Thursday, December 08, 2022

We Don't Often Tell Our Children The Truth About Money

When we're little, people tell us we can be whatever we want to be so we imagine ourselves to be princesses and superheroes. We don't aspire to become these things, we embody them. 

Then we're taught we're just pretending so we start to aspire. We believe that we can one day be ballerinas and baseball players.

A precious few are never taught the long odds and go on to the stage or the diamond, while the rest learn that we must be more realistic. People still tell us we can be anything we want to be, but already our choices have been limited. We assert, "But I am an artist!" or "I am an actor!" or "I am an entrepreneur!" or "I am an inventor!" while the world says, "Of course you are," while advising us that we still might want to consider back up plans in case that doesn't "work out."

"Work out," of course, means to result in sufficient income. And that from the start has been the bottom line. We've never been free to be whatever we want.

We don't often tell our children the truth about money in our culture. Oh sure, we scold them that this longed for item is too expensive or that we go to the office most days only so we can put food on the table. But when we tell them they can be anything they want to be, we know we are speaking the language of fairy tales. We don't mean to lie, of course. We do it in the spirit of bucking them up, of inspiring them, of demonstrating our belief in their capabilities, but at bottom we know the odds are too long and that money will eventually claim them. 

That said, it would be a cruelty to tell our four-year-olds that they will never fly to the moon, so we let them dream. We even encourage them to dream. Many of us join them in their bubble for a time, temporarily convincing ourselves that they will one day fly a space ship, but we ourselves have learned the hard truth about money, even as we try, for these precious years, to protect them from it. Barring extraordinary luck or talent, we know that even hard work is unlikely to set them free from money's incessant demand that it be earned and managed and grudgingly spent. We've absorbed the dubious lessons of thrift. Some of us even believe that the entire purpose of childhood is to be shaped into an employee. 

Money is nothing but an idea. It is a story we collectively tell ourselves. 

Children who grow up in poverty begin to learn the story much earlier than those born to families that are well off. These children learn it because there is nowhere to hide from it. Their parents run themselves ragged in minimum wage, dead-end work. Any money that does come their way is converted directly into the food on their plates, a reality that is hidden from the children of wealthier families. Any dreams they might have are exposed as chimera beside the reality of money in a household in which money is scarce. It takes longer for a middle class child to learn the story of money because it can survive longer as an abstraction, but even those of us who try to protect our children from it for as long as possible, can't help ourselves. We buy them piggybanks in which they are to "save" each precious coin. We discourage them from "wasting" it. We even forbid them things that we can afford under the guise of teaching them that "money doesn't grow on trees." 

Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg writes in her essay The Little Virtues: "If we deny him a bicycle which he wants and which we could buy him we only prevent him from having something that it is reasonable a boy should have, we only make his childhood less happy in the name of an abstract principle and without any real justification. And we are tacitly saying to him that money is better than a bicycle; on the contrary he should learn that a bicycle is always better than money."

Ginzburg suggests that our goal should not be to teach children the value of money, but rather "an indifference to money." After all, for most of us money is something that comes and goes all through life. If we overvalue it, when it goes it's such a blow that it tends to destroy everything else on the way out the door. We can hardly think any more. It makes people jump from tall buildings. It even threatens our most important relationships. If we overvalue it, when it does finally come, it's a boon that it ascends to a pedestal. We then cling to it to the exclusion of all else, praying that it never leaves us again, as if it is our savior or a loved one who can never love us back. 

Being indifferent to money is such a shocking idea for many of us because it flies in the face of the story we tell about money. To be indifferent to money is to risk not having money, after all, and of all the things one might dream about being or doing, money is the one that we must never give up on. At the same time, isn't it objectively true that a bicycle is always better than money? It certainly should be for a child. Perhaps it should be for all of us.

People who think about money more than I do, tell me that money is simply a tool. When we drop a coin in our piggy bank it is the equivalent of hanging our hammer on a hook in our tool shed or storing our spatula away in a kitchen drawer so we can find them when there is a nail to be driven or a pancake to be flipped. But from a very young age, when we go to our piggy banks to use the money we've collected, say for a piece of candy, our parents caution us. "Are you sure you really want to waste your money on that?" "Didn't you say you were saving up for that bicycle?" And even when we've scrimped and saved enough to purchase the bicycle, it isn't long before the newness wears off and we begin to miss the money. Indeed, the empty piggy bank taunts us with its emptiness, sneering, You see, money is better than a bicycle. No one ever regrets using their hammers and spatulas, but there is always loss attached to the use of money. If money is a tool, it is a tool unlike any other.

These same money experts tell me to think of money as blood. It's meant to flow through the system, carrying the fiscal equivalents of oxygen and nutrients. Then doesn't that mean that when it stops flowing, like it does when left to sit in a piggy bank, it has clotted? Don't billionaires represent the ultimate blood clot? Blood clots kill. No, money is not anything like blood because if it were we would all understand it to be a sin to impede its flow by saving it. We would all know the very idea of accumulated wealth as pure evil. No, money is nothing like blood.

As we learn the story our culture tells about money our dreams begin to disappear to be replaced by years of striving at things we would rather not do in service to money. No wonder so many of us feel disillusioned and exhausted. This is what the pursuit of money instead of dreams does to us. We rationalize, telling ourselves that we will live life at the grindstone until we have enough and then, finally, in the few years we have left, we will pursue our dreams. Or as the character David Howard says in Albert Brooks' movie Lost in America, "I've finally reached a level of responsibility. Now I can afford to be irresponsible!" 

And that's exactly the worst thing that our story of money does to all of us: it casts our dreams, the best of ourselves, as irresponsible. This, I assert, is why so many of us look back on childhood with so much sepia toned fondness or why we believe that young children live ideal lives compared to our own. That is the one place that the stories we tell about money have not yet penetrated. It's the one place where bicycles really are always better than money.


"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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