We all have a voice in our head that talks about money.
For some it’s the haunting voice in D.H. Lawrence’s story “The Rocking-Horse Winner”—the voice saying: “There must be more money! There must be more money!”
The children hear it when the elaborate and splendid toys came at Christmas while their parents struggled unsuccessfully to maintain their expensive lifestyle. The voice was an inaudible but palpable anxiety about money and always needing more. The title of Lawrence’s story comes from the horse on which their young son, Paul, rocks madly while hearing the names of the winners of upcoming races. But the voices in the house only increase as the family’s lifestyle becomes more lavish, always outpacing their newfound wealth. Paul finally rocks himself to a fevered pitch, collapsing as he delivers the name of the final winner. The payoff is enormous, but Paul never recovers. To quiet the voice of dissatisfaction would cost Paul his life.
But there are other, more hopeful, voices talking about money. And Ron Lieber, the personal finance columnist for the New York Times, has written a book about such voices that, unlike those in Lawrence’s story, lead not to destruction but to health and the adoption of important values. This excellent book is not as much about money as it is about virtue. Lieber uses conversations around money to help inculcate seven basic values in our kids that will lead them to become mature adults. The book is about rescuing our kids from the ever-present danger of being spoiled and raising them to be productive, joyful, grateful, and responsible adults. “The goal is not to make our children feel bad about whatever advantages they have or to shun those advantages as they grow older,” Lieber writes, but “talking about what we spend and save and give away, and why, is one of the important legacies we can leave them.” These are the conversations that will endure and shape generations.
Once instilled, these seven virtues—curiosity, patience, thrift, modesty, generosity, perseverance, and perspective—will serve children for a lifetime. Without them, our children are condemned to the unhappy and unsatisfying life of being spoiled.
Money: The Root of All Virtue?
So how can we raise unspoiled kids? Lieber lays out his method:
I assembled a list of values and virtues and character traits that come closest to defining the opposite of spoiled, ones that collectively add up to the kind of grounded, decent young adults that every parent hopes to send out into the world. And as I stared at the word cloud I’d created, I realized that every last one of those attributes—from generosity and curiosity to patience and perseverance—could be taught using money.
But it’s not only our kids who should learn these attributes, parents need to as well. And a real strength of this book is that even when Lieber pokes fun at some of our more immodest lapses of judgment, he is not finger-pointing or hectoring. Lieber encourages us to ask: How can we as parents grow and mature while we struggle to make good choices about our priorities? We too are changing, and these conversations with our kids only underscore the importance of our own choices. Are we raising materialistic kids and using them as proxies in our own private status wars with others? How central is wealth and comfort to us? What are the disciplines we impose on our kids but not on ourselves?
Using exchanges and engagements with everyday families and the research of experts, Lieber has put together some of the best resources on the topic I have read to date. He does not overdo the use of experts, which would make the book dry and academic, nor does he select families who seem airbrushed and picture perfect. Rather, The Opposite of Spoiled is, as you might expect from a journalist, written to engage as well as to inform. It is written from years of experience with real people and families who have valuable perspectives to share with us. It is not a lecture nor a sermon, but an invitation to a conversation with others.
Thriving at Work
In “The Smartest Ways for Kids to Spend” Lieber recognizes that some spending is needless, but some brings lasting happiness and enduring memories and real joy. I remember when our own family was stretched on a teacher’s salary and my father told me to “invest in memories.” Take short trips together. One family interviewed had great joy in shopping together at thrift stores even though they could afford to shop at more expensive shops. While it’s easy to disparage spending altogether, Lieber helpfully reminds readers that “[t]his pleasure is not something to be ashamed of or to chide our children for. In fact, we ought to celebrate it […] What they need is a sense of balance and just the right amount of thrift.” And Lieber’s insights about thrift are worth quoting more fully:
Thrift is an odd word, often synonymous with cheap. If it’s ever a compliment, it’s a begrudging one. What’s been lost over the years is recognition that the root word of thrift is thrive. Our goal as parents isn’t to promote the stingy type of thrift. [W]e’re aiming to do three things: set some spending guidelines to lean on; model a few sensible tactics for our children; and adopt family rituals that make spending fun—but only on things that have real value and meaning.
