IT WAS one of those kick-me-in-the-teeth moments in parenthood. My daughter came home from first grade with an assignment to complete the sentence, "I wish I had. ... "
She answered "a million dollars" without a word about what she would do with the windfall. The giant sum was an end in itself, and I cringed at what this said about the money lessons our kids are learning. Then I wondered when she would realize a million wouldn't be enough.
Move over, Paris Hilton.
Turns out I'm not the only parent fretting.
Seven in 10 parents believe most U.S. kids have a sense of entitlement to whatever material things they desire, according to a new poll from Northwestern Mutual, the Milwaukee-based insurance giant.
Now for the really uncomfortable part: We can't just blame reality TV and the advertising industry. Half of the 625 parents in the study (performed by British research firm Synovate) said they don't set a good example for their kids when it comes to handling money, and they aren't capable of properly teaching them to manage it. Fewer than a quarter had talked with their kids about investing, and just 35 percent had discussed their family's individual financial situation.
Though all the parents in the survey reported giving their children piggy banks before they turned 7, and 40 percent said kids should start learning about money before age 5, many apparently freeze up when discussing their own portfolios.
"It is almost certainly lack of confidence with their own financial management skills that keeps parents from discussing some of the more complex money issues with their children," said Mark Schug, director of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee Center for Economic Education, a consultant on the study.
One father told me he doesn't tell his kids what the household earns because he wants to "de-emphasize the thought process of keeping score by comparing ourselves to others."
Right. Most of us just don't want junior blabbing our salaries all over the neighborhood. Our own lavish spending after decades of rising incomes plays a role, too.
"We indulge ourselves with a five-burner stove or a $60,000 car," said Stacy DeBroff, a mother of two in the Boston area and founder of Mom Central Inc., which counsels consumer-products companies on marketing to today's families. "We're setting the stage for them."
Parents also might be afraid of second-guessing by their kids, said Meridee Maynard, a Northwestern Mutual vice president. "They're afraid of the follow-up question. You tell them you make $75,000 a year, and then the kids ask how much of that [you] saved."
Maynard advocates an open-book household financial management plan, in which kids know what's coming in and how much it takes to run the family's lifestyle.
"Then you can show them that if they like this lifestyle, here's what it takes," she said.
I'm not ready to open up the checkbook ledger just yet (and neither is DeBroff or the father of two I chatted with). But I have started talking with my kids about the work and savings it takes to buy things.
The harder part is going a step beyond, getting them to realize that even when resources are vast, we need not buy everything.
"It's up to the family to counterbalance the messages that are out there telling kids they're the center of the universe," said Betsy Taylor, founder of the Center for a New American Dream in Takoma Park and author of What Kids Really Want That Money Can't Buy: Tips for Parenting in a Commercial World.
The center has a free pamphlet on its Web site, www.newdream.org, that offers tips for parents on countering heavy marketing messages. One of the best: Watch commercials with your kids and help them discern the motives behind them.
"The deeper message you want to get across is that though we can get all caught up in acquiring things, there is just more to life," Taylor said.
E-mail Janet Kidd Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.