How to teach child not to "waste"?

I'm at a loss. My almost 7 year old just does not understand the concept of saving something or that everything in our house we have to spend money to buy.


he's at an age where we are encouraging him to make his own breakfast and snacks (cereal, apple sauce, scoop nuts, grab some chips, some cheese, etc, nothing with fire). Most of the time he takes too much and then doesn't finish, and then the food ends up getting thrown away, or I'm the garbage can and eating it. I'm so tired of having to constantly reminding him to not take too much. And I'm sure he's tired of my nagging as well. 

Or we go to the park with a ball to play catch. We toss it back and forth, everything is great, and then he'll do a huge throw on purpose to make me have a hard time catching it, and the ball ends up in the bushes where we can't find it, and he'll say that's ok, we have another one in the car. But that ball cost me money! 

Or he has a ream of printer paper that is all his for art and crafts, writing, drawing, paper airplanes, anything. I guess a ream looks like an endless supply, he will often start to write something and with a little mistake, he'll throw away the whole page instead of erasing it or flipping it over to use the other side.

He also uses an exorbitant amount of soap when showing/washing, never remembers to turn off lights, squeezes way too much toothpaste... you get the idea. We are not rich, we're one income, we rent, I work long hours to try and save money so we can buy food, pay rent, insurance, etc etc. Both sets of my grandparents lived through WWII and my parents were children then, growing up I was very aware of the need to save because that's what everyone around me did. How can I teach my child to be more aware of what he consumes, to not waste? I model good behavior daily, but it just doesn't register for him and he has no worry. 

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This drives me nuts with our kids too! They’re a little older - 8 & 10, so we’ve tried a lot of things. When the 10 yr old was younger, he went through jackets like they were water - lost them over and over again. The younger one went through water bottles in a similar way.  Drove me nuts.

I can’t say we’ve solved the problem - its an uphill never ending battle - but one thing that helped for us was making our kids responsible for replacing lost / used items. We provide an allowance to enable this. So the first item is on us, and they replace from there.

The 10 yr old seems to have finally stopped losing jackets. He went through about a year of searching the lost and found, asking for hand me downs from friends (and wearing too small jackets), and consignment shopping. The 8 yr old doesn’t get a fancy water bottle, and now refills a disposable bottle or freebie bottles. 

For food, we tried saving it and putting it with the next meal or in a lunchbox which is sometimes effective. We also limit to one scoop and guarantee seconds during family meal. But there’s still a lot of food waste.

I have completely given up on soap in the shower and just accept that. I buy it in the enormous bottles with a pump dispenser which at least limits how much they get per pump compared to a regular shampoo bottle. For hand soap I switched to the foaming kind so filling the hands uses much less soap.

Interested to see what other ideas folks have.

This is typical today because we as a country are so affluent! I grew up without much and it drives me crazy to see kids so wasteful. I noticed that my son doesn’t care what I model, but he cares when it affects him directly. When I tell him “this is all I am paying for. If you use it all, lose it, or waste it, you will have to pay for the replacement” it gets his attention.  Ultimately it is up to us to not give them endless resources. Let things run out. Let them understand that actions have consequences. Then you will get their attention.  

My daughter is almost 7 but she is very conscious about not wasting things. I’ve found that the money argument is lost on her but we talk a lot about resources and how that effects the planet which she is very concerned about. So if she lost the ball she knows that it’s plastic and won’t decompose so we can’t just leave it on the ground (for example), or that wasting food (or water, or using too much “stuff”) is bad for the environment. My son who is 4 has a lot harder time and will toss things on the ground without care so I do think there’s some personality too! 

