Friday, July 23, 2021

Young Children Are People Who Still Know The Value Of Things

I must have been five or six when I decided I wanted a wristwatch. I was fascinated by my father's watch with its beautiful stainless steel and elastic band. When he came home from work, he put it in his dresser top valet tray alongside the coins and keys from his pockets. I didn't care about the money, but the watch, with that amazing band, was irresistible. I'd try it on for size, but mostly I stretched and twisted that band, marveling at how it always returned to its original shape, enjoying the smooth metal between my fingers as it slid from chaos to order. It was a deeply gratifying, beautiful thing.

So, it was really a watchband I wanted, but not knowing how to ask for it, I instead told my parents I wanted a watch. They said it was too expensive, but that maybe I could save my own money and buy one for myself. Of course, being five or six, I had no regular source of income, so my parents offered me the opportunity of doing little jobs around the house, like polishing Dad's shoes or picking up the pinecones that littered our lawn. With the help of Mom, I picked out a Timex brand watch from the Sears catalog "Wish Book" and began to save my pennies. I counted my coins daily, asking, "Do I have enough yet?"

I don't recall the specific numbers, but apparently the total wasn't mounting up as quickly as my parents had anticipated, or perhaps they were simply moved by my perseverance in the face of coming up short day-after-day, but at some point they declared that I was "halfway there." They were so proud of me that they offered to make up the difference, so we ordered the wristwatch.

The watch itself, when it arrived, was a bit of a disappointment. First of all, it was much smaller than Dad's, the face about the size of a nickel, but more significantly, it came with a simple leather band. I hadn't known that it was possible for wristwatches to not have a stainless steel and elastic band. When I complained, they told me I could save up more money.

It was money, it seemed, that stood between me and my heart's desire. When I investigated Dad's stuff at the end of the day, I no longer played with his watch, but rather counted his coins. It didn't occur to me to take them, but I did covet them. I imagined adding his money to my own. When I flipped through the "Wish Book" I now focused like a laser on what things cost. It didn't matter what it was, a pair of sandals or a baseball bat, I dismissed those things I could afford and resented the things I could not. Ostensibly, I was saving for a watchband, but when I achieved that goal, the band no longer seemed worth the price.

I understand my parent's purpose. It's the goal that many parents have for their children. They wanted me to learn the lessons of thrift, but I can't help but think about how money, for me, for a time at least, became more valuable than beauty. Indeed, when I finally forked over the cash to pay for the watchband that I'd previously craved, it was with a sinking heart. I felt a loss that stayed with me even after Dad replaced my old leather band with my new stainless steel one.

The lesson that I've carried with me into adulthood is that money has a tendency to destroy the purity of joy. I could not keep my hands off my father's watchband until money came into the equation. Money was a middleman who took a bit from both sides, delaying my gratification by putting precious things just out of reach, while simultaneously dimming the experience of finally holding the desired object in my hand. My own watch, even with its new stainless steel elastic band, was rendered less beautiful by what it cost me.

Maybe this is a lesson we all must learn. Maybe there is no such thing as pure joy or unadulterated beauty. Maybe money is simply the yin to life's yang. I've had people tell that I've got it wrong, that money is neutral, that it is like the blood that flows through the body of our society, a necessity. Others have gotten quite angry with me, scolding me for not paying money sufficient respect by hoarding it in the way they consider responsible. But what value is money if it can't be exchanged for joy or beauty without tainting or eroding it? The idiom is that "money can't buy happiness," but that's exactly what we try to do as we thumb through our Wish Books with our eyes on the prices while counting and re-counting our coins.

As far as the education of children is concerned, I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but a love of one's neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.  ~Natalia Ginzburg

My real lessons in thrift came over a decade later as I moved out into the world on my own and had no choice but to wrestle with money, but I've never forgotten the evil that money did to joy and beauty.

Yesterday, I made an off-hand comment about something being too expensive and a five-year-old offered me all of the $12 that he had in his piggy bank. This spurred other children to likewise offer the contents of their own piggy banks. These are people, to my mind, who still know the value of things. Why are adults in such a rush to destroy that?


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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