EPISODE 12: MONEY TALKS
One of the joys of parenthood is catching yourself uttering the same asinine phrase that an adult uttered to you when you were small. In my bachelor days, I never thought I would ever have to say, "Don't talk with your mouth full," or "Keep playing with that thing, and you'll go blind." But over the past weekend I've yelled both - plus "Money doesn't grow on trees, young man."
I had a good reason to sputter out the last one: my six-year-old son is at a precarious moment in his understanding of the connection between work and reward. My wife, Honor, and I have succeeded in teaching him that money doesn't literally grow on trees, but he still thinks that money grows in Mommy's unattended purse. To him dollars are succulent winter cabbages that anyone can dig up.
It is not all his fault. He has never really had to think about money before. In his world, goods and services just happen. But as Nicholas and his schoolmates learn addition and subtraction, they have started to take an interest in acquiring cash without understanding what goes into making it. I knew that an intervention was in order when I returned home from the office recently and asked him, "Nicholas, how was your day?"
"Good. I made five dollars today," he replied as he dug his wallet out of its hiding place and waved a crisp, new bill in my direction.
"How did you 'make' this money?" I asked, and then figured he'd tell me about some chore he had performed.
Instead the question was met with a stream of "ahs" and "ums" and "well, you know, Dad..." Then, finally, he said in a whisper, "It is really amazing the things you can find if you keep your eyes open... Just looking around the apartment." To gauge how long my son's criminal enterprise had been running, I asked him how much money he had in his wallet.
"One hundred dollars," he told me. I nearly fell over. That's a lot of money for a six year old. I thought he was going to first grade every morning, not apprenticing for Fagin alongside the Artful Dodger.
I've heard all the rational arguments about giving a child an allowance versus paying him for chores, but as in all matters parental, I was sure I had figured out a better way of doing things. So the heir's financial education began with an explanation that what he had been doing amounted to stealing. Over dinner at our local Italian restaurant, using slices of pizza and silverware as visual aids, I tried to explain that the way it worked for grown-ups is that you have a job, and you receive a salary. And in some jobs you receive a salary and a bonus.
"Daddy works as a book editor. And if Daddy's books sell really well, and he does some other things that are incredibly brilliant, he gets a bonus, which is like an extra slice of pizza." I cut a second slice of pizza for Nicholas and put it on his plate to underscore my point. He seemed to follow. Or at least he seemed to follow the slice of pizza's trajectory from the pie onto his plate.
"So the guy who edits Harry Potter or Diary of a Wimpy Kid probably gets a really, really, really big bonus because everyone in my school likes those books?"
"He or she probably gets a beach house," I answered. Then my pride kicked in. I didn't want my son to think his dad was a total loser. "Hey, a book that I edited is on the bestseller list right now, but it probably won't stay there too long. It's called Inside Apple, and it is about how the company that makes the iPhone and the iPod really works."
"How can we make it stay there?" Nicholas asked. I wanted to encourage his interest in commerce, so I explained that the best thing we could do was to go around to the bookstores in our neighbourhood, pretend to be regular customers and ask if they had the book in stock. If they did have the book in stock, we would buy a copy. And if they didn't stock the book, then we should act really upset and ask them to order it. I wanted him to see first hand that one of the key tenets of business is supply and demand.
The next day we disguised ourselves as potential book buyers. Nicholas put on a French sailor shirt, a chunky shawl-neck cardigan and white corduroys. I went with tweed and a gingham-checked shirt. Soon we were in front of our local independent bookshop. As a reader and as a parent, I love the store. Hardwood floors, a few benches to sit on and a pitch-perfect selection of highbrow fiction, eggheaded nonfiction, elegant coffee table books and overpriced children's books. As an editor of commercial nonfiction, however, I find the store maddening. The air inside is redolent of cat dander and intellectual snobbery.
"Dad," Nicholas whispered as we entered and a twee little bell rang over our heads. "Are we going to pretend to be customers?"
"Yes," I said sotto voce as I got into character as John Q Bookbuyer, and we approached the checkout counter. "Excuse me, do you have a copy of Inside Apple? I just saw it on the bestseller list in The New York Times."
"Let me look," said the clerk as he flipped open his laptop, checked his inventory and then informed us. "No, we don't. We don't stock many business books." He uttered "business books" the way some people utter the words "dog crap". He offered to order it for me, but before I could respond, Nicholas was on the case.
"What do you mean you don't have it in stock? Inside Apple is a bestseller. Why wouldn't you have it in stock? Now my dad won't get a bonus." Our carefully constructed cover was blown, and there was nothing left for me to do than buy Nicholas an overpriced picture book and buy myself yet another copy of The Hare With Amber Eyes before skulking out of the store $30 poorer and cloaked in shame. As we walked home, I asked my son if he had learnt anything from our misadventure.
"Yes," he said. "I think we both deserve a slice of pizza. Would you like me to pay for it?"
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