The Shutdown: How Worried Should Your Kids Be?

The Shutdown: How Worried Should Your Kids Be?

There is a BBC video floating around right now featuring a few federal workers who are affected by the government shutdown. The headline is “Shutdown struggles: ‘My child wants to sell his drawings to pay our bills'”. In the video, one woman tells the camera that she was told on January 6th that she was “unemployed” due to the shutdown, and that her husband, also a federal employee, is working without pay. The woman then says her son has been drawing and crafting, hoping to sell his art to help pay the bills, because he is worried about his parents not getting paid.

These employees are no doubt incredibly worried about what’s ahead. Very few families in this country have enough savings to cushion one lost paycheck, let alone prolonged unemployment. Undoubtedly, these households will struggle to pay bills or keep up their normal, everyday lifestyles. But the federal employees have not missed a paycheck until today. Which left me wondering why this child knows of his parents’ precarious financial situation. Judging by the artwork shown, using my expertise as a mother of little boys, I would guess the child is maybe around 8-10 years old.

Perhaps he heard or saw the shutdown news in the media and drew logical conclusions. But it leads to an interesting question: how much do you tell your young kids about family financial issues? Personally, having grown up in a household where scraping up change for a gallon of gas was a way of life, I never want my children to worry about financial insecurity. I hope if my children want to earn money selling their drawings, it’s to to get enough to buy something they want (after, as is the rule in my house, putting at least half in savings), not to help me pay the household bills.

If the shutdown continues, many families will have to deal with changes in their lifestyles, at the very least. Hard conversations will be necessary for kids who suddenly can’t get the name brand shoes or whose dance lessons have to stop for a while. Cutbacks affect everyone in the household and kids should be told in an appropriate way that things are going to change, at least temporarily, but parents should try not to impart too much anxiety into their kids.

It’s not that I underestimate the intelligence or intuitiveness of kids; they know when mom or dad is stressed and their questions should be answered, honestly, reassuringly, and on their level. There’s a lot of value in talking candidly with kids about current events, both those which affect the family and those which do not. But there’s no reason to scare children or burden them with our anxiety, especially with the mere anticipation of dire circumstances. If my kids let me know they were worried that I couldn’t support them and wanted to help, I would be touched-but ashamed.

So, what’s your opinion? Should parents speculate and worry aloud in front of their children about impending financial trouble and other adult concerns? If so, at what age is it appropriate to do so? Leave your opinion in the comments.

 


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Em was one of those argumentative children who was sarcastically encouraged to become a lawyer, so she did. She is a proud life-long West Virginian, and, paradoxically, a liberal. In addition to writing about society, politics and culture, she enjoys cooking, podcasts, reading, and pretending to be a runner. She will correct your grammar. You can find her on Twitter.

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22 thoughts on “The Shutdown: How Worried Should Your Kids Be?

  1. Our kids know we have no money, it’s kind of hard to hide. As you say, we’ve scraped change together to get gas and milk sometimes. We had to wait for a paycheck this year to buy Halloween candy and there were no costumes. Property taxes are due in October.

    Not an issue of “no name brand shoes” for us really.

    I don’t think it’s practical that anyone who is actually financially pressed can hide this type of thing from kids, especially 8+. Best you can hope for is to treat it as a learning opportunity. My two oldest are pretty good with money so maybe sometimes it works out.

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    • Consider this situation though. Two federal employees likely have a comfortable middle class life. We aren’t talking wealthy, but not scraping for change. Things like brand name shoes are probably not unusual in this scenario- we are not talking about chronic poverty but a new situation for this family. The kids are not used to or familiar with it. The parents are likely justifiably scared that they won’t be able to pay bills, let alone buy extras, until the shutdown ends. Do they need to alert their children to the threat of impending disaster? That’s my point.

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      • To be honest I’d say probably even more so. It may be the only time that those kids have to face a reality that many others live with every day, and that they themselves may face in the future (and surely will, when they’re first starting off at their first job, in college, etc)

        I see a lot of kids my older boys’ ages who have never had to manage money or even really wrestle with the fact that it’s a limited resource. People get into big trouble charging up stuff on credit cards, spending beyond their means, to some extent because they think they NEED name brands, new clothes, granite countertops, etc to project some type of image to the world, when they really don’t.

        It may be of some lasting value that transcends some anxiety.

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        • I grew up in a household that wasn’t poor, but where brand name shoes certainly weren’t an option. My parents tried to avoid worrying us, but I have a distinct memory from around kindergarten of walking into their bedroom and seeing my mom hurriedly wipe tears away as she was sorting through bills. We became more financially secure later, but in addition to a widowed grandmother moving in and contributing to household expenses, we got to a more comfortable place by being very frugal.

