It happens to the best of caregivers and parents: Your child sees something he wants in a store, you give him an initial no, and he starts throwing a tantrum that would make a banshee blush. In those moments, it’s oh-so-tempting to reach into your wallet or purse and spend a little cash just to stop the scene and related embarrassment, but doing so corrupts your child’s chances of being truly financially smart and independent.
A fact about behavior is that it is modifiable—that is, your child can learn to do something different. He also will respond to different stimuli and reward systems, whether for better or worse, a process known as conditioning. Simply put, that means how your child behaves depends a lot on what you do. Any time you give your child some kind of reward that makes him feel better physically or emotionally, you condition him to repeat the behavior that elicited the reward.
Understanding that you shape your child, the reverse is also true. Your child affects the decisions you make and the behaviors you complete. Over time, your child might unintentionally condition you to respond to his behavior in a specific way.
Behavior and Reward in the Tantrum Setting
In the context of a store, your child’s tantrum is a specific behavior that prompts a response from you. If you respond by telling your child no and sticking with it, your child soon learns that throwing a tantrum doesn’t deliver the desired effect (you purchasing an item). Over time, the negative behavior of the tantrum happens less and less. If you repeatedly respond by buying your child items, however, you teach your child that if he whines, cries or flails hard enough, you’ll cave and be looser with your pocketbook. Simultaneously, you’re conditioned to spend, because you learn that spending calms your child.
The Big Picture
Your child learning during tantrums that you’ll spend might seem like it would be worse for your financial well-being than his, but the big picture is that buying-after-tantrum behavior teaches your child that spending based on emotions is okay. Some emotion goes into any buy, yes, but without balance from rationalizations, emotional spending is a slippery and dangerous slope that can lead to debt, bankruptcy and related problems. If you give in to the tantrum and buy, your child doesn’t learn to think critically about the significance or worth of the purchase.
A lack of critical thinking about spending would be bad enough for your child, but the effects of buying things to halt tantrums goes even deeper. It also leeches into your child’s personal relationships. Having learned that showing frustration garners a positive reward, your child might look for other people who are willing to provide for him the way you did. He might look to those individuals to take care of item acquisition instead of handling it himself. Basically, this means that, even though your child might perceive that he’s in control, by constantly manipulating others to buy, he never really learns to be financially independent.
The Right Way to Respond
The fact kids are hardwired to respond emotionally to marketing means that, when your child throws a tantrum for you to buy something, you have to make an effort to detach your child’s feelings from the item. Sometimes this means removing your child from the environment and going somewhere else, but sometimes you can distract your child by shifting the conversation and getting him involved in purchases you know are necessary. You also have the option of discussing how your kid can get the item on his own, such as saving up his allowance—you even can offer to drive him back to the store once he’s dutifully saved up enough money. No matter what you choose to do aside from buying to calm your child, you must clearly explain that his behavior is not appropriate and why. Then you must take the explanation one step further and talk about what behavior you will tolerate. Be a role model and your child will follow good financial habits.