Love Notes with Dead Presidents
Date: April 1, 2010
My 10-year-old self was shopping at a strip mall while my mom was buying groceries. I had no money, so technically I was just loitering.
In the window of an art supply store was a $2 book on how to draw animals, a skill I desperately needed. While I was yearning for the book, two boys wandered up — my classmate Joe Prince and another boy I didn't know. Trying to follow my gaze, Joe yelled, "Wooohooo!" and pointed to a bendable, wood-and-wire human figure that looked like a foot-tall crash dummy. It was sex-neutral, but it was naked.
"Calm down," I said, "I'm looking at that book," and explained my situation. Then Joe's friend casually handed me two $1 bills. "Here you go," said this kid I'd never seen before. "Live it up."
That young philanthropist's donation made such a vivid impression on me that decades later I tried to re-create that impact to please and motivate my children.
Over the years I've given out small cash gifts to endorse a good choice of friends ($1), to cheer up a sick child ($2), to celebrate a good report card ($5), to reward a daughter who protected a classmate from bullies ($10), and to keep a teenager from cursing around her father ($3 a week). Whenever a daughter was heading back to college, instead of weeping tears of farewell, I'd lay a couple of extra twenties on her.
It's risky, expressing approval and love with money. But my practices have a sober side, too. I've always kept the girls' allowances low. That's so I wouldn't mind them squandering it, but also to help them understand that the real money would not come from Dad. It is "out there" — in the pockets of babysitting clients and other potential employers.
When they wanted something expensive but worthwhile, I told them, "I'll pay half if you pay half." A whole summer at camp? Yes! A really fancy computer? OK!
But when that system failed, the results were bad debts that lingered until forgiven (if not forgotten).
So where is my wife while I am doing all this? Betsy is busily dispensing the coin of human emotion — love, approval, disapproval, exhortation and sympathy — paid out along with hugs and kisses. That's what really runs the family. (Anyone remember the flimsy children's car seats of the 1950s? Each one had a little plastic steering wheel so the tot could imagine he is driving the car. As far as Betsy is concerned, that's me, although she never rubs it in.)
A few months ago, when our youngest daughter, Wendy, turned 18, she asked us, "What would you do if I got a tattoo?"
My wife voiced her expectations and spoke of what a loving daughter owes to her loving parents. She also touched on decisions that a teenager would regret later. I just said, "I'd stop paying your allowance." Fifteen bucks a week isn't much, but it's something.
Surprise! A week later, Wendy was tearfully showing us a blue butterfly engraved just southeast of her navel. Her mother felt worse than I did because she had put some personal oomph into the issue. I'm not a big punisher, but I cut off Wendy's allowance for six months just to maintain credibility for future threats.
Last week a mother, known to local babysitters as an iffy payer, asked Wendy if she would watch her 6-year-old. "I'll do it," Wendy told us. "She might not pay me, but I could use the good karma."
I am proud of her. So proud, in fact, that when the mom ended up giving her excuses instead of money, I gave Wendy $20 to show her that a good deed is its own reward. Even I can see the irony in that.
So what did she learn? Who knows? I wonder if any of my attempts at using money to manipulate or improve my children have any effect beyond expressing my feelings. It could be that giving money to kids has no more educational value than feeding lumps of sugar to horses. But is that so wrong? For me, hearing a child whinny with delight is worth a few dollars.
You can contact Rick Epstein at email@example.com.