Children and Money

The Slippery Slope of “Don’t Tell Mom or Dad”

The Slippery Slope of "Don't Tell Mom or Dad" | www.TheHeavyPurse.comAs I have shared with you previously, most kids are not actively taught how to handle money but instead learn from observing how their parents handle their money, both good and bad. This is just one of the many reasons that I strongly believe couples must be open with each other regarding money matters. Too often I see couples grit their teeth and say nothing when they feel upset about the way their spouse handles money, until one day they explode. And every grievance, money related or not, comes out. Not only is this incredibly scary for your children, it adds unnecessary stress to your marriage.

In my post, Couples Financial Therapy: 4 Keys to a Happy Marriage, I shared the importance of good communication in a marriage to help ensure you and your spouse are on the same page money-wise. I also shared an interesting infographic on Financial Infidelity. And I specifically want to address two areas: “Don’t tell …” and defining money transparency in a relationship. Today I am going to focus on the ever popular, “Don’t Tell” phenomena.

Everyone Says “Don’t Tell Mom or Dad” so It Must Be Okay

It’s almost become a joke—right? We see TV shows, movies and commercials filled with examples of moms and dads advising their kids to “not tell …”. We’ve all overheard someone (or been that someone) telling their kids not to tell mom or dad about what they bought.

Please note: Don’t confuse telling your child to keep a present secret as financial infidelity. It’s not, although be prepared for young children to immediately blurt out the big secret anyway. 🙂 But don’t just say “Don’t tell Mom or Dad I bought this” without an explanation as to why it’s a secret. It’s their birthday present, anniversary gift or an I love you treat. The why is what matters and just like you always need to share the why when you say “no” to an “I want” moment.

The Real Meaning Behind Your Request

I’m going to be blunt here—if your child cannot tell Mom or Dad about what you bought, then why are you buying it? I’m guessing because you are spending money you shouldn’t be and know your partner will not be happy to find out about your splurge, essentially you are making your child a co-conspirator to your financial infidelity.

So let me paint a picture for you. You take your kids shopping with you to pick-up needed items. You notice your favorite store is having a big sale that you can’t miss. So you pick up a few things, even on sale, but know you can’t tell your partner about your shopping excursion without starting an argument. So you tell your kids “don’t tell Mom or Dad …”

How does this feel?

Now imagine the scenario but instead of telling your kids, “don’t tell”, you instead say, “I can’t wait to go home and show your Mom or Dad what I bought!”

Does that feel different? I sure hope so!

The Repercussions of Asking Kids to Hide Our Purchases

Some of you may still be wondering what the big deal is. Well, there are a few reasons why it’s a big deal.

  1. Big lie, small lie, white lie—you are still being deceitful, even if it is on a sliding scale. Trust is paramount in a relationship and enough white lies can eventually cause a rift, especially if it goes against your core values, which differ for everyone. Sometimes, once trust is lost or diminished in a relationship, it can never be fully restored either.
  2. I bet you originally heard “Don’t Tell Mom or Dad” from your parents and now you’re teaching your kids the same thing. Now you maybe thinking that you turned out okay and I’m sure you did. But you also learned that money secrets were okay or normal. They shouldn’t be. Money needs to be transparent in a relationship.
  3. And finally, what are you really asking your kids to do? Lie for you. Sure, they may never actually lie on your behalf but you’ve already given them permission to do so. I’m pretty sure most parents teach their kids that lying is wrong and punish them kids when they get caught in a lie, so now you’re really sending mixed messages.

Please know that having said “don’t tell Mom or Dad” in the past doesn’t make you a bad parent. Most of us have said it before and it’s not my intention to make you feel bad for past mistakes. Nobody is perfect, including me! We thought it was cute or harmless and never considered the unintentional lessons being taught. But going forward, I strongly encourage you to think long and hard as to why your kids need to help you hide purchases from their Mom or Dad when you find yourself tempted to ask them to do so.