          A lot of warm memories of time with my mom, involved going to tag sales. It was almost a sport and the thrill of finding something good for cheap is something we still share even though money is no longer that much of a worry for me. It’s also something I’ve passed on to my kids. And that sense of how to be frugal came in handy in 2009 when we were down to one income and whether that one would continue felt shaky.

          That said, we never directly shared fears with the kids, but given the climate at the time and the obvious fact that their dad was out of work, they couldn’t *not* know that there was cause for concern. I suspect that may be the case with the kid in the article. Kids are smarter and more observant than we often give them credit for. And they talk to one another. My youngest asked a week ago if my job was going to be affected. I reassured him that we were ok, but he had asked because he has friends whose parents work for other govt contractors and are not as lucky.

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          • That’s kind of our experience too – we were always quite frugal with money and that has allowed us to give our kids a kind of lifestyle we probably shouldn’t have been able to – I stayed home part of the time (I work from home now – a huge luxury), we homeschool, they had toys and clothes and pets and stuff. We own two houses now because we were always so careful with money.

            My older boys always partook in frugality with me. We shopped at Goodwill and on the discount rack and I cooked from scratch and we talked about not having money for stuff. While we were really quite poor (certainly compared to others on this site) and they didn’t have everything they ever wanted – no big elaborate birthday parties, no braces, no money for college, for instance – I never had the “omg how are we gonna eat this month” feeling. I don’t think this constant low level financial stress harmed them, although neither of them is in any hurry to get married and have kids because they want to be settled in a career first instead of the way we did it – too young and too broke (probably a good thing)

            Then when the older boys were 13 and 15 we decided to have more kids. 3 more. We had the money by that point, we had insurance and stability and everything was going wonderfully for us. I’d worked really hard to pay off some outstanding debts we owed and my husband had a great job. It was a decision made very responsibly and with a lot of thought put into it.

            Then my husband got laid off totally out of the blue – not his fault, they cut the entire shift – when my daughter was 4 months old. And since then it’s been constant and unremitting for a variety of reasons, some of which are our own fault, most of which are completely outside of our control. There’s no getting away from it. Money governs our lives from the moment we wake up until the minute we go to bed (and usually wakes me up at 3 am too) and it has for the last 6 years.

            After coming off yet another terrible year, it feels ~to me~ to be a very great luxury to have to even consider being able to hide financial problems from your kids. I couldn’t have done that with my oldest two and I certainly couldn’t have done it with my younger three. They know. They see. They realize something is up when they’re eating ramen for dinner for 2 weeks in a row. I would have to be a wizard and lie to them constantly to keep them from knowing.

            And honestly, while I’m trying not to go here, it irritates me some, the implication that my children are suffering terribly from anxiety that I’ve inflicted upon them or failed to protect them from. Maybe I’m deluding myself, but I would like to see a bright side to this, and the bright side for me is that well, maybe they’ll learn something from it all like my older boys did. Maybe they’ll be a little better for the struggle, for knowing what it’s like to suffer with a little deprivation. Maybe children experiencing a little anxiety over real-world things is not the end of the world really. Particularly when it’s a temporary situation, or is a matter of buying name brand shoes or cutting back on lessons. And if you don’t have to tell yourself that, more power to you. It’s a little tiny comfort to me, to cling to that silly delusion of mine.

            But, I have probably just taken this all too far now so I’ll bow out. Apologies for continuing after having been asked to stop, and well past the point where I should have.

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            • And honestly, while I’m trying not to go here, it irritates me some, the implication that my children are suffering terribly from anxiety that I’ve inflicted upon them or failed to protect them from.

              I’m really sorry I made you feel that way Kristin. It is not AT ALL what I am saying. I’m not talking about the realities of growing up in a low income household and the obvious strain and stress that is part of that. I am talking about acute panic.

              And I would never tell you to stop discussing anything- I just meant that we have different opinions on the matter and there was no point in you and I going back and forth on the same point! Please always feel welcome to participate!

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            • Sometimes you can plan be responsible as possible but bad luck up ends things. A car wreck, a cancer diagnosis, a heart attack. My mom’s parents were on the way to moving up to middle class. Then her dad dropped dead from a sudden heart attack when she was 3 weeks old. Bam. Grandma was a widow with a baby and a little boy.

