Recession: How to Talk To Your Kids

Families cut back, but find money isn't the most important thing.

Hamden, Conn., November 26, 2008— -- A couple of years ago, Jeanette and Gary Stoneman say they took their kids to Disney World for vacation. Next year, to save money, they may go camping instead.

"We're OK, our family's OK," she said. "I always reassure them, but the way we stay OK is to be really careful about how we spend our money."

Gary Stoneman is a computer specialist near New Haven. Jeanette, who studied psychology in graduate school, is home with the children.

"We always want to stress to them that we always have, and always will have, what we need," he said. "Maybe not everything we want, but everything we need."

The Stonemans have five children, ages three to 18. They live in Hamden, Conn. -- but the family conversations they've had about the economy are probably the same as the ones happening at kitchen tables across the country.

An ABC News poll of 500 teenagers, released today, shows 62 percent of them saying their families had cut back on spending. 67 percent said their parents seemed worried about the economy. And among teens who said their parents worried, 75 percent said they did too. (The poll, conducted by phone Nov. 9-23, has a margin of error of 4.5 percent.)

These are anxious times for many families. But there may be a silver lining in the dark economic clouds.

"I think this economy it going to give parents the opportunity to regroup in terms of the values that we're teaching our children with respect to money and materialism," says Marybeth Hicks, a columnist and author of a book titled "Bringing Up Geeks."

"Geeks," in Hicks' book, is an acronym -- for "Genuine, Enthusiastic, Empowered Kids." She writes that she worries about parents who never learned to say no to their children.

"We're raising a generation of kids who are grieving the loss of stuff," she said. "That's pretty scary to me."

"It isn't always in their best interest to give them everything they want, even if you could, because I think they need to learn that waiting for something, delaying gratification, sacrificing -- those are important aspects of character development."

But how can parents change those patterns without scaring their kids half to death?

Doctors say that when talking to children under seven, parents are best off being reassuring. But older kids, ages 8 to 12, can learn the difference between their wants and needs -- that they don't need a new video game just because a friend got one.

Families Find Money Isn't Most Important

Teenagers are old enough to take responsibility, perhaps to be told that if they want something, they'll have to earn the money for it.

"Parents should always basically reassure their kids that they might be under some stress, but to say, 'We're here to take care of you,'" said Richard Gallagher, a psychologist who heads the Parenting Institute at New York University's Child Study Center.

"We don't have to think of ourselves based upon our clothing or what things we've acquired," said Gallagher.

When the Stoneman children whined for new stuff, their father tried a new approach: he got a notebook and labeled it "Blessings." In the evening, each member of the family would write down things for which they were grateful.

"It was really impressive," said Jeanette Stoneman, leafing through the book, "and it was also very interesting how rarely those things were material things."

She read some examples. "My daughter was grateful for her little brother snuggling. One of my sons was grateful for turtles when they're not stinky -- I don't know what that was about."

She turned to other pages. "We have everything from eyelids, to Graham crackers, to juice, and Piglet, from 'Winnie-the-Pooh.'"

She paused and bit her lip. "When you realize all that you do have," she said, "it makes the things that you don't have seem small in comparison."