this because “when you approach an ATM, you can hear the sound of printing”. So since access to money is unlimited for them, they can't understand why we can't buy their dream toy.

Older pre-schoolers begin to understand the function of money, but they do not yet understand the value of products. They think that one coin is enough for one product. The larger the size of the coin, the more it is worth to children. The next stage is when children begin to understand that products have different values, but they think that paying for them all is a ritual invented by adults. It is only at school that children begin to understand that a certain amount must be paid for a specific product.

Especially after their first communion.

It is also the moment when they begin to understand the function of a bank – they already know that you cannot take as much money from it as you want. And also that it is a safe place where you can save money so you don't spend it right away. Teenagers are able to understand all the mechanisms: that the price results from the manufacturer's costs, the margin and how banking works, what the interest rate is etc.

What should parents do?

Talk about money, the household budget, and larger purchases. This is extremely important, because if, for example, you are planning to buy a car, the consequence of this will probably be a temporary tightening of the belt. An undiscussed purchase is a big surprise for a child, even a punishment: because we have a new car, I can't get a new toy, or even: is it my fault that I don't get what I used to get?

Should we consult a pre-schooler before buying a car?

We should not consult them, but present the situation and talk about the consequences. So that they will not be surprised, feel hurt by the situation and, what is important – feel guilty for the sudden reduction in expenses. Talking openly about money and budget constraints shapes an instrumental approach to money. With this approach money is not a taboo, it does not define us or cause excessive emotions, and it is only an instrument that serves specific purposes.

Learning to compare products and their prices is also important from an early age. Even if a six-year-old doesn't read the price, we should make them aware of it. You want this teddy bear, see how much it costs, and look at the other one, it's cheaper, and ask if the more expensive bear is worth more to them than the other one. Make your child compare things.

Often, stores display some products that children notice immediately, not seeing others which have similar properties but are more affordable. It is also worth teaching young people other techniques to refrain from unplanned or unwanted purchases, e.g. thinking about the usefulness of a given purchase or postponing the purchase decision: you like this bear – OK, but let's go around the store, and if at the end of shopping you will still want to buy it, we'll come back here. Very often, such a desire is an impulse for five seconds, and three aisles on the child no longer remembers the teddy bear. Finally, you should also ask your child if they really need what they are trying to put in the basket.

Sure they do! “Mum, I need it badly.”

Then we should ask the question: “How many similar cars do you have at home?”

“Very few!” Even though of course they no longer fit in the box.

It is good to ask: in what circumstances will you play with it, can you play with the toy car you have at home in the same way? Even if today questions about buying, e.g. about the price or suitability of the product, do not bring about the desired behaviour in the child, regular repetition will build appropriate habits in them.

We should also remember that children do what we do. If we waste money, we should not be surprised when our children do the same. And if we are economical, compare the prices and weights of products – the children will learn to do this as well. I still remember the sad eyes of my friend's son when, after unpacking a packet of crisps, he saw how much air was inside.

There are two characteristics that are sometimes confused: economy and stinginess. Economy is the rational and good management of your finances. And stinginess is obsessive avoidance of expenditure. At first glance it looks similar – we don't buy products at a higher price – but the motivations are completely different. If we are economical, we wonder if it makes sense to buy a bar of chocolate for 5 zlotys, feathering the shop owner's nest, since in the shop round the corner it costs 3 zlotys. It's more economical thinking.

Another key thing is trying to give pocket money.

At what age?

As soon as the child understands what money is and what they can do with it.

When the child goes to school and has a shop there?

Sometimes even earlier. Some six-year-olds can already understand this, especially if they have older siblings who have educated them in this regard. However, we must remember that pocket money is not intended for things that are necessary for life. It can't be that a child is supposed to buy a school ticket or lunch with it. Because if they spend their pocket money on the first day, we will have to give them more money.

Pocket money fulfils an educational function if it can be completely under the control of the child. If we start monitoring how our child spends it, then it is pointless. 

My wife gets nervous when our daughter buys unhealthy crisps with her money. What should be done then?

If we make an agreement that we do not eat unhealthy things, that's the rule. We give pocket money, but we agree immediately that the child is not allowed to buy certain things. We also need to refrain strongly from control.

I often hear at workshops for parents: “But if I give my child money, they will spend everything in two days.” Then let them do it! This time they spend their money in two days, and next month they will think about it. If pocket money was really intended only for pleasure purposes, it would not hurt them.

Another question is how often should we give children pocket money? I suggest starting with a short period and, once the child is capable of managing their budget, extend this period. If we give a seven-year-old pocket money for a month, then we should have no illusions – the child can't see this perspective of time at all.

Should we give them a weekly allowance?

To start with, yes. If a child can cope with money management during this period, I would extend it to ten days. Then up to two weeks, and then we can consider a “salary” for the whole month. It's not a matter of age, but of learning how to manage money.

And in what amount?

Pocket money should be adjusted to what the child is supposed to buy with it. If it is to be spent at the school shop, then we should take the average value of a product in the shop, multiply it by the number of days and we have the result. I deliberately stress the average value, because it is advisable to ensure that buying the most expensive product involves some sacrifice, for example, buying something small or not buying anything the next day. But if I have a 14-year-old who is supposed to go to the cinema, go bowling, or buy ice cream with this money, or even buy new clothes – then the amount of the pocket money needs to be adjusted.

