Just a couple of weeks ago, my oldest son (6) said that he was saving money to buy a remote control car. My mother’s partner had bought him one to play with at their house, but it wasn’t well made and broke soon after it was purchased. My son wanted one that works (obviously). The way my son approached this desire kinda reflects our approach to money around here, so I’ll outline it in steps.
Step 1. My son did not ask me for money for the toy or expect me to buy it for him.
It is a rare thing for my husband or me to specifically go to a store (especially a brick and mortar store) to buy a toy for the children. Sports equipment, yes; project supplies, yes; a bicycle, yes. I have also bought playthings for the children for special occasions. But with a steady flow of hand-me-downs, and some carefully chosen “classic” toys, we find we have no need for more. So the kids have little expectation here. And for the record, my husband and I rarely buy ourselves a toy equivalent too.
Step 2. When I asked him where he would get money for the car, my son said enthusiastically that he would find it.
My son doesn’t get an allowance. (Neither did I as a child; my husband did.) Gift money (Chinese New Year, Christmas, and birthdays) goes into the investment account that was opened in his name when he was born. He is not paid for anything he does in the house nor for anything he does well – I’m uncomfortable equating and possibly reducing our various ways of relating to each other to monetary amounts.
Step 3. My son does actually find money and puts it in a box we identified for this purpose.
This is surprisingly effective. Sometimes he finds money at my mother’s house or on the street. But he finds most of his money at home. There are bits of money all over the place. The change that reproduces in the couch and spills out of my husband’s pockets adds up quickly. (I myself found $15 the other day in the dryer; my mother found a toonie in the same load.)
Although he has no expectation of money, my son does not feel powerless about it. He believes he can acquire money if he needs it. Money is, in fact, available at home, and he can get it. It’s neither a loaded nor a lorded item.
Step 4. Sometimes I pilfer out of my son’s toy car fund for bus fare.
My son doesn’t know this and I haven’t mentioned it to him. I wish I were more organized with my change, but c’est la vie. We’re a family, not a bank, and money flows between members easily. I like this. I remember when I was in university, my older brother called me and asked if he could borrow the $15,000 I had in investments (my lifetime of gift and work money). I said sure. There was a pause on the line, and then my brother happily blurted out that he was buying a house with his wife. He had been waiting for me to ask him what he needed it for and when he would pay me back, but it hadn’t occurred to me to ask.
Step 5. My son hasn’t noticed any missing money from his box, because he hasn’t looked in it for awhile.
It appears that my son’s desire to buy the remote control car was a passing interest. I hope that this is because he’s too busy playing with his brothers and his friends and playing squash and making up stories in his head and talking them out to himself. I hope it’s because he’s busy being and doing, so that he needs and wants fewer things. I also like the idea of delayed gratification, where we pause before buying something, to see if we still want it down the road.
If my son were monitoring his fund and working hard to build it up, I would not take away from it. If he were talking about that car everyday, and searching for coins and bills everywhere to add to his stash, I would pay attention. I would probably facilitate his efforts, even though a noisy, battery-operated piece of plastic is not my idea of a good time.
As for how I would facilitate his efforts, I’m not entirely sure. At this stage, I think I would probably just give him money for something he truly wanted. Later, I think I would help him earn money, but not from me, because that’s not the role I want to play. But I’d love to help my boys know that they can make money with hard work and their own wits.
In Jimmy Carter‘s autobiographical An Hour Before Daylight, he describes how he started making and selling boiled peanuts at the age of five. He did this on weekends and saved his money. When cotton prices plummeted a few years later, he had enough of his own money to buy several cotton bales at rock bottom prices. He held these until cotton prices recovered a few years later, then sold them. His profits enabled him to buy cottages that he rented out to workers.
I have no aspirations to raise teenage landlords, but it makes for an inspiring story, and reminds me of what young children are capable of. It makes me want to help my kids untap some of their potential when it comes to money, just as it does in other areas of their growth, even if I haven’t a clue how (well, I have an idea or two…). It’s early days, so we’ve got some time to mull it over. In the meantime, my son can keep adding to his box of found money and spend it on something that really holds his interest, and I will find another way to pay for the bus.