Nina and Sam, six and nine years old, finished their umpteenth behaviour reward chart on Monday night. For their reward, they both agreed that they wanted accessories for their newest Build-A-Bear teddy bears. We have spent this term attempting to cut back on spending, but I knew there were certain accessories at Build-A-Bear that cost £5 or less, and I happened to have a £5 voucher that I had been saving for several months. I was thus prepared to give them each £8, and each child had enough pocket money saved up that I could set a £10 limit. I explained to the kids before we left that if they didn’t want to spend their allowance, they needed to stay under £8, but if they wanted something that cost £10, they were welcome to use £2 of their pocket money if they so desired. We discussed it calmly, and I made absolutely sure that they both understood the budget. All good. We also reviewed our new reward chart. We had now adopted a chart similar to the one Nina’s teacher was using in her Year Two classroom, with a beanstalk that the kids could go either up, for good behaviour, or down, for inappropriate behaviour. This was the first time in our many years of reward charts that we had chosen a model that went in both directions.
Off we went to the mall, where the kids bee-lined through the men’s clothing, past the Swarovski crystals, and out of the department store straight towards the cheerful red and yellow storefront of Build-A-Bear. The store was crowded—there was a birthday party in progress, and there were several families there who also seemed to have chosen to let their kids spend a little money to liven up a half-term holiday afternoon. Sam and Nina, clutching Colonel and Roxanne, their new bears, began their selection process. Nina eyed a white faux-leather guitar that she had seen on her last visit: £2.50.
“I could get both this and something else and still be under the limit,” she said. “That would be good for the band.” Nina hopes her bears will at some point form a rock group. One bear has a microphone and an iPod dock, and Roxanne has her very own iPod that plays four synth-pop snippets, so they’re well on their way.
“Yes, you could. I think Jackie or Angel Power would really rock out on that guitar.”
“But look at these Small Frys! They are so cute! Look at this one, oh, isn’t it adorable?” Nina exclaimed, holding up a small black bear with green eyes. The bear had some green peace signs and pink happy faces scattered over its body.
“That is very sweet,” I concurred. “That’s £8.”
“So could I still get the guitar?”
“No, because that would be past the £10 limit.”
“Oh,” Nina stomped her foot. “But how much past the limit?”
“But couldn’t you just give me fifty pence extra?”
“No, you need to stay under the limit.”
“All right then.”
Nina walked off, still clutching the Small Fry bear, to consider her options. Meanwhile Sam had settled on a snowboard for Colonel that cost £10 exactly.
“This is what I want,” he said.
“OK, if you get that, you have to chip in £2 of your own money, you know that, right?”
“Yep. Where’s my wallet?”
“It’s right here, hang on,” I said, digging Sam’s small woven bag out of my own bag. He unzipped it, took out £2, and handed it to me. “Great,” I said, “That will be fun for Colonel to do some tricks on his snowboard.”
“He can even do the deluxe half-pipe,” Sam offered.
I caught up with Nina, who was back at the Small Fry stand. “So, sweetie, what are you thinking, do you want to pick the Small Fry? If you do, you won’t need to spend any of your own money.”
“Yes, I love her, she’s so cute! Plus Lyndsey will be so jealous, because she doesn’t have one, and this is a limited edition! And look at these clothes for the Small Frys!” Nina held up a bikini swimsuit. Somehow putting a four-inch bear in a bikini seemed wrong to me, but to Nina, it was clearly a fantastic idea. “How much is this?”
“That’s £5. So that’s beyond the limit.”
Nina rolled her eyes, but was quickly distracted. “Oh, look at the pumpkin outfit!”
Halloween was less than a week away, and Build-A-Bear had created a puffy pumpkin for the Small Frys to wear. Nina had seen the real live little sister of a friend of hers in just such an outfit less than two weeks ago.
“Is that £5 too?”
“It is, I’m afraid, honey.”
“Aww… but it would be really great to dress my bear up for Halloween! Couldn’t you just give me the extra money and I can pay you back when I get more allowance?” Nina cajoled.
“We’re not doing that, Nina. You’ve got a £10 limit.”
“Oh, all right. I want the Small Fry.”
“You’re happy with the one you’ve picked out?”
“Yes, I love her, she even matches Roxanne.” Roxanne also sported peace signs but against a purple background. Nina herself has had several pieces of clothing that have featured the peace symbol, so it’s a graphic she now gravitates towards.
“Excellent. All we need to do is pay,” I said, and joined the queue, holding the snowboard and the Small Fry. The kids stood with me, hugging the bears they had brought along.
