What money messages are books sending kids?

Cinderella. Jack and the Beanstalk. Aladdin. Even Harry Potter. So many of the books we read as children, or read to children, reflect particular money beliefs. Untold treasures in a secret cave, or at the end of a rainbow.

The beliefs we have about money are often linked to childhood experiences and messages. We learn to ‘speak’ money within the home and the family, and the lessons we learn as children often impact on how we handle money later in life.

Last year, I was privileged to meet Annabelle Mooney at the Money Talks conference, along with her co-contributors Tanweer Ali and Eva Lebdušková. And last month, I was very excited to receive a copy of the book The Language of Money and Debt edited by Mooney and Sifaki. This fantastic book has a whole section dedicated to money and childhood, the topic of my post today.

In The Language of Money and Debt, Astrid Van den Bossche highlights a lack of research on the financial worlds of children. Yet, as editors Annabelle Mooney and Evi Sifaki contend, ‘it seems reasonable to think that as children we acquire a kind of financial literacy in the way we acquire language: through repeated exposure to social practices.’

‘Just like language, the money system of an economic community only works because the members of the community have structure their social interactions around this money system’ (Bjerg, 2014).

The importance of stories

One of the ways in which children learn about this money system is via language itself. Through stories. As Hunt says, the central characters in children’s fiction like Cinderella or the Wizard of Oz, become part of our psyche, linking us not simply to childhood and story telling, but to basic myths and archetypes.

Tanweer Ali and Eva Lebdušková, whom I was privileged to meet at the conference, and again later in Prague, point out that ‘the written word engages children in a way that film does not. After all, a great deal is left to the reader’s imagination in the absence of visual representation, sound and voice.’

Chapter books often represent a wonderful opportunity for parents or teachers and children to actually engage. Especially when adults read books to younger children.

Ali and Lebdušková take the Harry Potter series as an example of how children are exposed to conceptualizations of money and wealth in books. They argue that although Rowling demonstrates sensitivity to inequalities and social justice, her books present a rather conservative worldview to her readers.

Poor people are good. Rich people are bad.

In Harry Potter, Ali and Lebdušková argue, it is better to be poor than rich, ‘and we are led to prefer the poor to the rich.’ At first blush, this might seem like a moral tale, and indeed, we are led to prefer the poor (e.g. Cinderella) to the rich in many stories. However, as the authors point out, making the rich into evildoers and the poor into heroes may be seen to subtly reinforce the status quo. The poor in Harry Potter are more appealing, warmer, and more pleasant to be with. Consider the contrast between Harry’s experiences with the Dursleys vs the Weasleys. There is very little incentive to ‘better’ oneself financially if wealth brings evil.

I remember reading one of my own childhood favourites, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to a class of children at a remote school in Fiji. At the time, I realised how differently I interpreted the opening chapter in that context, where living in single or two-room houses, with multiple generations, was the norm, and very occasional consumption of chocolate (a rare treat due to the heat and distance from the mainland) was not a mark of poverty.

I believe Charlie is another book in which we are led to prefer to the poor to the rich. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where Veruca Salt and Mike Teavee and the rest of the barrage of spoiled rich brats are presented as much less relatable and admirable than impoverished and sympathetic Charlie. And of course poor Cinderella is, in both morality and beauty, much better than her spoiled rich step-sisters.

Why is this so?

This poor=good and rich=bad trope in children’s stories which have a moral tale may be intended as a corrective to the seemingly common belief that the inverse is true. As the Money Advice Service reports, 16-21 year olds described ‘being good with money’ as showing restraint, organisation, and restriction. Qualities they defined as dull and unenticing.

Mooney and Sifaki explain that being wealthy is often associated with generosity, and generosity with goodness. Meanwhile, poverty is associated with meanness, and meanness with badness.

Sometimes, we take a shortcut, and assume that rich=good, even when generosity is not involved (or, likewise, that poor=bad). We see this, says Mooney and Sifaki, not just in the way we idolise the rich in the media, but in ‘the ongoing demonisation and indeed criminalisation of the poor’.

Or… are poor people bad and the rich good?

The poor=good and rich=bad trope is not universal, however. As Van den Bossche’s analysis of the popular childrens’ books Master Money, Dogger, and The Great Pet Sale demonstrates, other books – especially, perhaps, those which focus on money in a more educative sense – are clear expressions of middle class norms.

Master Money glorifies the morality of the bourgeoisie while suggesting the inevitability of moral corruption among the destitute. Though much more subtle, Dogger also is set within a respectable, clearly recognisable family; The Great Pet Sale assumes a protagonist with (limited, but effective) purchasing power.’

All three of these books are popular in schools, bookshops and libraries, and two of them The Great Pet Sale and Master Money the Millionaire) are actually recommended in the Money Counts guide to teaching money distributed to schools in England, Scotland and Wales.

What’s the real message?

Ultimately, neither poverty nor wealth is a guarantee of ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’. No person is good because they are good, or because they are poor. Generosity is not the exclusive preserve of the rich. Nor is meanness only practiced by the poor. In fact, somewhat counter intuitively, as The Millionaire Next Door and social experiments reveal, the very wealthy can be among the meannest of people, and as multiple studies have shown, the poor tend to give away a greater portion of their money.

Just as parents need to be mindful of the messages the games their children are playing, it is important to also consider both the moral and the economic messages of books and other media that children are exposed to. Books are a wonderful opportunity to start a conversation with your kids about money. And to examine some of these stereotypes.

Start the conversation

Asking questions before, during, and after reading is an excellent way to help guide your child’s reading. You can evaluate their comprehension, and encourage active engagement. Here’s a start:

  • Who was your favourite character?
  • Which character did you like the least?
  • What do you think of this character?
  • Why do you think that?
  • What do think the author wanted people to remember about this story?
  • Was there one big lesson you took away from this book?
  • What would you have done differently if you wrote this book?

Grab your free bookmark printable with these questions!

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