Wants vs Needs: How to Teach Your Kids … Squirrel!

“But I really want the squirrel!” There was no budging my parents though.

On our first family trip (that I can remember), we were wrapping up a visit to Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, Utah. We’d ridden the elephant, seen all the animals, and hit the hard-to-miss gift shop on our way out to the car. As I wandered through the store, my eyes landed on a stuffed gray squirrel holding a nut. It was love at first sight. At seven, I couldn’t conceive of ever wanting anything more. But my parents told me I had a choice. They would buy me the squirrel, or we could go to Lagoon, an amusement park. I hated having to choose between those options! Why couldn’t I have both?

Now, in hindsight, I understand that my parents didn’t really want to stop at another tourist attraction. And the price of the squirrel was certainly not equivalent to the cost of admission to Lagoon. I don’t blame them for jumping at the chance to skip another day of herding cats — sorry, kids — around an amusement park. As an adult, I recognize this life-changing choice (OK, not really) offered an important lesson about tradeoffs.

In a world often obsessed with instant gratification, it’s clear that parents owe kids early (and frequent) lessons on understanding and practicing tradeoffs. You know, things like a family not buying a lot of Christmas gifts so they can go on a big summer vacation. Or maybe it’s parents asking their kids to choose only one summer sport to leave enough money to play another one in the fall. That said, with some thoughtful planning, these lessons don’t need to be painful or embarrassing. Here are three strategies you can use to help your kids navigate this tricky financial territory and gain a better understanding of how to balance their wants and needs.

1. Keep it about things that matter to kids.

I sometimes hear parents explain spending decisions in terms of their salary or the mortgage or a car payment. Let’s be clear. At some point, your kids will need to understand those kinds of financial tradeoffs. But when they’re young, talking about numbers in the hundreds of thousands or even the tens of thousands won’t register.

Talk about terms and figures relevant to kids. Think of the cost of a toy or a trip to the movie theater and tie it back to doing a chore or other responsibility. Try to avoid the trap of talking in terms of how many hours you needed to work to pay for that item, since for many children their sense of time can be a bit warped. (It really isn’t forever until their birthday.) Make sure to connect the choice and the options to the actions and behavior of your kids, in the moment, if possible. But keep the next strategy in mind.

2. Choose the situation carefully.

Your big, annual family trip may not be the best time for a lesson. Of course, when opportunities appear, don’t shy away from helping your kids practice weighing tradeoffs. But when I see parents arguing with their children in a store with the rest of the family watching and waiting, it makes me wonder. Should the lesson always take priority? Nope. Instead, use this question as a quick test:

Imagine your child responds to your “teaching moment” in a way that means you then need to stop everything and leave the store/event/etc. Does leaving create a memory that will overwhelm any possible benefit of the lesson?

An outburst in the grocery store isn’t a huge deal, but an outburst at your parents’ 50th wedding anniversary? That’s probably something to avoid.

3. Plan to repeat.

Kids are excellent at rationalizing why a new situation is sooooo different from something that happened earlier. You need to plan on repeating these lessons over time and maybe even in similar situations. For example, your kids may need multiple lessons on the tradeoffs between things and experiences. It may not involve a squirrel and Lagoon, but it will probably start small with something like a treat at the grocery store many times, or something bigger (and better) another time. Also, your kids may need to practice their new financial ninja skills in different settings. What worked great during your weekly trip to the grocery store may need a refresher when you take the kids to the movies.

Think about how it feels to weigh a decision in the heat of the moment. Some decisions can happen when you have the time and space to think them through. For instance, you’ll probably never need to buy a car right now. But sometimes your kids will have to make a decision that feels pressured, like when they’re with a group of friends and “everyone is doing it.” Whether it’s time or friends or location, your children need your help to prepare them for thinking through the tradeoffs, even when it seems like they must act immediately!

At this point though, I have a confession to make: I still have the squirrel.

I know you’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute. Don’t you regret the tradeoff? Why did you tell this story?” Well, I did regret the decision for a little bit. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t, but a few years later, I eventually made it to Lagoon, and yes, I had a wonderful experience. That said, even after all this time, I still remember standing in the store at Hogle Zoo, convinced I couldn’t leave the squirrel behind. The memory and the lesson stuck. So even though I know it sounds a little crazy, I hope all your kids end up with their own “squirrel” story to tell.


  • This article was very engaging!

    • Thank you Latonya!

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