              Even though I am fairly well off now, I think my pov on the issue is shaped by being partly raised by a grandmother who lived through the Depression and then through that. I heard her stories, and it taught me frugality, having a plan and thinking about saving and spending. It also taught me that poverty wasn’t something to be ashamed of, and that you could survive financial disaster. Those are lessons worth having, and they don’t cripple you; they make you more resilient.

              I hope I’ve shared them enough with my kids. I think raising kids with a little awareness of financial anxiety is a lot better than letting them grow up with ‘affluenza’.

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      • Not all federal workers are comfortably middle class. Quite a lot of the people working for TSA make around $30k/year, doesn’t go very far in areas near major airports. Heck, even the high end for TSA agent salaries, which is $45k, doesn’t very far around DC or LA or NYC. Not every federal worker is a lawyer or scientist making GS-12 or better wages. In fact, a big chunk of them don’t. And you need to factor in cost of living in a lot of the places feds work. I know several people who started careers in DC as GS-9s and had to constantly scramble to find housing they could afford, usually living 3 or 4 to a 2 bedroom apartment to manage. Between that and student loans, most didn’t have much in savings until much later in their careers. If you have any sort of other issue, like expenses for a chronic medical condition, you may never be able to save much.

        So please don’t get judgmental based on conservative talking points about ‘overpaid govt workers’.

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  2. I can only speak from my own childhood, and on a different issue.

    My father is a geochemist, who also did extensive training in analytical chemistry. Some of his research involved analyzing water samples (including drinking water) for harmful chemicals. I remember on childhood trips, there were towns we wouldn’t stop in or weren’t allowed to drink the water in because of concerns about “it might contain PCBs.” I remember trying to explain part of the issue to my fourth-grade class and no one understanding. There were other things as well….concerns about nitrates in hot dogs (my dad’s brother researched cancer-causing chemicals for a M.PH).

    As an adult, I realize that some of my anxieties about things like health, and some of my inclination to something like orthorexia (mainly: all-or-nothing thinking, like “either you can NEVER eat sugar and be healthy, or if you eat even a little sugar, you just might as well eat ALL the sugar because you’ve shot your chances at health”) probably stems from some of this. And also maybe my control-freak tendencies, the idea that if I do everything “right” (e.g., not stopping in the town with “bad water”) everything will be okay, and I get upset when things wind up being not-okay despite my Herculean efforts to exert “control.”

    I also believed as a kid we grew up “poor” though we really weren’t: the lights stayed on, there was heat in the house in the winter (but it was the energy-crunch 1970s so it was often colder than I’d have liked), there was enough, and healthful, food on the table. But I grew up in a VERY status- and brand-conscious town. I realize now that the people doing that were a-holes who were very shallow, and my parents had the right idea (saving money on clothes and the like for other things; not going into debt) but as a kid it did give me a certain impression that was false. Buying generics doesn’t mean you’re “poor,” but the a-hole kids at my school, when they saw my dad at the grocery story, assumed it did and just added it to the pile of things they hazed my brother and me for.

    As an adult I’ve been humbled by having friends who really DID know poverty as a kid, and realizing my own family was well-off, but my parents were merely frugal.

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  3. Personally, I think that people should share as much of their household finance with their kids as the kids can reasonably absorb. The median American seems to have a real dearth if knowledge when it comes to personal finance. And maybe that’s because most of us were raised by parents who either had no personal finance skills themselves or kept all of that from us. My mom was pretty good with money, but never brought me into her budgeting or savings decisions. I was terrible with money through my 20s and really didn’t get my act together until my late 30s.

    I watched the BBC video and the bit about the kid’s drawings seemed more like a prop than a serious indication of the conversations going on in the house. So who knows how much the kid actually understands. And this was from a woman who said that she has savings but that’s supposed to be for a real emergency. Guess what? Losing your paycheck is a real emergency.

    For the most part, I don’t think that there’s any reason for most federal government employees not to have some kind of emergency fund. For the most part, these aren’t people who are on the margins of society, trying to hold it all together with any job they can get. These are mostly motivated and driven people who are pursuing the career that they intended to pursue, which means that they should have a pretty good idea of their wage trajectory.

    Also, the shutdown is stupid. The wall is stupid. This is all the result of having a buffoon in the White House and a feckless Congress that long ago abdicate much of its leadership to the executive. This will end and the government will almost certainly end up writing checks to a few hundred thousand people for not working.

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  4. I remember praying (back when I was 6 and believed) that we’d get some help because mom was barely working as a waitress and dad was laid up after hitting a deer with a Dodge Colt in the dead of winter. So even at 6, I knew we were a breath away from being homeless or going hungry.