After we left Build-A-Bear, we stopped by the stationery shop for pencils. A yellow highlighter caught Sam’s eye, and he asked if he could have one. “Sure, if you buy it for yourself, you have enough left for that,” I agreed.
Nina, not to be outdone, picked up a purple highlighter. “Can I buy this?”
“That should be fine, I think you have just enough.”
After paying for her highlighter, Nina asked, “How much pocket money do I have now?”
I opened her white quilted Hello Kitty purse and counted. “Ninety-eight pence,” I informed her.
We returned to the car and drove home, both children playing happily with their toys for the duration of the ride.
We had been home for maybe an hour and I was in the middle of cooking dinner when Nina came into the kitchen, tears in her eyes.
“I really wanted the pumpkin outfit,” she cried.
“Mmm…” I murmured. “You’re disappointed that you didn’t get the pumpkin outfit.” I felt my anger level rise in anticipation of the probable continuation.
“Why couldn’t I get the pumpkin?”
“Because we had a £10 limit,” I said, in the kindest, most sensible voice I could muster.
“But why did we have a £10 limit?” Nina whined.
“Because you each got £5 for finishing your reward charts, and I gave you an extra £3 because I had that gift voucher, and you could put in £2 of your own money.”
“I want to get the pumpkin now.”
“You don’t have enough money to get the pumpkin now.”
“I do. If I give them all my pocket money, they’ll give me change.”
“They won’t, sweetie. The outfit cost £5, and you have ninety-eight pence.” Oh, if only the world worked as a six-year old thinks it should. “You could save up your allowance, and by the time you have £5, you know what you would probably be able to get?” I said, in what I hoped was a cheerful, check-out-this-fabulous-alternative sort of voice.
“What,” Nina asked crossly.
“A snowman outfit!” I announced, with great enthusiasm.
Nina erupted in floods of real tears. “But I don’t want a snowman outfit! I want a pumpkin outfit!”
I sighed. I knew in my heart the snowman ruse wouldn’t work.
“Why couldn’t you just give me the extra to make £5 and I could pay you back?”
“No, we’re not doing that. I’m sorry that you’re upset, but you made a choice, Nina, you chose the Small Fry. You could have just chosen an outfit for Roxanne, or the guitar and another small thing, but you didn’t. Instead of crying about what you didn’t get, why can’t you be happy with what you did get? You got a really cute little bear with peace signs and happy faces, isn’t that cool? Don’t you love your new bear?” I pleaded. I was rapidly approaching my exasperation point.
“I do love my new bear, but I still want the pumpkin outfit. Sam! Sam! How much money do you have?” Nina shouted back towards the room where Sam was occupied with his cardboard winter sports accessories.
“No, Nina, absolutely not. You are not ever to borrow or take money from Sam,” I told her sternly. “That is not OK.”
Nina began to wail. “But it’s not fair! It’s almost Halloween and my bear needs the pumpkin outfit!”
I began to fray. “You can’t always get what you want right when you want it, honey. Do you know how long I’ve waited to get a dog?”
“Yeah, yeah, a long time, I know…”
“First of all, that tone of voice is unacceptable, and second of all, over twenty years, and I’m still waiting. And I waited, let’s see, just about twenty years to finally have a piano. Twenty years! You may have to wait one year to get the Halloween pumpkin outfit. One year is not very long in the great scheme of things.”
“One year!” Nina wailed incredulously. She erupted in fresh floods of tears. “But one year is too long! I can’t wait one year!”
I kicked myself internally. Of course she couldn’t wait one year. Why, oh why, had I said such a thing… to a six year old, one year is an eternity.
“Nina, do you know, you are never, never going to be happy if all you do is want, want, want. The key to happiness is to appreciate what you’ve got, not moan about what you haven’t got. You don’t have the pumpkin outfit, but you do have a fantastic new bear. Can’t you see that?”
“No,” Nina sobbed. “I want the pumpkin outfit. I want you to go and get it for me.”
That did it. A swell of discord flowed through me. “That is not going to happen, and you know what, I don’t want to hear any more about the pumpkin outfit now. You can cry about it for a couple more minutes, and then you need to stop.”
“I can’t stop!”
“You have to stop, or I’m sorry, but if you don’t, you will have to move down the beanstalk. You can keep crying, but not here, if you still need to cry, I need you to go to your room.”
Nina looked agonized. She bit her lip, but the tears kept running down her cheeks. “Fine, I’ll go to my room then,” she muttered.
“You can come down when you’ve stopped crying,” I informed her, and watched her walk sulkily towards the stairs.