I love shopping with the girls and telling them that I can’t wait to get home and show their Dad what we bought. I’m demonstrating to them how using money in alignment with my values and goals feels good. There is no guilt or shame or resentment behind my purchases. Just joy.

Money Transparency Feels Good

Next Monday, I will talk about money transparency in a relationship, specifically on setting up a system to balance freedom to spend while still being held accountable.


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February 24, 2014  •  44 Comments  •  Children and Money

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  1. Monday, February 24th, 2014
    What a great message. I had never thought about it before, but you are so right about the fact that by asking children to not tell you are making them a co-conspirator and sending an unhealthy message. Thanks for posting this Shannon!
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 24th, 2014
      Thanks, Dee! I honestly don't believe parents understand what they asking their children to do. They think it's a joke or no big deal. Something that is harmless. They don't realize the message they send by buying things they need to hide from their spouse and the affect it can have a child - both good and bad.
  2. Monday, February 24th, 2014
    Don't worry about being blunt...preach it! :) I like how you explained that telling the reason is truly important, provided it is a valid reason. Otherwise you are only teaching lying, cover-ups, and keeping secrets from your spouse...all of which is unhealthy. The sad thing is, by people setting this example, it facilitates their kids repeating the communication unhealthiness in the next generation of marriages.
  3. Monday, February 24th, 2014
    I can definitely see why hiding a purchase would be a bad behavior to expose a kid to. Kids are like sponges and absorb everything {both good and bad}.
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 24th, 2014
      Yes, they are like sponges Liz. It's easy to forget that sometimes until we see them mimic our behavior. Unfortunately, they don't always chose our best behaviors and habits to emulate!
  4. Monday, February 24th, 2014
    Like in any aspect of the relationship, keeping secrets is not good, but even more with money since it is one of the main reasons people break up or fight. We are very transparent about money so we only fight when I am being too cheap and he wants to splurge haha but we never hid anything from each other safe surprises.
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 24th, 2014
      I agree, Pauline. Given how high divorce rates are and the role money often plays, it's incredibly important to be honest and transparent with your money. It's great that you and your boyfriend have such a good relationship and easily talk about money. It sounds like you're a good match - he can call you out when you're being cheap and you can pull him back when he's overindulging. :)
  5. Monday, February 24th, 2014
    I don't think anything good can come out of telling your kid not to tell the other parent about a purchase. I hope this is one thing I avoid doing when I become a parent!
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 24th, 2014
      No, it really can't. I know many parents never really thought about the message it was conveying. Some obviously "needed" to hide their financial infidelity but it's a big burden to place on your children's shoulders, especially if you get busted. They feel responsible for the argument and often those are the kids who grow up to very passive with voicing any concerns or opinions about how money is spent to avoid money arguments. I have no doubt that when you and Victoria decide to have your kids that you will be great role models for them!
  6. Monday, February 24th, 2014
    Oh man, what a bad precedent to set! I love the point that if you can't tell your spouse that you bought something, you really have to evaluate why it is that you're buying it. Surprising someone is one thing. Deceiving them is another and definitely only leads to bad things.
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 24th, 2014
      It is such a bad precedent to set. And secret-keeping, whether it parents or kids, is never good. I'm sure a lot of financial infidelity happens because someone is feeding an emotion. Their intent is probably not to deceive their partner, but when they have to hide and lie about what they bought, then they have created rift, even if it's not immediately apparent.
  7. Monday, February 24th, 2014
    Love this, Shannon. So many people think it's no big deal to do this, however, you are teaching your kids that it's okay to be dishonest if it'll save your tail. What a terrible message! Thanks for a great post.
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 24th, 2014
      You're absolutely right, Laurie. It's interesting that you mention beyond the poor money lessons you're demonstrating, you're also teaching them that lying is acceptable if it gets you out of trouble. Another bad lesson to teach and I bet most parents don't even realize they are doing it.
  8. Monday, February 24th, 2014