It is important that the amount is not too low. If the kid goes to the cinema, say, twice a month, and we give them the amount sufficient for one and a half tickets, it is obvious that they will come to us for extra money.

On the other hand, pocket money should teach economy, saving and expenditure control. If it is too high – it will have no educational function. The amount should be such that larger or additional purchases require putting aside some of the money for several months. The matter gets complicated if the child has loving grandparents, uncles or aunts who want to support them financially, giving them some money every weekend.

Does money from grandparents spoil the child?

It spoils our educational goals. You can agree that this money is spent on other purposes: you get pocket money for everyday expenses, and you have extra money from grandparents. What will you use it for? Maybe you will save up for something? Or spend it on a CD or a shirt?

It is important to teach children to postpone spending, wait for the “reward”, save. If we make our children think about self-control, they are more likely to save rather than spend their money immediately. You can also start thinking about the future, even talking about the next summer holidays. Then the time perspective is longer for children, they are less focused on the here and now.

Or maybe it's better to give money for specific trips to the cinema or other attractions?

You can. But pocket money is the best way to provide economic education – it shapes consumer attitudes and the need to save. It is worth looking through the lens of goals. We can count how much money we give our child in a month for various purposes, and then pay them that sum in the form of pocket money. It will be the same financially, and it will have an additional educational value.

It is also important that the child is aware of how much time mum or dad have to work to earn this amount. Also, if it's extra money from grandparents – show the value of the gift they got.

When as a child I got a book from my aunt, it always had a blurred out price.

It is a bit different with physical gifts, but if it is just money, we should talk about it. Because money makes us behave differently. There are studies showing that the very act of thinking about money makes us less pro-social. When children were asked for help in picking up crayons, only some of them had previously started thinking about money. And these children picked up considerably less crayons than those who did not think about money. Greater self-focus starts here.

Maybe we should protect children from thinking about money?

No! Because by surrounding them with a shroud of ignorance, we make money a taboo subject, we assign a mystical function to it.

Unfortunately, this happens quite often. We asked parents how they talk to children about money. We heard, for example: “We don't discuss such topics” – the word “money” was not used in their response at all. Or: “He is so young, he is not aware of what this money is”, “We don't discuss such serious topics with children”. And also: “If he wants something, he must earn this purchase with good behaviour” – shaping a beautifully materialistic attitude. I have to be good to get a prize. We asked: what do you do when you don't want to buy something for your child? “We steer clear of the shop.”

We feel embarrassed to say: “We can't afford it.”

Embarrassed. But if we show from the beginning that there are budget limits, that the 100 zlotys that the child received from their grandmother means several hours of my work, it will be clear to them that my working time is limited and the amount of money is too. Realising that there are times at which we can't afford something, it will become completely natural. Another mistake we make is arguing about money in the presence of children.

But when we receive a surprisingly high electricity bill, emotions appear.

However, when we start arguing about who is at fault, we will not find out how to save electricity. And we will shape a symbolic attitude towards money in our child.

Children start comparing themselves anyway.

And this happens really early. As early as in grades 1-3 children are aware of brands. At the same time, they are very much looking for group acceptance. 9 to 11-year-olds are already beginning to understand what social consequences certain brands may have. So if your child has friends in designer clothes, they will dream about the same clothes.

Then what? We say: “You can wear your apron, it's very pretty and practical!”?

It would be difficult to convince your child. But then it is advisable to show immaterial values to the child. And it can't be done suddenly when a nine-year-old daughter comes and says that she wants to have the same branded sneakers as her friend. This work should be done from the very beginning. Showing that money is not important in life...

But it actually is important! As a tool...

As a tool, yes, but I'm talking about the symbolic sphere. What matters is who I am, not my wallet. This should be instilled in the child from the very beginning.

It's an ideology. Don't you enjoy having a branded phone, because I have the same phone and I enjoy it.

OK, but let's take a look at our nine-year-old. Does she enjoy having these sneakers, or are they supposed to characterise her symbolically as the owner of such sneakers? If she wants to have them, because it pleases her, just like your phone, that's great. But if she used to wear ballet shoes and now she doesn't want them, because someone told her that she was worse because of that – we have a problem.

And when a twelve-year-old daughter wants to have the same nice phone as her parents do?

The question is: does she need it? Do we want to build the conviction that she must have a phone worth 3,000 zlotys, otherwise she is not cool? What information do I convey to her in this way?

We want to give our child a nice life, just like ours.

Will they have a less cool life with a phone worth 600 zlotys? The fun in a child's life is about something else. Going out after school with friends or taking a class trip out of town, which we usually don't do.

When should we create a bank account for our child?