I was unusually disassociated from money as a child. My parents split up when I was four, and from the day my dad moved out until the day my mom moved with the three of us children into my stepfather’s house, we all got by on very little. I understood as a child that money was important, but it always seemed somewhat evil to me, because it caused my mom distress. Mom was not a typical consumer; she would buy almost all the household goods we absolutely had to have, such as beds and tableware, from auctions or yard sales. My siblings and I would often get toothbrushes in our stockings at Christmas, along with a few well-chosen but reasonably-priced presents under the tree.
There were advantages to living without many toys. One was the salutary effect on my imagination. When I was seven, my best friend and I would go into the woods close to our houses to find small seed pods, about a quarter inch long. These pods could be stuck onto small sticks to resemble heads. Deana and I spent hours creating and playing with these elfin figures. We called them Datians, and we made beds of moss for them, and even dressed them in scraps of fabric. Deana also shared my passion for mythology, and we chose favourite goddesses to play in mythological tableaux. We donned bed sheets draped carefully into togas and ran around Deana’s house, chasing imaginary deer or avoiding gods bent on malfeasance. When we were feeling less energetic, Deana and I worked on our own guide to mythology, colouring pictures of all the important figures, and writing descriptions of them underneath.
I played tag with my younger brother and sister. We lived for several years next to a graveyard, and we used the biggest gravestone as safety. The graveyard bordered on a small wood, and my brother and I liked to climb the pine trees. We climbed as high as we could, nearly to the top, and then rewarded ourselves by rocking the top of the tree back and forth. It amazes me now to think of how often we did this without serious injury.
Indoors, we played school or animals. I often took the role of teacher. I made my brother and sister sit on the bottom stair and asked them questions. If they got the question right, they were allowed to move up a stair. If not, they stayed where they were. The winner was the first person to reach the top of the stairs. Animals was even simpler—each of us pretended to be an animal, barking or meowing, until one by one we lost interest and moved on to another activity.
I don’t remember coveting possessions the way my daughter does. What I longed for were moments of peace and connection. My mom struggled both to make ends meet and to keep her worries, present and past, at bay. This battle on several fronts often claimed my mom’s attention more urgently than I could, but sometimes Mom lay down her arms, and those times taught me the value of living in the now. One of my very earliest memories is of swimming with my mother. I must have been about four years old at the time. The water was deep, so I demanded Mom’s entire focus to keep me safe. My mom is a strong swimmer, and she finds contentment in the water. I remember the feeling of being held, the warm, humid air, and the pungent, but not unpleasant, smell of chlorine. When I was six, my mom decided to take me, my brother, and my sister on a short hike up a hill behind the house out in the country that we were living in at the time. This was in Vermont, a state of such natural beauty that on a sunny day it is possible to think that one has stumbled into a fairy tale. The day of our walk was just such a sunny day, my mom was happy, and every step I took on that wide path bordered on either side by forest felt like a celebration. I treasured memories like these the way my daughter now treasures favourite possessions; I put them in a keepsake box in my mind.
Although living on the edge of consumerism had some positive effects, it also contributed to my lack of financial sense as an adult. Money has always been my enemy. As soon as I understood that it was something that caused my mom worry, I began to dislike it, and that feeling has only grown in the years since. I very much want my children to have a healthier relationship with money than I do. I want them to spend money sensibly while at the same time understanding the importance of saving money.
But most of all, I want Nina and Sam to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if they attach their happiness to objects, they will never find contentment. Nina could buy an entire wardrobe for her Small Fry, but if she equates consumption with joy, that would not be enough to satisfy her. I want Nina to be able to see that what really matters is her brother’s excitement when he is allowed to wake her up on a Saturday morning. What I want Nina to remember are the times her father held her upside-down and then blew raspberries on her tummy, not whether or not her teddy bear looked like a pumpkin for Halloween.
I continued to cook dinner while I waited for Nina to reappear. I ran through my options silently. I toyed with the idea of going to Build-A-Bear to get Nina the pumpkin outfit as a surprise, but that seemed to be a solution that would not teach her the lessons I hoped she would learn from this conflict. I ruled the idea out. I mentally girded myself for more tears and complaining, and I vowed to stand firm.
When the pasta had less than two minutes left to cook, Nina walked into the kitchen.
“Hi, sweetie,” I said, as cheerfully as I could, although I could feel my body stiffening as I readied myself for what was to come.
“Hi. I’ve been thinking,” Nina said, matter-of-factly, “And I decided that what I could do… is… I could save up my allowance and buy the pumpkin outfit for my Small Fry next Halloween.”
I felt my armour dissolve, and a wave of boundless love for my daughter washed over me.
“That is such a responsible choice, Nina. You deserve to be really proud of yourself for coming up with that plan.”
Nina grinned. “When is dinner ready? I’m starving.”