    "Big lie, small lie, white lie—you are still being deceitful, even if it is on a sliding scale." I could not agree more Shannon! We have a hugely powerful role in our kids lives and setting them up with this line is only going to harm them in the future. If it isn't money, then it's going to be something else they're going to try and hide which can really have a long term impact. After all, if Mom and Dad are doing it then why shouldn't I?
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 24th, 2014
      You got it, John! It seems like such an unimportant phrase since it's become a bit of a cultural joke to an extent. People laugh when they hear it, but the reality is that it teaches your kids a lot of bad lessons. And kids are often super literal, especially when they are young. We are the biggest influencers in our kids lives (even when sometimes it appears they don't hear us) and what we demonstrate carries a lot of weight with them.
  9. Monday, February 24th, 2014
    Ugh, I never do that!
    My kids do try to use us against each other, though. My four-year-old is bad about it. If dad says no to something, she sometimes asks me. It's gotten to the point where she gets in trouble for asking the second parent for anything that parent #1 said no to.
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 24th, 2014
      I can relate! I think all kids try to test the boundaries and if one parent says "no" … well, the other one might say "yes". It's good that you're teaching your daughter at early age that's not acceptable before it's becomes too much of habit. And hopefully she continues to work for Ben and Jerry's for awhile longer too! :)
  10. Monday, February 24th, 2014
    I totally agree with this! Showing your children that you hide things from your spouse is such a bad example in so many ways. We have an obligation as parents to lead by example and leading with a lie is not a lesson I want my son to learn. If I was buying something I didn't want my husband to know about (other than a gift for him), I would have to do some serious soul searching as to why I couldn't share the purchase with him.
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 24th, 2014
      It absolutely is our obligation as parents to lead by example and they do observe far more carefully than we often realize. I don't want to teach my girls that lying is okay - money-related or otherwise. I don't think most parents who ask their to "not tell Mom or Dad" really realize the lessons they are teaching. They think it's normal and it shouldn't be.
  11. Monday, February 24th, 2014
    I definitely grew up in a "don't tell your dad" house... and I think the state of my parents' finances reflect that. Thanks for pointing out the cycle. Hopefully I can break it someday.
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 24th, 2014
      A lot of parents don't think of it as a bad thing. It's just something everyone says. But there is a money lesson there and unfortunately it's not one we really want our kids to mimic. I'm glad that you recognize the cycle and can be the one to break it in the future!
  12. Monday, February 24th, 2014
    great post, great message! Thank you so much for sharing.
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 24th, 2014
      You're welcome! Glad you enjoyed it. :)
  13. Monday, February 24th, 2014
    I can remember my mom saying that to us as kids. I never took it too seriously, but it makes me wonder if there was something physiologically negative in that message, even if she said it jokingly.
  14. Girl Meets Debt
    Tuesday, February 25th, 2014
    J and I have completely separate finances but I still like to tell him about "big" purchases that are going to cost $50 or more. "There is no guilt or shame or resentment behind my purchases. Just joy." - J may not understand why I need to buy a face cream that costs $50 but then I point out that I'm 30 with no premature wrinkles because I'm all about preventive skincare and then he just shuts up. ;)
    • Shannon
      Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
      LOL! 30!!! So young, my friend, although I'm glad to hear you're taking good care of your skin because you (and J) will be thankful you did! :)
  15. Tuesday, February 25th, 2014
    Great post, Shannon, and I couldn't agree more with #3. I hear that at times and I think it puts kids in a vulnerable situation, even if they don't fully comprehend it. I like to say omission is lying, and really value transparency, especially with money and relationship matters!
    • Shannon
      Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
      It does put kids in an awkward situation, especially since young children tend to be really poor secret-keepers. They know a secret and they want to share! And imagine how they must feel after they share their secret (out of innocence and joy of having a secret) that leads to a fight between Mom and Dad. They think it's their fault and it's 100% not but they don't understand. And again - congratulations on your newly wedded bliss and I wish you and B many wonderful years together.
  16. Tuesday, February 25th, 2014
    I've heard other moms say that to their kids, while I'm in Target for example. It's just so wrong!
    • Shannon
      Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
      Me too, Mackenzie! It always makes me cringe. Hopefully, they will read this post and change their tune! :)
  17. Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
    Great article, Shannon.

