Here's a thought. Let's reinstate colored beads and shells for money as a means to get out of the current family financial crunch!
These days the little dark cloud of budget stress hovers over many households. Kids listen and think they know what goes on. It is a challenge to figure out how kids filter and process what they overhear about the family finances. Even young ones get it that their parents have money worries. Throw in the mix a daily barrage of doom-and-gloom financial alerts from print and broadcast media, and you may have an anxious child.
Have you heard the latest drumbeat about how we are raising a generation of children lacking financial literacy? Getting folks to define financial literacy is like a toddler attempting to pick up gelatin squares. I've asked everyone I've seen to define financial literacy. "It's knowing about money." Well duh! When I asked what exactly do the kids need to know and when do they need to know it to be considered financially literate, I received general answers. Some said kids need to know how to save and to budget. OK. Another typical non-answer was that they need to know how to handle money. No specifics there! Finally my last question to all was, "What is the first thing you remember learning from your parents about money?" The majority of the answers related to saving, to putting money in the bank.
The first thing I remember about money is was my granny telling me not to put pennies in my mouth because I might swallow them. That warning led to many interesting conversations about money. "Money is filthy," she would say, "because it has gone through many unwashed hands." She was always sure to impress upon me the importance of hand washing.
I loved the jingling sound when I cupped my hands and shook a few pennies. She and I examined pennies, sometimes polishing them. Then we'd fantasize about shops, stores and places a penny could have visited, purses and pockets it could have traveled in. Perhaps my vision of a voyaging penny was a precursor to the travels of Flat Stanley. My granddaddy recognized that I was the fresh-air kid, and we spent many happy times together on long walks. He was a believer in signs. If we came upon a penny during one of our jaunts, he'd study the sky for a moment, rub his whiskery chin, and give me the news that an angel had sent that penny as a blessing from heaven just for me.
Those who raised me engaged me, as part of our daily lives, in conversations about everything. You won't regret an early start nurturing family conversations on a variety of topics - including money. Down the road as your kids reach pre-teen years and beyond you won't have communication breakdowns if the "conversation foundation" is in place.
Money is a fascinating, multifaceted topic. Collecting coins can develop into a lifelong interest. There is so much "good stuff" to learn about money besides when to save and when to spend. Recognizing coins and coin names - penny, nickel, dime, quarter - is empowering for older toddlers. Help the little ones discover the pictures on the coins. The money values can come later. Talk about and compare a penny and a quarter. Play the "guess which hand" game. The child picks a hand and when you open the hand, the child identifies the coin. Then the child hides a coin in a closed hand, and so it goes until all four coins are easily recognized. You can draw around each coin and then have the child match the coin to the circle. Later if you wish to work with value and counting, pull out the penny jar.
Again in the name of strengthening good communication bonds with growing kids, continue your discussion of all the kinds of information on the coins. In dealing with the penny, you have the opportunity to share a bit of history about Abe Lincoln, our 16th president. For a kindergarten age or older child, try an Internet search with your child for websites devoted completely to pennies. There you can find such stunning facts as the news that the U.S. Mint produces 30 million pennies a day. A penny stays in circulation for about 25 years. Maybe it would be fun to find out more about the U.S. Mint.
More coin information ... Most know that Thomas Jefferson is on the nickel (another history opportunity) and George Washington is on the quarter. Do you know who is on the dime? Ask around. You will be surprised how many folks don't know that Franklin Delano Roosevelt is on the dime.
In continuing the quest for financial literacy, of course we encourage the kids to save. They also need to know how to spend wisely. There is a restaurant commercial running that boasts a mix-and-match menu. Two rather unsavvy diners have $10 for food and are totally confused with all the possibilities to mix and match for their meal selections. Early on, kids can learn comparison shopping and value by going shopping with you or another adult. Of course it could make for a long trip with your helper, so be easy on yourself. Go with a short list and a plan to shop slowly. And please, oh please, use the cash method of payment instead of sliding the plastic card. In this paperless, electronic age of credit and debit cards, kids rarely see cash used for payment.
Given the opportunity, kids love to play store. Whether it's a pizza place, a grocery or a hardware store doesn't matter. What is necessary to set up the imaginative enterprise is a play cash register or cash box, fake money (fun to make and expendable), the shopkeeper and of course the shopper. Eventually, kids may graduate to operating summer lemonade stands. Surprise! They will actually be able to make correct change.
Armchair financiers who bemoan the lack of financial literacy should take note. Perhaps they have overlooked mindful parents who know that by engaging their children in concepts as simple as recognizing coins and making change, they are guiding their children along the road to financial literacy.
Now, who wants to play Monopoly?
Heidi Maness Hartwiger, a Wheeling native, is a writer, teacher and storyteller. She is the author of two books, "All Join Hands: The Forgotten Art of Playing With Children" and "A Gift of Herbs." She is a mother of four and a grandmother of five.