It seems like you are expecting your child to make judgments that he does not yet have the ability to make. The things that you describe are not innate to children and they will be impulsive sometimes. Some of the things you describe sound like a sensory-seeking child, as well. If that seems accurate, you may want to look into appropriate ways to meet those needs if you don't like the materials that he is choosing. It is great that you are encouraging independence at such a young age, but maybe he needs a picture or a rule to assist him in making appropriate portion sizes. Instead of giving him fresh paper to use, have him use the back side of used paper. If he is struggling with perfectionism, encourage a growth mindset. Reminders and nagging may make it worse if he wants to get a reaction from you, and it may make him feel bad about himself and compromise your relationship. When you are stressed about having lost the ball, he may be trying to reassure you by saying there is another one there. He is young to understand money and there are many reasons besides that to conserve. Find creative ways to share with him why conservation is something that your family values and he will adopt it when he is able. 

I give our 7 year-old a $1 allowance weekly, regardless of chores/behavior. Between that, cat-sitting, and the tooth fairy, she usually has about $20 in her piggy bank. When she wants a non-essential (like a new sweatshirt, despite 3 perfectly good ones in her closet), we research prices together to see if she has enough money. Once she does, I let her purchase it with her money. She occasionally (every three months?) requests to go the the toy store to spend her money, too, which I honor most of the time. I wonder if a strategy like this would work with your ball scenario (though not really with food or shampoo).

As the child of 2 parents who went through WWII UK rationing, I hear you. But 7 is pretty young, and it is a marathon. There are a lot of different types of "waste" in this letter, and I think I'll encourage you to focus on 3-5 max, for a while. Then move on to others. If it were me, I'd really drill down on the idea that a ball or whatever can immediately be replaced. Look at your own consumption and make sure you're modeling what you want him to learn. Talk about making do with old things, and fixing vs replacing. I don't think it's inapprpriate to tell your kids that you do not have a ton of money. I'm a single mom and I have hammered this point home to my son. I explain we're not in danger - we have funds for safety. But we can't spend those and we have to be careful. I literally just had this convo with him yesterday, and he is 16 ... and generally very aware of money and a saver. You might try a small allowance to start to teach saving. (This didn't work well for us until ours was 9.)  You could sometimes make the child choose - get a new ball? Then give up ice cream for a week. Etc. Make them think about the costs. For meals, we both modeled some restraint, and also just guided when they served. One genius trick that a friend turned me on to was - we prepared and served veggies first, like an appetizer. I'd make big plates of rainbow veggies, maybe some dip (but not usually) and just put it near them before dinner - and us. Then when it was all gone, we'd serve the rest of the meal. I believe this helped make our child a very relaxed and enthusiastic eater of all fruits and veggies.

Okay and - jacket loss is age related. It ends around 5th or 6th grade, I'd say. When my son lost a couple of really nice jackets, we replaced them with ones from a thrift store, to get the message across. (Honestly, he didn't care.)  Good luck :-)

I had a couple of thoughts - re: the food - can you provide some sort of scoop that would give him an appropriate amount of cereal, chips or whatever, and tell him he is only allowed that one scoop at a time, until he is finished, and if he wants more he uses the scoop again?

For the park example, I'd say, if the ball gets lost the game is over and you go home.

Don't give him a ream of paper, give him 10 sheets at a time (a week or day or whatever) and when he's done with them he waits until the next day/week to get more.

Soap and toothpaste are hard, my teen son is still working on those LOL. But with lights, how about teaching him about energy and the earth and climate so he starts to understand that using those lights means burning fuels and making the world hotter, etc.

How about starting to give him an allowance and see how easy it is to spend all his money? My DD never understood what it meant to spend your money until it was HER money that she was spending, and now she is a big saver.

I hope some of these ideas help, above and beyond that, he is only 7 and if you keep at it I'm sure he will learn eventually!

Haha I accidentally made my kid scared of wasting!!!

In Japan we don’t have a “boogie man” instead we have “mottainai baasan”. Mottainai is difficult to translate but it roughly mean too good to waste. And baasan is grandma/hag. The other day when my daughter was wasteful what my own mother used to say slipped out of my mouth. I told her that when she is wasteful mottainai hag is going to come. I saw the fear in her eyes and I felt bad remembering how I was also scared of the same hag. But I guess I don’t mind it too much. We have had conversations that this hag is not a bad person she just remembers the old days when children needed to wake up when it’s still dark out to fetch water etc.