I often joke about worrying that my children will grow up to be axe murderers or huffing junkies but when I'm being totally honest, and not giving into my familial tendency for exaggeration (I'm looking at you, Dad), what I really worry about is them becoming selfish, self-entitled a-holes, which is, I fear, a natural tendency of our species if left to our own devices. Obviously, there are a lot of those people in the world already and I certainly didn't need to birth any more.
Given our family's relative wealth and comfort, given all the advantages our children have been born into, how do we instill in them a sense of generosity, a tendency for selflessness or even, simply, the value of a dollar?
Understanding our relationship with money- what it's worth and how to manage it thoughtfully- seems to me a good place to start in our Preventing Selfish A-holes agenda. The only problem is, we didn't have any idea how to start teaching our girls the value of a dollar when they're given so much to start with and we can afford to get them pretty much everything they want and need (at least at this age when those things are a new Polly Pocket and a decent pair of shoes).
This all came to a head one day this past summer when I took both girls to the grocery store (which, by the way, is something I try to do as infrequently as possible, like a root canal). While at the checkout counter, as I was trying to keep E from Incredible Hulk-ing her way out of the grocery cart, Z became mesmerized by a few specific toys and candies that she could have if only her mother would part with a few measly quarters. I reminded her that, with those dispensers, she didn't know what she was going to get. This didn't dissuade her in the slightest and I wasn't about to give in to her whining and so I told her a flat but clear no. She ratcheted it up a notch or five with a few "But whyyyyyy?"s and finished it off with this clincher: "But you have lots of money in your wallet! I saw it! Why don't you ever buy things for meeeeee?".
That, I realized, is the crux of the problem in her eyes. We obviously have the money and can afford to buy her an endless supply of crappy plastic toys so "we can't afford it" doesn't ring true. Where does that leave us? With the old "because in our family, we don't spend money on cheap plastic things" and "because I SAID NO"?
I don't have a problem saying no, but I also don't like feeling miserly or capricious, sometimes buying her a "treat" on a whim and then, more often, NOT. Tying little purchases to her good behavior felt too much like bribing and as tempted as I am to do that, I don't really want to go down that dark alley on a regular basis. So I did what I always do when I'm stumped, I turned to a book, specifically Millionaire Babies and Bankrupt Brats. Truth be told I skimmed parts of it (Are becoming a millionaire or going bankrupt really our only options here?), but I did come away with the idea that it's never too early to give your children some control over money so they get used to handling it, and learn through making mistakes with it, early. Based on its advice, we decided to give Z an allowance, which is something we hadn't considered yet for someone who thinks that all coins are called quarters and credit cards are magical pieces of plastic that can pay for anything! anything at all! Also based on the book's advice, we sat down and listed all the different things that we each do to contribute to the family, including Z, and then we told her, with great fanfare, that we can, at this time, afford to give her an allowance so she can have some money of her own to spend. We do not tie her allowance to "chores", because the book said not to and books are always right, even poorly titled ones.
It took a week or so to come up with a reasonable amount and then another week to decide on how it should be divided and, honestly, I don't know if our plan makes any sense for the long term (Hello first child! Welcome to your parents' experimentation!) but here it is: we give her four dollars a week (Four since she's four. Five when she turns five, etc.). It's divided into four parts, one dollar goes into her spending wallet and three dollars go into three separate piggy banks for "giving" (ie. a year end gift to a charity that she can help chose), "presents" (ie. Christmas presents for family) and "long term savings" (ie. one day this will go into a savings account and help her pay for a single box of tissues by the time she's in college.).
The week of her first allowance, she was beside herself fantasizing of all the pink plastic things she could buy with her new wealth and insisted I take her Target as soon as that dollar entered, and immediately started burning a hole in, her wallet. After a rude awakening when she realized that her lone dollar wouldn't buy her a darn thing in the Barbie/Polly Pocket/Princess aisle, she finally, reluctantly, chose something from the dollar bins.
(Explaining taxes, which she pays out of the coins she finds in the couch cushions, took a while, too. Not coincidentally, she's now a registered libertarian.)
One the way home my suggestion of saving her money for something she really wanted from her "wish list" was met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. The next week, somehow, the existence of something called a "dollar store" came up.
Every Saturday, for weeks and weeks, we visited our friendly neighborhood dollar store and brought home more plastic crap than you can imagine. Knock-off "Barbee"s with facial features that rubbed off, a tiny doll house that broke upon it's inaugural opening, a creepy cross-eyed babydoll with plastic-y clothing. Though CG and I consoled ourselves with the thought that this was the "learning through making mistakes" part of early money management, I was getting restless for her to come to her senses and save her money to buy her mother an unexpected gift that would say "thank you for all your kindness and generosity, and, by the way, I really love your cooking". In my usual overwhelmed, pessimistic, what-forest?-all-I-can-see-are-these-effing-trees! kind of way, I honestly assumed we'd be doing this FOREVER. I pictured taking a teenage Z and her $14 a week allowance to the dollar store each weekend, slowly adding to the towers of horribly cheap plastic crap in every corner and crevice of our house.
After a few too many trips to Ye Olde Dollar Store, CG and I decided we might need to steer this journey (you= YOU THINK?) and started gently but loudly noticing that, gee, these toys don't last very long and you know, cheap things that break and get thrown away sit in the landfill and hurt the earth. (We saved our lectures about dwindling natural resources and unfair labor practices in far-away countries for a later date.) Then, finally, about two months after this allowance experiment started, came the marvelous words we'd been hoping to hear: "You know what? I'm going to save my money this week. Because the things from the dollar store aren't made very well."
Like just about everything else about kids, our dollar store visits were just a phase.
And the last time I took her grocery shopping, she eyed the coin-operated dispensers near the checkout and said thoughtfully, "I'm not going to spend my money on those. You never know what you're going to get. And I like to KNOW."
That's my girl.