What Halloween candy can teach your kid about money

The money lesson that Halloween can teach our kids

It’s trick-or-treating season, which brings to mind one of my favorite scenes in David Sedaris’s memoir Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. The evening of November 1, the doorbell rings. The eccentric neighbors, their costumed kids in tow, have dropped by to explain that they neglected to go trick-or-treating on Halloween, and would Sedaris’s mother happen to have any leftover candy she could spare?

Hearing this, young David Sedaris races to his room, sorts the candy he collected the night before according to an elaborate system, and begins stuffing his most prized candy bars into his mouth. When his mother asks him to share his booty, and he opens his mouth to protest, “rather than words, my mouth expelled chocolate, chewed chocolate, which fell onto the sleeve of her sweater. ‘Not those. Not those.’ … The mound of chocolate dropped like a horrible turd upon my bedspread. ‘You should look at yourself,’ she said. ‘I mean, really look at yourself.’”

This scene cracks me up every time, especially because, while I identify with the anxiety of a boy hoarding a pillowcase of Halloween candy, I also identify with that horrified mom. I mean, haven’t we all been there? Drama aside, the seasonal windfall of sugary sweets is a surprisingly good opportunity to reflect on how we handle money around our kids.

Easy Does It

“Everything in moderation.” My mom, Shirley, whipped out that old saying often with us Kobliner kids. I’m especially struck by the wisdom of that idea around Halloween, when kids—and parents—have a tendency to go to extremes.

One woman I know (a dietician, no less) gives her kids as much candy as they want whenever they want. Her rationale: They won’t crave sweets as grownups because candy won’t be the sugary forbidden fruit that it was for her when she was a girl. I also know parents with the opposite philosophy, who restrict their kids’ snack intake and give them healthy alternatives, hoping they’ll get addicted to those. (I haven’t met a single trick-or-treater who’s begging for a bag of kale chips, though.)

Neither approach is good. The links between obesity and sugar and junk food consumption are well known—obviously, a child cannot subsist on Kit Kats alone. But strict rules or outright bans aren’t the way to go, either. A few years ago, Dutch researchers restricted one group of young children to eating candy, and a second group to fruit. The result: Kids in both groups ended up craving the food they couldn’t have.

Snickers and smart spending

In the end, my wise momma was right. Moderation wins out. And that’s true whether you’re talking about a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or a pile of Benjamins.

Financial moderation is a subject that cuts deep. For many people, money, like food, triggers emotional memories.

In fact, on a tour around the country this year to promote my book Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You’re Not), many parents confessed that they thought their own money problems stemmed from their parents’ being either irresponsible with money or, at the other end of the spectrum, frugal and restrictive with it. In both cases, their kids, many now parents themselves, vowed they wouldn’t replicate their parents’ mistakes and instead went to the other extreme.

My advice is to identify your financial baggage, and then leave it behind. In other words, become a Money Moderate. It’s good to recognize the way your parents dealt with their money. But don’t let those childhood memories excuse your own tightwad or spendthrift ways—or, worse, use them as a rationale to avoid teaching your children about money. Learn how to manage your money—and any of the negative emotions that it stirs up. Then you can pass along a healthier attitude to your kids.

For instance, if you give your kid an allowance (you don’t have to, but you can), it’s good to have clear rules about what that money is to be used for (say, “extras” like snacks at the movies), and what it’s not to be used for (perhaps violent video games). But then, within reason, allow your kid to spend that money on what she wants—even if she makes “mistakes.”

On Halloween night, you probably won’t do your kid any favors if you stand over him counting each M&M, any more than you would if you poured a whole bag of them down his little gullet. Likewise, when it comes to money, if you institute some basic boundaries but give your kid some freedom, too, you’re more likely to raise a Money Moderate than a Financial Fanatic.

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