My youngest son asked his dad how much money he makes. Mark, as usual, came back in his standard unflappable manner with, “More than five dollars and less than enough.” I thought it was a funny retort. But it did kind of get me thinking. What are you supposed to tell kids about finances?
In the past, I’ve mentioned to my kids that we can’t afford certain things. But this always manages to backfire on me in the most embarrassing of ways. For example, I once balked at buying a pint of strawberries for $5.99. They were out of season, small and were the color of hay (in case I needed to justify not buying them for $6) “We cannot afford to buy strawberries right now,” I sternly announced to my children. Well, the next day in school, my eldest son took up a collection to help subsidize our family’s grocery bill. I remember the warm but somber glances I received at pick-up that day. I was mortified when he handed me an envelope filled with a collection of classmates’ coins.
When we go to a restaurant, it’s the same thing. My 10 year old, Levi, eats like a horse. And he enjoys the finer foods. We can be at a cheap eatery and he’ll easily run up a $20 food bill all by himself. But I feel weird saying, “No, you can’t order the freshly grilled salmon with roasted organic vegetables. Why don’t you have chicken nuggets and fries off the kid’s menu?” It’s really a conundrum.
On Tuesdays we go straight from school to karate. We stop somewhere for a quick snack. I’ll admit I’m the least organized person on the planet, so I never manage to plan ahead and bring something to eat in the car or at a park along the way. Our favorite place to stop is Einsteins. Who’d have thought a couple of bagels and some fruit would end up costing upwards of $25. Then Levi almost invariably asks if he can go next door to Jamba Juice for a drink. He wants a fresh fruit and vege smoothie, without my even prompting him to eat healthy. But I find myself annoyed that he wants to spend an additional $4 for a drink. I usually catch myself before scolding him and fork over the funds. But is that the right thing to do?
I remember taking my nephew out for lunch once back in Chicago and he insisted on ordering half a sandwich because a whole sandwich would cost too much. I was horrified. What was my sister teaching this boy? Food was plentiful in America. So was money at that time, and children shouldn’t have to worry about the cost of things. Of course now that I have my own kids, I’m not sure she didn’t have the right idea. Just once I’d like my 6 year old to not pout when I tell him he can’t have whatever useless item he’s coveting as we race through Target. I think it’d be nice if my kids offered to do extra stuff around the house without earning extra cash. It would be a lovely surprise if, instead of tears, they’d nod knowingly at Trader Joes when I said I was sorry, we couldn’t buy blueberries today.
There just doesn’t seem to be a middle ground here. Too much focus on what things cost and my kids go to work collecting for us like we’re homeless and broke. But without my continued efforts to make them aware of a dollar’s value, they want and whine about everything from pomegranate seeds to Star Wars Legos. Anybody have the answer to this enigma?