In a chapter entitled “Why Kids Should Work,” Lieber starts with the premise that kids like to work and our job is to “stoke that instinct to work and to earn and see just how far their natural-born industriousness takes them.” Yet he believes this is harder now than in earlier times because kids are no longer necessary as labourers. In fact, Princeton sociologist Viviana A. Zelizer writes that we’ve gone from celebrating the birth of a child as the “arrival of a future labourer” to a society where “a child is simply not expected to be useful.” This fundamentally changes how—or even whether—we introduce children to the good of work. And yet learning how to work is crucial for their future flourishing.
In 1998 about 45% of American kids ages 16 to 19 had jobs of some sort. By 2013, just 20% of teens had jobs, an all-time low since the United States started keeping track in 1948.
What once was a necessity is now almost an impediment. Because we believe college and university admissions directors want to see evidence of involvement in extracurricular activities, community service, and international voluntarism, work is sidelined. Unfortunately, taking away the necessity of work has made it even more important: “The kids who go to Costa Rica for the summer to do volunteer work are a dime a dozen.” Instead, “what our kids can learn from paid employment is a work ethic, that loose phrase that captures the ability to listen, exert ourselves, cooperate with others, do our best, and stick to a task until we’ve done it, and done it right.”
Apprenticeships in Generosity
In “How to Talk About Giving” Lieber explains the value of generosity and how to encourage it with our kids. It begins with sharing our stories of giving but also including our children in a variety of ways. Encourage kids to see and ask questions about the organizations requesting donations. Let them participate in site visits. You will be surprised by their penetrating questions and interest.
In my experience with philanthropy this is a much-needed discipline for us as well as our kids. Our kids are most likely to be generous when they see us give, but sometimes we are reluctant to allow them, yet “[t]he best way to help kids learn about giving is to give them a literal seat at the table when the grown-ups make decisions about donations.” We do this gradually with larger and larger amounts as they learn to ask questions, even ones which may make some feel uncomfortable. For instance, after an encounter with a homeless man on the street in Atlanta, Kevin and Joan Salwen’s teenage daughter, Hannah, proposed at a family meeting that they sell their $2 million home, move into a much less expensive place and give the difference to charity. They did just that:
Only now do we look back at our old life and marvel at what we used to be. I don’t think we were bad parents or a bad family, but we were so far from whole. What we gained outstripped what we had, in terms of closeness of our family relationships, in terms of the richness of our lives. We got to go to Africa, to understand how subsistence farmers live and the kinds of decisions they make, how extraordinarily creative they are, when all we would have done otherwise is read about it in a book. Our lives are so much fuller now. I don’t think it’s even close.
Hearing Different Voices
What then is the opposite of spoiled? It starts with hearing different voices. Not the voices that dominate our culture, voices like those in the “The Rocking-Horse Winner” that demand more and more; rather, we need to hear voices like those in one of the final chapters of Lieber’s book.
Birch Rock Camp in Maine doesn’t have water toys, ski-boats, or horse-jumping rings. “We don’t think about stuff,” the camp’s alumni director said, “We think about soul.” Thinking about soul is a long-standing tradition for the older boys. They call it “The Whale” and it’s a five-mile swim around the lake for which they train all summer. Ron Lieber arrived at the camp just as one of the boys was far in the distance in his attempt:
As the speck grew near that day, a buzz arose and then, in unison, a chant as the aspiring Whaler came closer stroke by stroke by stroke.
“I BELIEVE THAT GABE CAN SWIM
I BELIEVE THAT GABE CAN SWIM
I BELIEVE THAT GABE CAN SWIM
I BELIEVE THAT GABE CAN SWIM”
I did not know Gabe and had yet to meet a single person at the camp, but I found myself holding back tears. The cheers grew to roars as Gabe reached the dock…The Whale, I later learned, is the moment that Birch Rock boys anticipate for years.
Perhaps this answers most fully the question asked at the beginning of the book: “What is the opposite of spoiled?” It’s not a life of artificial deprivation or denial. It’s not guilt or hiding what we have both earned and been given. Rather, it comes close to the verses in Ecclesiastes: “Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions and enables him to enjoy them […] and to be happy in his work—this is a gift of God.”
Isn’t that what we want to say to our children, after all? Aren’t those the voices we want ringing in their ears as they finish their lap around the lake for which they have trained from childhood? “You can swim. You can do this. You can be an adult. You can be fully alive.” I cannot imagine anything better than that.