We have two types of youth accounts – one is completely independent, but the one that is linked with the parents' account is a better option as it allows them to perfectly see what is going on. It works great even with quite small children. If a seven- or eight-year-old knows what a bank is, it's worth setting up such an account. There is no separate card for this account, access is only possible through the parent's account. But a young person learns that they have some money, they can come to their parents and ask for a withdrawal for something specific. Often, such children's accounts have higher interest rates, which is supposed to shape the habit of saving. We can also show the child: look, we spent this much during our recent shopping trip, so you have this much left.

After creating such an account – but with a separate card – into which we paid several hundred zlotys, which she herself earned in advertising, my daughter spent all the money in two months.

I am a supporter of experience. She had the right to waste it, and then you can discuss with her how she feels about it and whether she would do the same thing again. Nobody but her earned the money, she did not spend it on unhealthy things, so it was simply a valuable lesson.

Other parents' mistakes?

It is a common mistake to pay your child for grades at school. Why should a child learn?

To develop.

And not for money! I hear from parents at workshops: “He worked so hard, I'd like to reward him.” OK, but do we have to reward him financially? Maybe it's better to spend some time together? What if we all went to Łódź for a good school report?

Let's say he doesn't want to go to Łódź.

So go anywhere. We can give some space to the child – let them choose where to go. Then the reward won't be cash, but our joy, our pride and our time spent together.

We also don't pay children for playing the piano nicely. When they become a professional pianist, they will earn money, and today this is their passion. And the reward for this passion is sharing joy together.

Parents are also surprised: “Shouldn't I pay my child for any housework?” I can, but on fixed terms. Everyone can do different things at home. Wiping dust for a young child is absolutely feasible. Sometimes you need to touch it up afterwards, but it can be done. I have agreed certain duties with my child, he fulfils them, but at some point his dad, whose duty it is to take out the rubbish, was feeling terribly lazy in a given month, so he made a deal with our son: you take out the rubbish for a month, and I will pay you for it. There's nothing wrong with that. Just be careful not to make it a rule! The child shouldn't get money for doing a parent's job.

And when is it wrong?

When the child has no duties. A friend of mine once went to a summer camp with children as an educator and in a group of six to eight-year-olds all the girls made their beds in the morning except for one. Why? She refused: “Because I get paid for it at home.” If we do so, we will raise a child who will not lift a finger unless they are paid.

Another mistake is to link money with emotions. If I see new shoes immediately ruined by a child, instead of shouting: “How could you spoil such expensive shoes!” it's better to cool down and talk quietly about how much we worked for these shoes, how much effort it cost us. We should teach a child to respect work and effort, not money.

And when is the time for their first job?

When it doesn't interfere with learning. The first job should not be too burdensome, neither cognitively, physically, nor in terms of time. First, they should be small things: mowing the neighbour's lawn, doing shopping for the neighbour, and not working for five hours straight. And you always have to look at your child: are they ready for it?

If this is the case and a high school student has a desire to earn some extra money for holiday pleasures, then it is worth encouraging them. It is valuable for shaping conscious consumption, prudent management of money and entering the labour market after some time. We should remember, though, that children often spend most of the week at school and doing after-school activities, and after deducting time to sleep, doing homework and their household chores, they don't have much time for themselves. So, if we see that our child is already heavily overloaded with duties, it is better to keep their free time for pleasure.

Is studying a time when you should earn a living?

If we send a child to study in another city and we can completely afford to support them, but they have time to work not compromising their studies, there is nothing stopping them from doing so. If we can't afford it and the child will have to earn some extra money, we should make sure that work does not interfere with their studies. Because it is a common mistake of young people that we parents turn a blind eye to.

It is very easy to go crazy with your first money. Kids who are employed as waitresses or bartenders suddenly have 2,000 zlotys for the first time in their lives. And it's so great! How beautiful the world is! So I'll take four weekends, I won't go to lectures, because nobody checks attendance. It is very easy to get caught up in adult life, forgetting about learning, which was the reason for coming to the city.

This is the moment at which we as parents should watch the balance between work and learning. Of course, we have to reckon with the fact that our child will say: I am quitting my studies, because they don't interest me, I want to be a bartender for the rest of my life. It is worth talking then, whether they were fascinated by the work of being a bartender or by the money.

What if our child lives with us during their studies? Should they start paying for food?

If this does not interfere with their studies or health, it is advisable that they take their first steps in the labour market. Even if we are able to support them completely.

Do we have the right to be interested in the money that our child earns?

Regardless of how old your child is, we have an obligation to be interested in them, and therefore pay attention to their financial situation. But we don't always have the right to interfere. However, we should react if we see something wrong, because no one loves our child like we do. Often you have to take someone out of the place they are sitting and show them something from a different perspective.

Usually people remember what they spent their first salary on. And the feelings, the change that has taken place in them. This is a very important, but also very difficult moment, because that's when we stop being children.

What did they spend it on?

Today's youth – on material things. I've always wanted a phone like that, I'll buy it now. It's a reward for your first job and there is nothing wrong with it.

And older people often talk about things that are more symbolic, such as “I bought a ring to remember that day”.

Katarzyna Sekścińska – Doctor of social sciences in the field of psychology, coach and trainer. Psychologist and economist. Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Psychology, Institute of Organisation and Work Psychology, Faculty of Psychology, University of Warsaw. Privately, Franek's mother

“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.

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