THE BLOG

Talking to Our Children About Capital Controls

My 5-year-old was bawling her eyes out on the way home; she wanted an ice cream cone, a croissant, a bottle of orange juice, some cookies -- everything I had just explained she will have to cut down on while we have access to just 60 euros per day through the bank ATMs.

This is Greece, where nobody has any real idea about when life is going to get back to normal and where children have started to ask some really difficult questions -- a few of which we, adults, have only recently started asking ourselves too.

"Why?" Stefania demanded to know and I was at a loss for answers. For big questions like that, I usually take my time in order to think them over, rehearse possible replies, choose the one that seems sounder at the moment and then test it against the next probable "whys".

But now I didn't have the time and I sure as hell didn't have the clearheadedness that such tasks require, because "clearheadedness" is the last thing anybody would think of when trying to describe the way we all carry ourselves around these days in Greece.

Capital controls were imposed just a few hours after a national referendum was called by the Greek government -- one that is going to decide on the future of negotiations between Greece and its creditors. And while terrified elders were queueing up in front of ATMs, worrying about what the next weeks, or maybe months, have in store for us, I tried to explain the situation to Stefania, starting from the end.

It was decided that we can each withdraw just a little money from the bank everyday, so that we don't run out very soon, I said, and as she started prodding for more, I attempted to go a little forward ("We'll first have to pay for the things that matter most, like real food, and then see if we can buy some ice cream too.") and then a little backwards ("Because we have to repay the money that other countries have lent to us, but right now we can't.") and then a little bit more ("Because for many many years Greece had been spending more money than it made.")

I would stop every now and then, searching for the right word, at least one that would better illustrate what I make of the upheaval and its causes or figuring out whether the thing I was about to say would scare her too much or trying to imagine what people around me thought of my hack explanations.

People were listening, indeed.

I could almost feel their ears flexing to make out as much as they could, just like when a couple fights in public and all whispers seem to stop and their argument is the only thing that matters. I think that some of those around us were glad to pick up some ideas that would help them talk to their kids that evening, while others were comparing what I was saying with things they had said. Maybe they even wanted to interrupt and correct me or add some useful detail, while the older ones nodded ruefully. "Thank God mine have grown up now. They probably need to explain to me one or two things." And the younger ones looked over pitifully. "Thank God I have only myself to worry about."

And all that time I was wondering what the other parents are saying to their kids right now. How many different words, phrasings, interpretations, answers, simplifications are being heard, right at this moment, all around Greece, now that everyday humdrum is forcing us to share with the little ones things that we would otherwise try to protect them from? How does every single parent, uncle or teacher translate their own views, fears and impressions from the past, in a way that they can be understood by children as young as 3 or 4 years old? How do they answer the "whys" and what do they leave out, consciously or unconsciously shaping the children's worldview as they go?
I would so much love to be everywhere at once and listen and record all these explanations the moment they are given, but I can't. Instead, I asked some of the parents I know to share their experiences with me. And what I found was that there was humor in their answers and there was fear and there was anger and in many cases there was also an honest desire to teach the children, from early on, some of the lessons we are learning now, as adults, the hard way. And there definitely was an urgency to think and to understand, so that we will be readier and more able to explain as much as possible of the things that are going to follow.

'I told my 5-year old that the tooth fairy is going to leave some food stamps under his pillow.' -- Theo, 40

'I told my 4-year-old that our country is poor and that we asked for money, but they wouldn't give it to us, because we had acted like windbags. And when he pressed for more, I told him that unfortunately decisions are usually made by those who have the money. And that because right now the banks cannot give us much cash, we can't buy expensive things (like a bike or a big Batman) and we can only buy food. I just hope that I won't need to explain to him why we don't have enough money to buy milk or meat.' -- Katherine, 39

'My son asked me whether the eight billion Euros will have to be repaid by just one Greek or we will all have to chip in.' -- Alexia, 38

'My 4-year-old asked me why we keep watching TV all the time, and I told her that our country is in trouble because it can't buy everything it needs. And that everyone has been looking for a solution, but it isn't easy to find one. She told me that those who have more money should give some to us and then we should give some to those who have less, 'just like we do with my clothes, Mommy.'' -- Artemis, 34

'I always tell him the truth, as simply as I can. In this case, I told him that all our governments have been corrupt and we are now facing the consequences.' -- Vanita, 35

'My 5-year old was crying today, because he wanted to have dinner at the neighborhood taverna. When I told him that we have to spend less now, because the banks are closed, he retorted "Well, that's too bad, but we can build our own bank and never let it close. Can we go to the taverna now?'' -- Maria, 36

'Well, I find it hard to agree about capital controls with my economist friends. How can I discuss them with my 3-year-old?' -- Vassilis, 39