Parents are children’s earliest models of behavior, for good or ill. Children imitate parents. If parents’ behavior and attitude toward life are correct, functional, and most of all godly, this is a good thing. But all of us have behaviors that we would rather our children not imitate. For example, according to Barna research, only 14 percent of American adults engaged in daily Bible reading and devotions in 2018.1 Financial planning and literacy are spotty too; before COVID, four in ten American families lacked the resources to deal with a financial emergency. Eighty percent of American families are in debt 2. Similar things can be said about savings, retirement planning, and so on.
So what can we teach our children about money and stewardship when we as adults are struggling? We could keep it simple and say: of every dollar, return to God His dime, as my mother would say. But is it that simple? It’s a good start to be sure, but is that really all there is to stewardship, and are we doing it ourselves?
AS WE SAY AND AS WE DO
Stewardship is not just tithing and giving offerings. It also includes managing our financial resources in such a way that we have money to give to God while still able to take care of our own needs and share unselfishly with others. What is necessary to reach this state, and how can we teach and model such behaviors to our children in opposition to a culture that emphasizes immediate gratification?
First, we must take stock of our own behaviors. For example, do we buy things we don’t need, and possibly don’t even use once we buy them? Are our purchases feeding some future bulk trash collection? Self-control and forethought are hard lessons for anyone of any age. They are even harder when the main authority figures in a child’s life are not themselves living up to good financial practices. So start with that.
Next—now that we have ourselves sorted out—we must teach our children the real value of money. While money is not to take priority over God, it is important. Our relationship with it reveals a lot about our character and, indeed, about our relationship with God. Everything we own actually belongs to God. Managing God’s property (stewardship in its fundamental sense) is serious. We want to treat our money seriously and teach our children to treat it seriously.
How can we do this? First, we must teach the proper attitude toward money both verbally and by example. We can begin with responsible spending. It is important that we and our children know where our money goes.
FINANCIAL LITERACY THROUGH REAL-LIFE SITUATIONS
You can teach your children appropriate ways of handling money through real-life experiences, such as the following:
Let your children see you handling financial transactions by taking them with you to the bank.
Take your children shopping with you. Let them see how and why you buy things. Let them spend part of the money, and allow them to choose some of the items. Recently, a mother of a 6-year-old shared an experience with me. She teaches her daughter the value of money and informed choices by allowing her to choose one item. The child can choose only one item regardless of how many stores they visit that day. One time they visited three stores, and the daughter chose an item from the second store not knowing there would be a third option. Once in the car, the mother realized that her child was not happy. When asked why, her daughter said, “Next time I would appreciate knowing in advance how many store options I have to choose from.” Critical thinking in action!
Give them three piggy banks or jars: one each for saving, sharing, and spending. Every time the child receives money, you have the opportunity to teach them about tithing, offerings, and how to divide their money.
Help them to earn their own money. They can collect and sell recyclables, help with family garage sales, do yardwork, tutor fellow students, look after pets, etc. In this way they can learn about giving, spending and saving in a very immediate way.
Take advantage of mentoring opportunities in the church so children will be aware of the needs in the church and the community. It also helps to prepare them for leadership roles.
TEACHING FINANCIAL PRINCIPLES
When a child is old enough to have money of their own, teach them about budgeting. Ensure that they have a plan for its use and that they stick to it. A good practice in addition to budgeting may be to give each penny a name. Also, don’t be afraid to share both good and bad money experiences of your own with them.
Children being children, they may not necessarily grasp the value of delayed gratification and impulse control. We may all have heard about the experiment where researchers leave a child in a room with a piece of candy on the table and tell the child that they can have another piece if they can refrain from eating the piece that is there. Few young children pass this test, and chances are, yours won’t either. But they can reason out the consequences of decisions, even at a young age. Explain how poor financial decisions cause problems of all kinds: health, emotional, even spiritual. Also let them know that we want them to grow up and live prosperous lives as free as possible of stress and anxiety.
As children become more mature, we can teach them increasingly complex concepts: debt and its proper uses, for example. We rightly teach that debt is to be avoided whenever possible, but there are times when it may be necessary to borrow money or use a credit card. Few houses would be sold if buyers could not take out mortgages, for example. We must teach them that there are responsible and even godly ways to make use of credit and debt without fear or guilt. Emphasize that responsible debt involves a clear path to getting back out of debt as soon as possible. What this means in practice is that a credit card is not free money. One must pay it off every month. Teach the lesson of Proverbs 22:7: don’t become slaves to debt. Ultimately and ideally, God wants us to be free from debt so that we can help others and give to His mission.
RAISING GENEROUS CHILDREN
Even though we may know that our money belongs to God, we sometimes forget. To prevent this, acquaint your children early in life with the joys of generosity to God and others.
Let children know that when we give offerings and donations, we help expand God’s kingdom and also have rewarding interactions with others in our community. These interactions make it easier for us to spread the gospel. For example, a child from our church recently started painting sun-catchers to raise money for local foster-care children. As of this writing, she is close to raising $1,000!
Create opportunities for children to learn to be good stewards. During the Christmas season, our church adopted a local public elementary school. We gave presents to the students and their siblings. In response, we received a large envelope filled with thank-you notes, and even a canvas that one child painted of our church. Two letters caught my attention: both writers said that when they grow up, they, too, will give gifts to others as we did. Examples can be powerful!
We are not born understanding basic financial concepts, and certainly generosity and stewardship don’t come naturally to us. Even adults struggle. One can presume their parents struggled too, and passed on dysfunctional money behaviors to their offspring. Years ago, while I was working in a bank, a man came in to ask me if I could help him balance his checkbook. He handed it over. I noted that he still had many checks left, and yet still somehow his account was overdrawn. At first I thought it was a joke, but soon I realized how serious he was. I never forgot this object lesson in the supreme importance of basic money management.
Above all else, it is our responsibility to teach children to love Jesus with their finances. Teach them to joyfully share not just their money but His love, too, through words and actions. After all, God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:6, 7).
¹ “State of the Bible, 2018,” accessed March 15, 2021, https://www.barna.com/research/state-of-the-bible- 2018-seven-top-findings/.
² Angelita Williams, “New Research: Four in 10 American Households Had Difficulty Withstanding a Financial Crisis Before COVID-19,” accessed March 15, 2021, https://www.finra.org/media-center/ newsreleases/2021/new-research-four-10-american-households-had-difficulty-withstanding.