    Bug (my son, who is 6) knows mom & dad do alright and he doesn’t stress about money. We don’t let him get anything he wants without working for it somehow, and we talk to him about donating clothes and toys he doesn’t wear or play with anymore, because many families are not as fortunate as ours. And we are planning on talking to him about volunteering his time when we return to WA.

    In short, we don’t want him to worry, but we do want him to be aware that he is fortunate, and that he should help out others who are not as best he can.

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  5. I would say that it is a wonderful time to get into budgeting and resource allocation with your kids. How having a savings account is always prudent, the real question is how large it should be. Also, explaining to them that there are no sure things in this world, that what seems solid one day and a good bet, can go away the next.

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  6. My parents tried to hide money problems from my brother and I when we were young. Part of this was because they were the children of parents who experienced the Great Depression and they didn’t want to inflict some of what they went through on my brother and I because of that. My parents grew up in relatively solid middle class families enjoying the post-war boom but my mom said she always had to speak to her parents in terms of needs rather than wants because that was the only way she could potentially get something. Later, when I was an adult, my mom began talking to me about some of the financial struggles during the early years. One lesson is don’t date or marry somebody with a lot of debt.

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  7. I have one element I would be concerned with. The kids are going to know that you are anxious and stressed. If you don’t tell them what you’re anxious and stressed about, they are going to assume it’s about them. They will quite likely feel that they did something to make Mommy and Daddy so unhappy.

    So, you need to tell them that it isn’t them, it’s other stuff. You can be honest about it without inducing anxiety, I think. Just keep a light touch.

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  8. I can’t speak to this very well since I’m the proverbial kid who was born on … well, not third base but maybe second. My dad came from a very successful family of first-generation immigrants. My mom and her brother are well-off but mainly because they grew up poor and frugal. So even when their success came they stayed frugal. My mom was always emphasizing thrift, clipping coupons, avoiding credit cards even though she didn’t have to. It meant we often lived like — and I laugh to type this — the poorest rich kids in the neighborhood. I felt deprived because we didn’t have cable. Until I went to high school and met people who didn’t have locking doors on their homes.

    I say this because I think it provides some insight into how different people think about this. For those who’ve been through poverty or at least financial struggles, the shutdown story hits home. For those who haven’t but at least listen to those who have, we can at least vaguely understand. Unfortunately, the country seems to be controlled by the third type — those who have never financially struggled and think that those who do just need to stop buying so many iPhones.

    Federal employees are missing their first paycheck today. And I expect the response will divided along this cultural fault. People who know what it’s like to worry about missing a mortgage payment are going to be angry that people are being put through this. And a lot of people who don’t will smugly wonder why the federal employees haven’t saved enough to get through a couple of weeks and point out that they’ll get backpay. But it’s not even the immediate problem: it’s the uncertainty. it’s worrying about the future. Right now, with the way Trump is acting, this could go for months.

    (And I have one foot in that boat, since my research grants will start to run out if this goes for months.)

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    • I’m an immigration lawyer. My income is directly effected by the shut down because the non-detained immigration courts, where the bulk of my practice occurs, are not operating. I’m using this opportunity to catch up on paper work but if it goes on, its going to be a big hit.

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      • Yep. Gonna be a lot of people having secondary and tertiary effects out there. Federal contractors (like us) not getting paid. Lawyers, doctors, etc. The GOP seriously underestimate the amount of havoc they’re about to create.

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        • State budgets. Medicaid is funded, but some other sizeable programs aren’t. SNAP. TANF. Housing assistance. States are going to have to take risks. Better to continue paying benefits out of their own pocket (from somewhere), or not pay benefits and risk the federal government imposing the standard penalties for missing those payments? Sometimes Congress has done one thing, sometimes the other. The National Governors Association (29 Republicans, 21 Democrats) sent a letter to Trump and Congress earlier this week warning that the wheels are going to start coming off soon. That’s an unusual step for the governors. I’d love to hear the phone calls the Republican governors are making to their Congress critters.

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  9. Undoubtedly, these households will struggle to pay bills or keep up their normal, everyday lifestyles.

    When I think back to my childhood in the 70s, which wasn’t poor and wasn’t rich, our normal everyday lifestyle didn’t include cable TV and iPhones. Lifestyle creep has made these “essentials”. When my wife and I got married in 1991, I was soon to be unemployed from my $30k job and my wife was making around $25K. We made do, and didn’t really have any savings, either.

    The upshot is, you make the lifestyle fit the money.

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