    I have seen this as well.. And I think it's very common in unhealthy relationships. It tells your kids that dishonesty is okay, and that is certainly not a lesson that is going to serve them well.
    • Shannon
      Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
      Thanks, Jefferson. It really does teach your kids that dishonesty is okay. Or as Laurie noted that lying is acceptable option if means it gets you out of trouble. These are not lessons most parents would teach their kids but many are inadvertently doing so when they tell their kids to "Not to tell Mom or Dad".
  18. Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
    Excellent post. I definitely agree with Liz that children are like sponges and they absorb everything. As parents, we are their role models...and by telling them to keep a financial secret from another parent is just a horrible thing to be teaching them.
    • Shannon
      Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
      Thanks, Andrew! I agree too - kids are sponges and they see everything and take in far more than we think they do. These is certainly not a lesson we want to teach them.
  19. Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
    I'd never really thought about that before! What a good gut-check for parents. I guess I'm lucky I never heard that from my own parents (except when it came to presents, but you said that doesn't count!)
    • Shannon
      Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
      It's something few parents do think about, unfortunately. It's not as innocent as they make think it is. And yes - keeping presents a secret is fine! :)
  20. Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
    I remember reading this in an earlier post of yours and recognized this as something my parents have done many times in my life. I also recognized that I didn't feel weird about lying to them about other things and used this as an excuse in high school (like "mom I don't tell dad when you buy extra shoes so why tell him that I spend $40 on xyz this weekend?) I mostly associated the appropriateness of lying with money, but it's still a damaging lesson. (One I've since removed from my moral handbook).
    • Shannon
      Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
      Absolutely! The message that lying is okay and an acceptable means to getting out of trouble is what kids hear when they are told to "not tell Mom or Dad". The sad part is so many parents don't really realize what they are teaching their kids as I can't imagine they would tell their kids this. Glad to hear that you recognize the danger of this phrase and have removed it from your vocabulary!
  21. Thursday, February 27th, 2014
    So true — If they cannot tell Mom or Dad what they bought, then why are you buying it? I have used that line to sneak treats to my daughter :) with Mom clearly hearing/watching. But we're very transparent with our money, I can't imagine hiding purchases. It can only get you into trouble.
    • Shannon
      Friday, February 28th, 2014
      I suspect many of the "don't tell Mom or Dad" purchases are made emotionally, so common sense may be overridden by what ever emotion is urging to buy. Hiding purchases is definitely a recipe for trouble.
  22. Friday, February 28th, 2014
    I can understand if it's a gift or something that's meant to be a surprise, but otherwise, you're right- just teaches bad lessons.
    • Shannon
      Friday, February 28th, 2014
      It does. And it's even more unfortunate because I don't think most parents realize the message they are sending.
  23. Monday, June 23rd, 2014
    Excellent article Shannon, and very good points that little white lies can lay the ground for that same behaviour in your kids. One reason you may bring your kids in on the "secret" in the first place is that you feel like you are bonding over it. Sharing a secret is like having something special between you and little Joe that is ONLY between you and therefore makes you feel closer. That's no excuse though! There are certainly other ways of bonding that won't create bad habits later.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Monday, June 23rd, 2014
      Absolutely, Natalie. It's very hard for our kids to understand why it's okay for us to lie and not for them. The right kind of a secret can be a bonding experience with your kids, such as buying a birthday gift for a loved one that they need to keep secret until their birthday party, but that is easy for you to explain to your kids without creating a bad habit.
  • Meet Shannon

    "As a Certified Financial Planner, it is my passion to help individuals and families build a healthy relationship with money. I look forward to helping you raise financially confident kids.” - Shannon Ryan