Dang, kids are expensive. Raising one to age 17 could run you upwards of $200,000. They need stuff. Like food, shelter, education…and super-mega-awesome swingsets to define their suburban youths.

Shortly after leaving New York City for a more bucolic life, I embarked on buying my kids a swingset. Once I’d identified all the necessary components (think Castle Black, built entirely out of weather-resistant PVC), I enlisted our gardener to build a moat around it because, um, what’s the point of an operable drawbridge without one? Then I shared the five-figure proposal with my husband, and his look of utter horror confirmed it: I’d lost my damn mind.

We’d always been clear about our financial plans and priorities, but we’d never really discussed our values in the context of kids. And while the swingset-of-awesomeness was theoretically for our children, it had absolutely nothing to do with their needs and everything to do with our own principles.

The conversation that ensued wasn’t about a swingset: How did we want our kids to think about prioritizing needs and wants? How did we want them to feel about money? About work? About eventually sharing their earnings, regardless of how deep their pockets might be? Two things quickly became clear: We needed to be totally aligned before talking to our kids about any of it. And Swingset Black wasn’t happening.

Cat Dunbar Photography

As it turns out, stumbling into the values discussion isn’t uncommon. Parents often jump right to the tactics of teaching money management (do we give allowance? should we pay for chores? for grades?) without deeply considering the underlying values they want to communicate—values like resourcefulness, patience and compassion, that translate to other aspects of life beyond financial responsibility.

“Parents really have a strategy problem, not an execution problem,” says Sharon Danes, Professor and Family Economist at the University of Minnesota. “You can do plenty of activities to make finance concrete for children at different ages, but it really starts with talking to each other about what you want to achieve. Not only what you’d like your kids to do with money once they have it, but how you want them to treat it and feel about it.”

Danes advises parents start the money conversation by breaking it down into its component parts—spending, saving, sharing and investing—not with both kids and each other. “There are issues around values and how you model them in all of these areas,” she says. “Going into a discussion about money can be scary as hell. But if you have a discussion about something specific and contained, it can be less daunting, with less chance for conflict to evolve.”

Studies show those conversations aren’t happening as often as they should, even among parents in the same household. Fear of conflict is often at the root of the problem.
More than one-third of married parents surveyed by T.Rowe Price say they rarely discuss long-term financial issues with each other, if ever. Forty-two percent argue about money at least occasionally, and more than a third are actually secretive about it, maintaining financial accounts their spouses don’t know about.

Sheesh. No wonder financial values don’t make for popular dinner table conversation.

Still, even parents who are clear on their goals create their own roadblocks to achieving them. “I have this mindset that I have to provide more for my daughter than my parents provided for me,” says Jolina Cuaresma, a lawyer and single mom of a ten-year-old girl in Washington, DC, echoing a common refrain among parents. “I want to give her all the things I didn’t have, but I don’t want to raise—for lack of a better word—an asshole. How do you do that?”

And that, kids, is exactly what Swingset-Gate 2017 came down to: We want you to have all the awesome things in life. We really do. But more than that, we really don’t want you to be assholes. So, sorry about the drawbridge. If you want to earn it with your allowance, let’s talk about it over dinner.