Book lovers, don’t hate me … there is such a thing as having too many books.
By the time my son was 2 years old, he had amassed a collection of hundreds of them, many in plastic tubs or taped cardboard boxes.
Yard sales. Library clearance events. Flash sales at the local book store. There I was, cash in hand, looking for books I thought my son would love.
As embarrassing as it is to admit, my interest in purchasing books wasn’t really about my son. It was about mom guilt. You see, my son was born in China, and it wasn’t until a little over a year later when my husband and I moved back to the U.S. my fear about him being “behind” on his English language skills manifested into an almost obsession with alleviating my guilt by getting books so he could catch up.
Luckily, I’ve since curbed that obsession, but it doesn’t mean my mom guilt has gone away. And every time I have this burning desire to spend money or swoop in and help him (yes, he’s 4 years old, but there are many things he can do himself), I remind myself that my goal is to raise my son into an independent and confident adult.
Apparently, our desire to give our children the best in the world can have some dire financial consequences. When they become young adults, our children might not have the coping skills to strike out on their own. Their lack of financial savvy (or lack of independence) can then put our financial lives in jeopardy.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting the best for our children. However, for us to truly help them, we need to take a careful look at the consequences of our financial and parental behaviors.
Having the best intentions
Let’s be clear. None of us is a bad parent. Even though my book shopping spree started out with the best of intentions, I knew that if I didn’t curb that behavior, my son could have used it for his own gain down the line.
Lindsay Bryan- Podvin, a social worker turned financial therapist based in Michigan, suggests that parents can start out wanting to provide generosity and stability to a child, but that can snowball into an unhealthy behavior loop.
“Parents have an instinct to protect their children from danger and failure,” Bryan-Podvin says. “The intention is genuine, by swooping in and paying for their child’s first month’s rent, for example, can mean the child learns to depend on you.”
My son is 4, so he’s not ready to leave the nest quite yet. However, I know that if I give in to my guilt and use money to show that I care, he’ll learn — even at a young age — how to get what he wants. Worse, he’ll never even leave the nest.
Dr. Alex Melkumian, a financial psychotherapist practicing in Los Angeles, recalls a client, who at 26 years old, doesn’t seem to have the coping skills to be a fully independent adult.
This client’s parents got divorced when he was young. The mom felt guilty for not giving him a stable father figure, so she tried to solve his challenges when she’d noticed he’d get anxious. It’s gotten to the point that she’s still financially supporting him now that he is an adult by letting him move in when he lost his job and allowing him to stay for months.
Melkumian adds that children are smart and can pick up on your emotional cues. When having a practical conversation about money — whether it’s about providing for their living expenses or buying the latest toy — your child can sense more than just the surface level conversation.
“Shame and guilt can come up in conversation, and your child is keen to tap into that,” he says. “It’s a survival tactic, so of course, the child will want to say whatever it is to get what they want.”
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Working through guilt
Parental guilt and desire to be there for your children won’t go away. Yet, you’re concerned about raising a child that may be too dependent on you, emotionally or financially. What’s a parent to do?
The solution is simple but not easy: Work through your guilt and have a plan in place.
“When you start putting boundaries in place, you really need to think hard and understand whether what you’re doing is coming from a place of unconditional love or enabling,” Melkumian says. “It can be hard to distinguish both in the moment, so that’s why it’s important to have responses ready that you’ll anticipate from your child.”
For example, Melkumian suggests coming up with honest responses as to why you’re saying no. If you decide to stop purchasing items for your child, he or she knows that an answer such as, “I can’t afford it,” isn’t going to cut it. Or if your grown child is at home and you want him to thrive on his own, work on gradually taking away certain privileges so the child can practice being independent.
Showing you care without money
Money is merely a tool, and, in this case, it’s being used to show affection toward a child. However, there are plenty of ways to show that you care without money. That way, you as a parent can bring intimacy and love to deepen the relationship.
Simple actions such as scheduling a walk in the park with your kids can do wonders. Or even something as small as a secret handshake each time you say hello or goodbye will show your children you’re thinking of them.
As for me, I still use books to spend time with my child. The difference is that I’m not buying them each time I leave the house, nor does my son expect a new book each time he sees me. Instead, we head to the library each Saturday, where he picks out a book and shows me the letters he knows.
I’m very tempted to read the book for him or buy one if he finds one he really likes, but I keep my raging mom guilt in check. After all, it’s the routine of going to the library and spending time together we both cherish. I don’t want the act of buying an item to get in the way of it.
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Sarah Li Cain is a freelance personal finance, credit and real estate writer who works with Fintech startups and Fortune 500 financial services companies to educate consumers through her writing. Her clients include LendingTree, Transferwise, Discover and Quicken Loans. She’s also the host of Beyond The Dollar, where she and her guests have deep and honest conversations on how money affects our well-being. Opinions are those of the author or the person interviewed.