“You’re so lucky – you get to decide how to bring up your child.” I’ve heard this far too many times from people I have a child-centric relationship with - meaning I know them as a parent and am getting to know them as a person. The comment is often said in response to finding out I am a single parent.
They often quickly qualify it with an "I love my partner"-type statement - having revealed more than our budding ‘getting to know each other’ relationship merits.
It’s as though they’re speaking to themselves first and me second. If this is you, listen up: children are not only the product of the person they live with. An absent parent also influences their child’s relationship with money in key ways. This can be detrimental if it contrasts with the primary carer’s values and system at home, or compromises a child into taking sides or even deceiving a parent.
I believe this is more damaging than co-habiting parents disagreeing about how to deal with money, their children or life – assuming it’s handled with respect and conversation. Dialogue that ideally includes children in an age-appropriate way exposes them to the reality of family situations, values, priorities and hopes for the future. It means they understand why they live the way they do, and learn how to manage disagreement, discussion, partnership and more.
Here’s a situation I recently came across: a father, who doesn’t see his child for months at a time, has been on his first solo holiday with his child. This is great for the child’s wellbeing, right? Well, let’s go over the money picture.
This parent pays nothing towards his child’s upkeep. The mother’s financial situation is wobbly as a result – and of course this impacts the little one’s life.
The father is in dire money trouble, including legal issues around bounced cheques, fraud and more.
Contrast the above with the splashing of cash on holiday, buying things the child is saving up for, and going on shopping sprees.
Of course this father doesn’t want to hurt his child but, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. He would send a better message to his child, one that could benefit him for life, if the conflicting money messages stopped.
Money patterns observed and modelled in early life are a primary source driving financial decision-making in adulthood. Countless research papers delve into this, including a great paper published by the University of Cambridge in 2013 titled Habit Formation and Learning in Young Children.
While I hope none of the above is relevant to you, it’s more than likely you too send some conflicting messages to your child(ren). Here are some examples:
• We should do good things because that’s the right thing to do / Here’s Dh20 for cleaning your room.
• We must be honest / Tell them you’re 11 so we don’t pay the full price.
• You need to save for that/ Here you go, I bought it for you.
Some parents go so far as to bribe their children to behave. Parents are their children's primary educator when it comes to handling money. When our behaviour does not match what we say, it’s confusing. And, when parents have a troubling history with money, their children are more likely to have troubled habits too.
Studies that support this include a survey titled Parents, Kids & Money by American asset management firm T. Rowe Price in 2017, which examined the attitude and behaviour of 1,014 parents of 8 to 14-year-olds in the US, and their children.
So, what of the mother with the child on holiday with his father? Well, she’s in an impossible situation. If she brings up any of the above, such as the mixed message over money with her former husband, or appears to begrudge the spend on her child – albeit for two out of the year’s 52 weeks – it won’t end well. Then again, their inability to communicate effectively and probable lack of shared values likely contributed to their marriage ending.
I recently came across a document on managing conflict with your child’s other parent, obviously meant for relationships where there is a split and perhaps a lack of (calm) communication. Whether you’re still with your partner or not, how about taking this title as your prompt to create distance between how you’d like to react, and how you will react to the way the "other parent" manages a situation. You’d be better positioned to have a conversation instead of conflict.
Co-parenting is a phrase often used once a partnership has ended. However, co-parenting should apply to the lifetime of your child – not the lifetime of your relationship with their other parent.
Nima Abu Wardeh is a broadcast journalist, columnist and blogger. Share her journey on finding-nima.com