Why is discussing a family's income / personal earnings with children considered taboo?

I’m not much a TV watcher, but I was recently watching an old episode of Home Improvement and one of Tim Allen’s character’s kids asks Tim how much money he makes. Being a sitcom, Tim makes some joke, essentially responding with “if you ask me that again I’m kicking you out of the house.”

Even though my experience with TV is limited I have seen this sentiment expressed before. Further, it’s not limited to TV. Growing up my parents acted like they had very little money: they have bought exactly two new cars (boring, bare-bones, cheap ones) in their entire relationship (38 years as of yesterday), never had cable TV or satellite, never (as in, never) went out to eat, and took the cheapest vacations they could or didn’t take vacations at all. They had a small mortgage on a house bought in 1987, a house they still own today. I always assumed that they simply couldn’t afford what I thought was a standard middle-class lifestyle as they would make comments about wanting to vacation in Mexico or Hawaii, or how nice it would be to buy a new car that had modern conveniences. It wasn’t until years after I had left home that I learned that between them they earned about $250K/year. They have lived their lives in small, rural towns with low cost of living so that income put them in the county’s top few percent of wage earners. I simply never asked them how much they made and assumed it wasn’t much (they were both RN’s, for what it’s worth).

I asked some of my friends about this and even brought it up in one of my classes one day, and it seemed to be universal: parents do not discuss their income with their children and children do not ask about it.

So this got me thinking: why? I know I worry that my kids won’t make smart financial decisions once they leave the nest so I try to teach them to manage money well. Obviously I don’t need to discuss the specifics of our income to do that, but it’s not a secret. I would have no problem showing my kids a pay stub or bank statement if it would help them understand the difference between net / gross pay or the concept of budgeting.

So I guess I have two questions. First, for parents, do you discuss with your children your income and spending habits? Why or why not? Second, and this is more a general question, why do so many people not only feel such discussions are inappropriate but become hostile when the subject is raised? Many people have no problem discussing their personal issues with anyone who will listen—medical issues and family dynamics come immediately to mind—but balk when the subject of money is raised, even by close family. With the possible exception of personal sex-related issues I can’t think of something that people are more private about.

Main concern I can think of is that wealthier parents would be afraid of kids bragging about the family wealth, or making their family vulnerable to exploitation in more dangerous societies, but wealthy is not average, by definition.

I once got chastised by a friend for telling his kid she’d need to save up money to buy an expensive doll on her own (knowing that the friend didn’t really have the money for such a doll). I suppose rightfully chastised. My take is that if parents aren’t doing well, they don’t want their kids to be burdened by the thought of not having enough money. It’s not the kids’ problem, it’s the parents’ problem.

I think it’s linked to the general social taboo of discussing your income with anyone.

People don’t talk about their income in general. I think extending that to kids is just parents teaching them common manners. It’s not as bad as asking people how much they weigh, but it’s up there. And as with weight, there are certain times it is talked about, like with financial professionals, your employer, etc. But not everyday conversation.

I’m not 100% sure why that is, but it is.

Because kids will sometimes use that information to tease and bully others. Like how Cartman is forever running on about Kenny being poor. It is obvious enough in most cases, but kids don’t need to know the actual numbers, it is none of their beeswax.

I am a parent. Our son has never asked how much money we make or money we have. He does know we budget, have savings, etc. We talk about finances, but not specific dollar amounts. We’ve never shied away from talking about it. When we was a kid and he wanted something, if it wasn’t in the budget we told him. If we just weren’t buying it for him, we told him and didn’t pretend it was because we couldn’t afford it.

Once he got into his teens, we talked more about it. We’re pretty solidly middle class, so not worried about him bragging or feeling bad about having as much as others. I’ve shown him how I budget and how I pay bills every two weeks. How and why I’ve divided them up the way I have.

So I guess maybe we aren’t typical. I just wanted my kid to have it different than I did. My parents never discussed finances or talked to us about anything, but I can remember the stress of my dad paying bills and trying to make ends meet when we were younger because I overheard things. Then when I was in my teens we moved and my dad got a better job and all that stopped. As a child I was stressed out about it, and never asked for things. Even when things got better, I would still never ask for things, unless it was my birthday or Christmas. Looking back it was no where near as bad as I thought it was. It would have been better if they’d just told us, at least in vague terms, what was going on.

#1–Kids will blurt it out at school multiple times to anyone that will listen. Kinda like I did in the 3rd grade in 1970 when I found out that my father made Twenty Six Thousand Dollars A Year!!!

#2–Children are just learning about numbers. 10 + 3 = 13, 24 / 4 = 6. $26,000.00 will simply blow minds.

#3–What would a child do with this information? How would they / could they process it?

#4–I can only speak for myself, but when I was in my teens my parents opened up more about finances, budgeting, saving, etc. But at that time I had more understanding of the concepts behind it.

#5–When I became an Adult, they became very transparent about finances. I was now old enough to understand and actually use the information.

Kids don’t have the experience or life context to understand the numbers anyway.

How does that work in countries like Norway where incomes are a matter of public record?

