Forgive me for a moment for turning the blog into a parenting advice column, but I have to ask if the other parents of young children are encountering the same challenge as I am in teaching my kids about money.
My son started first grade this year, and so for the first time he is eating lunch at school. While he packs his lunch most days, he does get to buy pizza on Fridays and on the occasional day when we realize the bus will come in three minutes and we forgot to pack anything. His school has set up a handy system where you drop money into an online account and he just gives a pin number to the cafeteria workers and, presto, his lunch is paid for. Nice, right? For the most part, yes. You don’t have to worry about him losing his lunch money or having it taken by a bully. (Does that ever really happen?)
But one day my son complained that other kids got to buy lunch more often, and I told him that’s fine for those kids, but we pack our lunches, and buying that often costs money. And he said, “It’s not real money, it’s just in the computer.”
Oh dear. I forget what explanation I offered at that time, though it was probably a cranky, “Oh, yes, it IS real money.” But he brought it up again the other day, so I decided to show him how it was real money. And so I explained that I go to a Web site, and I showed him my credit card and I said, “And I type in this number…” And I just trailed off. No wonder he doesn’t think it’s real. With a few keystrokes on a computer, we get movies to watch (Netflix), books and games delivered (Amazon), and, now, school lunches.
I have a long-held but completely unscientific theory that the farther we get away from money being an actual tangible thing-from gold to currency to checks to credit cards to chips embedded under our skin that we can swipe past a scanner (or whatever’s next)-the harder it is to understand how much work it takes to make money, and that much more challenging to make responsible choices as consumers.
And I realize there are many things as I can do as a parent to teach the proverbial value of a dollar: Give him an allowance, let him make relevant purchasing decisions and use actual cash, talk to him about what things cost. But this seems like it could be larger issue for society. Am I crazy to worry that today’s youth will grow up to have even more of the credit-related problems that plagued us during the economic meltdown?