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A Case of the Human Condition: When Your Six-Year-Old Wants to Talk Money

A six-year-old boy dressed as a cowboy for halloween. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Six-year-old Peter was a cowboy for Halloween. Another six-year-old we know tried to sell his Halloween candy to his mother for $30. Photo by Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

The Oakland Tribune, November 15, 1987

Peter likes money.

He wants an allowance.

The subject came up at the breakfast table.

Jon and I debated. Fifty cents a week? 75 cents?

“Let’s not talk in cents,” said Peter, who is 6 1/2, pushing 7. “Let’s talk in dollars.”

He wanted $2.

Nonplussed, I changed the subject.

Spending his allowance on candy would not be allowed, I said. “No candy, no weapons, no caps for the cap pistol.”

Jon demurred. “It’s Peter’s money.”

“It’s my money,” said Peter.

Not yet it wasn’t.

We were stalemated. The subject was dropped.

Is He Greedy? Or Is He Just a Six-Year-Old?

Peter likes money because he likes things. Money can buy him things.

He comes by the tendency honestly.

His paternal grandfather likes things. Victorian Furniture. ’57 Chryslers. Coins.

Peter likes Battle Beast vehicles. Walkie talkies. Rainbow, his stuffed puppy. He-Man swords. Cowboy pistols. Space stations. His blankie.

His things help him to think.

If he is feeling cuddly, he wraps the blankie around Rainbow. Lonesome, he calls Mommy on the Walkie Talkie. Powerful – or powerless – he pits a Battle Beast against the enemy and defeats him soundly.

Peter is loyal to his things.

Every stuffed giraffe, battered firefighter’s hat, nursery school glue project and legless Superman holds an eternal and immutable place in Peter’s heart.

But that does not mean there is no space in Peter’s heart or in Peter’s bedroom for something new.

At the toy store, he spotted a Battle Beast vehicle he had never seen.

“Mommy, can I have it?”

“It’s expensive. It’s $12.83.”

“I want it.”

“Well, you could earn it. You could learn your math facts. I’ll give you a dime for each time you practice a set.”

“You will? Rad!”

“$12.83 is a lot of money. It will take a lot of work.”

Peter fondled the shiny package.

A Six-Year-Old Work Ethic

“Mommy, I want to work,” he said firmly.

It cost me $12.83 and 4 ½ hours of my own time, but three days later, Peter knew his addition facts, right down to six plus seven and eight plus nine.

“Three plus four. Three plus four,” said Peter, slapping his forehead. “I’ve got to think faster. Oh, yeh. Seven!”

Another dime clinked into Peter’s stash.

“Wait, Mommy, let’s count how much dollars I have.”

Again and again, Peter counted his money.

He learned he could make a dollar with 10 dimes or four quarters. He counted his coins by twos, by fives, by 10s.

I was stunned. I did not know that Peter could learn so much so fast. I didn’t know that he was so intensely interested in money.

Most of all, I was surprised that I could pander so unconscionably to my son’s greed.

When Peter was a toddler and still soiling his pants, I tried everything.

I let him go bare-bottomed. I followed him around with the potty. I praised. I scolded. I tried patience. I tried exasperation. Nothing worked.

Finally, I tried M&M’s – one for Peter, one for Christina – for every successful trip to the potty.

It worked.

It worked, not because Peter is a profane, banal kid who responds only to bribes. It worked because I gave Peter a choice. He could use the potty and get an M&M. Or he could use his underpants and not get an M&M.

For the first time in his life Peter – not Mom – was in charge of his bathroom functions.

Stephanie’s mother uses raisins and Cheerios.

To get Stephanie to practice her reading last year, she put a raisin or a Cheerio on each word in the word list. Stephanie read and ate, read and ate, read and ate.

“They need a reward,” explains my sister-in-law, Alice, a school counselor and my mentor in these things.

“I wouldn’t work if I didn’t get paid for it. Why should they?”

At least one other mother in our neighborhood has come to understand the value of money.

“I’m going to sell my candy to my mother,” Sterling informed Peter on Halloween night. “Then I’m going to buy a toy.”

“That’s right,” said Claudia, as she served up a Halloween supper of low-cal turkey lasagna. “Then I’m going to throw it all away.”

Two nights later, Jon and Peter saw Sterling and his mother at Safeway.

Sterling was still in possession of his candy.

“I want $30 for it,” said Sterling.

“And I won’t pay more than $5,” said Claudia.

© 1987 The Oakland Tribune. Reprinted by permission.

That little six-year-old is gone: Peter is 28 years old now. He’s paid off his student loans and his car payments, he doesn’t mind taking the red eye, and if there’s a 401k in the picture he’s maxed it out. He still knows a good deal when he sees one, but he’s also a generous human being who acquires and spends the folding stuff thoughtfully.

Another story from Peter’s childhood at “I Can’t Say No to Toys.” 

 

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