According to the National Education Association, six out of ten teens witness bullying in school each day. Severity ranges from name-calling to threats to actual violence. We are all familiar with blatant bullying, such as the case of bus monitor Karen Klein of Upstate New York, who was bullied on the school bus. But bullying has many forms. Physical, psychological and cyberbullying get a lot of media attention. Money bullying is less sensational, but no less real.
What is "money bullying?" There has been little or no discussion on this topic, so I coined the phrase in an effort to focus attention on the problem. We all know about kids being teased if they don't have the latest clothes or if they don't live in the most desirable part of town, but there is another side that goes mostly unnoticed. "Money bullying" is harassment about a perceived elevated socio-economic level -- exerting pressure to pay for activities and goods. "Your parents are rich -- you buy lunch."
I worked with a middle class couple with a son who was a senior in high school. Both parents worked -- the husband even held a second job. The son had a weekend job which enabled him to pay for the insurance and gas on his hand-me-down car. They had a nice house in a nice neighborhood, for which they worked very hard. They were living the "American Dream."
The couple noticed that their kid was making excessive debits from their joint bank account. The son also asked to borrow gas money a couple of weeks in a row. They were increasingly concerned that something was wrong. When a credit card bill arrived showing that their son had charged a pricey meal at an expensive local restaurant on his "emergency only" credit card, the unusual spending had to be addressed.
It was time for a family meeting and they asked me to join them. The boy had been raised on my allowance system and had always been very responsible. The parents asked where he was spending the money and in particular about that pricey dinner he had charged. He was hesitant to answer, at first shrugging it off with "I don't know -- movies and stuff, I guess." To which his parents replied, "That's a lot of money for 'movies and stuff.' Are you being a 'big shot' and paying for all your friends?"
Finally, the boy admitted that his friends had been pressuring him to pay for things. "They ask me to go to the movies with them since I have the car and I have a job -- so we go and I end up paying."
I asked the if, indeed, it made him feel like a "big shot" to pay for his friends. "No!" He quickly answered -- "But they make me feel guilty when I say 'no'." As an afterthought, he added -- "Sometimes I wonder if they would be my friends if I didn't have a car."
I taught him how to deal with his money bullies. Here are 5 tools to help you and your children:
1. Talk to your kids about money bullying and how to recognize it.
2. Choose your words carefully. Be clear and concise. Don't get into a debate of "what's right or wrong." There's nothing wrong with treating a friend once in a while -- if it's your choice.
3. Give examples of simple things he can say to his friends and role-play with him. If you are well-off and do give your kids money, they could say, "It's my parent's money, not mine." Or, if your child is working and has his own spending money, they could say,"I'll be going to college soon -- I'm on a strict budget so I can help with college costs."
4. Explain that standing up for himself will give him a sense of empowerment. Discuss his feelings. Fear of losing friends is real, but true friends like you for who you are and not for the things you can give them. Take back control of your spending choices.
5. Offer alternate activities that everyone can afford. Instead of taking your friends out to the movies, suggest that you rent a DVD and watch it at home. Go out for an inexpensive meal when you can each afford to pay your own way -- how about pizza night?
No matter which form it takes, bullying is hurtful and wrong. We never think of people who are well-off as having any problems. Also, even adults can be faced with money bullies -- knowing how to stand up for one's self will help reestablish a sense of self-control and self-worth.
Do you have a money bullying story? Please share it with us in the space provided below.