by a.b.

When I went to Target tonight, I thought I was just picking up dog food and toilet paper. Instead, I had the chance to observe a parent unwittingly teaching their child about money.

I was in the lamp section, looking for a desk lamp to light the only dark corner in our studio; coincidentally it’s the space I need to study in right now. A young girl who appeared to be between six and eight, ran up to a chandelier style light and turned to her mother.

“I like this one. How much is it?”
“It’s $25. That means you’ll owe me $5.”

In one sentence I knew that this child was being taught that budgets are flexible and personal debt is acceptable. It left me feeling disquieted. Yes, I know this parental interaction was none of my business, but I think how we teach the next generation about debt will have a drastic effect on our future.

Some parents argue that they need to teach children about debt as a survival tool. In short, it is better for them to teach their children about responsibly paying off debt because it’s inevitable. They will buy a car, a house, go to college, and it’s very difficult to do these things without debt. It is better to teach them at a young age that if they don’t pay things back as agreed, there are punishments.

The opposing side argues that while it is difficult to do these things without taking on debt, it is not impossible. Teaching children about debt at a young age makes them think that overspending is okay.

I think the best thing you can teach your child is that they can’t buy something they don’t have the money for.

So if the mother had said, “You only have $20, you can’t afford that,” what’s the worst thing that could have happened? It’s not like there weren’t three dozen other lamps there.

Another option would have been the saying, “You only have $20 now, but you’ll have $25 next week. We can come back and buy it then.”

She could have even said, “I’m going to buy this lamp, and when you have $25, you can buy it from me,” so she didn’t have to make the trip back to Target in the holiday shopping season.

Any one of these options would have worked, and taught the lesson that debt isn’t acceptable. In all fairness, the mother did try to steer the daughter to a floor lamp in her budget, but it looked like the damage was done. The little girl kept looking back at the chandelier lamp, and you could see in the corner of her eye how easy it is to “owe mom.”

I am not a mom, but I hope when I am, I can teach my child to learn from my financial mistakes. I want my child to think that debt is not acceptable, that being stuck paying off debt is not a way to live, and the only way to make sure that happens, is to never take it on.