Kids & Money

Fiscal cliff provides a real-life civics problem

At the dinner table tonight or the next time you’re driving the carpool, you might ask your teen a question: Is anybody at school talking about the fiscal cliff?

Be prepared for sudden, deep silence and perhaps a roll or two of the eyeballs. Or, if you’re blessed, a couple of grunts from the back seat about something mentioned in social studies or civics class.

There’s not a teenager I know who gives a care in the world about the debate going on in Washington right now aimed at preventing the nation from going into financial shock early next year.

Spending cuts? Tax increases? Controlling the deficit? I can already hear teens saying, “It’s not my problem.”

Regardless, it’s still good to talk about the collection of tax increases and spending cuts known as the fiscal cliff because so much is at stake, and the ramifications will still be felt as your kids enter the workforce a few years from now. (I think everyone could use further insight into our country’s financial problems — not just high schoolers.)

The challenge for parents may be how to make the topic relevant.

It’s challenging, but by no means impossible.

Parents, start by searching online for a textbook definition of the fiscal cliff.

You can’t talk to your 17-year-old without a grasp of the issues. Unfortunately, a recent poll indicated that about 30 percent of adults weren’t sure what the fiscal cliff refers to.

The term became popular after a February appearance by Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. In congressional testimony, he described “a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases” that would take place on Jan. 1, 2013.

You can also cut through all the political doublespeak by breaking down the country’s financial problems in very simple terms.

Instead of explaining the mismatch between spending and tax revenue and the effect on the country’s debt load and credit rating, remove some zeros and pretend you’re talking about the household budget.

It might put things in better perspective by reviewing (in real or imaginary numbers) annual family income, money spent, credit card debt and the amount that will need to be cut from the household budget to pay the bills. Or the conversation could shift to the second job you might need to bring in more income — since, unlike Uncle Sam, your family can’t print more money.

Should parents stay neutral on the topic in front of their kids? Frankly, most people can’t help but show a bias toward one solution or another — consider this as face to face a teaching opportunity as you can get.

Even if your kids’ eyes glaze over, at least you can say years from now that you did your best to alert them to a real-life civics problem.