I guess I should clarify that when I say “kids” I don’t mean small children with a vague or non-existent number sense, but rather teens who are beginning to really understand the intricacies of family budgets and the like. In fact, in the Home Improvement episode I mentioned the kid who asked about his dad’s income was 15 or 16 and had just landed his first job and was amazed at how much (to him) money he was making. I can certainly understand keeping specifics hidden from a grade school-age kid, but not a teen.

I have no experience with that so I can’t say. I only know I have raised kids in America. As my sons got to be teens, they got jobs, we taught them more about money and how far it doesn’t go, let them earn and manage and make mistakes. My adult sons now know how much I make because they are mature enough now to know what it means.

Nelson: Hey, look how much Skinner makes–$25,000 a year!
Bart: (typing into a calculator) Let’s see, he’s 40 years old, times $25 grand…whoa, he’s a millionaire!
Children: Wow!
Principal Skinner: I wasn’t a principal when I was one!

Kids also don’t know much about how much things cost. There are plenty of household costs that their parents pay for without them seeing the numbers, so the have no grasp of how expensive things can be.

But, in general, people in the US don’t share their salary information with anyone. This favors the employers, because they can underpay some workers and not have them realize it.

Seems to me that many families eventually have The Conversation once it is time to fill out college applications, no? That is when I learned what my parents were pulling in.

Previous to that, I didn’t have a solid dollar figure, but I knew we weren’t poor because my dad was a school principal. That is a solidly middle class job. I also knew we weren’t rich. We lived in a working class neighborhood. My mother shopped for us at Kmart and JC Penny’s. My parents drove broke-down cars.

I don’t know how getting an exact dollar amount would have informed me about anything, to be honest. I think it was probably good that I didn’t know. Knowing would have given me one additional thing to feel insecure about.

I think Americans in general find it impolite to talk about money. I think we are mum about it because we know that it can trigger negative feelings (jealousy, resentment, shame, snobbery). But perhaps if it weren’t so taboo, we would all become desensitized to the feelings.

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I think the problem is that people really should talk about their own earnings to their children, starting at least by time the kids start high school. I think it would, on the whole, be very good for kids. Knowing what their parents earn, and what they spend, would help kids understand what they can expect in terms of parental help for college/trade school (and know if scholarships were their only options for continuing education without significant debt - might theoretically incentivize some to buckle down, though most kids don’t think that far in the future). It’s also good because they can know what lifestyle a certain income can get someone (at least in their area), and that can help them in determining a general direction for their own future careers - though I suppose that could wait a couple years. If your $250K income parents persistently tell you you’re family is “average” and you see that the median household income in the US is $60K, then you are going to have a very skewed idea of what $60K will get someone.

I don’t keep budgeting software, and so don’t really keep up with what percentage of my income goes where. Though I probably should. I wouldn’t think it would be bad for kids to see real budgets to learn, though. Obviously, in some cases, they’d learn parents make poor decisions just like non-parents do. But it might also help them to understand why a new car or the even the latest iPhone every three years might be a bad idea. I can understand, though, parents don’t what kids judging their spending habits. Really, practically no one wants their spending habits judged. Myself included.

I know there are classes that teach teens budgeting and such, but I didn’t take the one at my school (assigned a different elective), so I do wonder if it’s kinda like the programming classes I took in college - extremely over-simplified.

Taxable income after deductions to be precise, and you now have to log in and your identity is recorded and available to the person who’s income you “snooped”. But it’s been one of the arguments for the practice being problematic that kids would look up the lists when they were published freely online and compare/tease/bully.

Wasn’t a problem when I was a kid. Newspapers only published the data of the prominent people, and you have to go to city hall and request the physical lists to look up your friends and neighbors.

That’s true in the US in some cases also though not as comprehensively. As with top several officers of companies which do SEC filings. A more numerous case is various federal and other govt public employees who get paid according to rank and you just have to know the rank. I mean ones who don’t overtime like police, but even in that case, and many other cases public and private sector, kids by a certain age are going to basically know their family income if its generic occupations, as opposed to professions where people can make a wider range of incomes.

For younger kids the issue is disclosure to friends and neighbors and in US society there is a reason to be uneasy about that IME. Echoing another anecdote above, when I was in grade school we lived in a lower-middle>middle-middle class neighborhood. The people at the end of the block and their kid, my friend, used to be pretty open about how much better off they were than the rest of the block. Caused them some grief. I remember another friend of mine and I once reached a tense agreement ‘our dads make exactly the same’. But I later realized my parents were better off than almost anybody in that neighborhood, just secretive about it. They got a little less uptight about it later both when we kids were older and also we’d moved to an upper middle>rich area where a lot of people actually were better off than we were.

My state made it public record for state employees. If you know my name, you can look me up and see how much my last paycheck was for. Or the entire years. For the last ten years.

I’ve heard (Or read maybe) that not talking about you income is a culture started by big corporations. Because they are the ones who benefit the most out of people not talking about their income.

There’s a good chance this is nonsense, but it sure sounds true.