When my son turned 10 last month, he made a momentous request for an allowance.
I say momentous because up to that point, Alyosha had literally wanted nothing to do with money. He liked to have things, of course, but he didn't like to do the actual buying. Whenever a relative tucked a dollar or two into a birthday or Christmas card, he'd reflexively hand the money over to me, saying, "You take care of it." My attempts to encourage him to at least learn something about the handling of money met with total disinterest.
Where, then, did the zeal for an allowance come from?
It turns out that the subject had been a hot one in school that week. So with all the enthusiasm of the new convert, he returned home with a mission.
After careful negotiations, we arrived at a figure of $2 a week. Then we shook hands on it. As I turned away, he cleared his throat. "Dad," he said as I looked at him with raised eyebrows, "the $2?"
Oh. So soon? I reached into my wallet and lifted out two worn bills, which I handed over to him with great aplomb. He admired them for a few moments before tucking them away in his pocket. And off he went, flush with his first mazuma.
Then came the great disillusionment.
Later that day we were in a convenience store and Alyosha was cruising the aisles, wide-eyed. "Dad," he said, "will you buy me a soda?"
My response was the only one possible in light of our new financial relationship. "Do you have your allowance?" I asked him.
He nodded cautiously, his face showing unease.
"Well, that's what it's for," I told him.
To make a long story short, he didn't buy his soda and decided that for the balance of the afternoon he wouldn't talk to me, either.
That evening there was an opening to explain to my son the nature of the allowance. "I'll continue to buy you the things you need," I told him as he listened with the focus of an attorney, "but an allowance is for the things you want."
Of course, there were certain clauses and subsections where the spirit of giving prevailed, such as birthdays and holidays.
This was the beginning of a long series of debates, discussions, and philosophical probings into the nature of the allowance. I had to keep reminding myself that Alyosha didn't fully understand the concept yet because he had literally made a leap from total disdain for money to a desire to have some of his own. His hard lesson was that an allowance was not simply the accumulation of surplus wealth in his cookie jar, but a resource that would allow him to meet - and ration - his material wants. The boon for me was that, as the concept of an allowance matured for my son over time, I was no longer in the position of being expected to reflexively fork over money for every doodad and trinket he spied on store shelves.
"Resources are limited," I told my barely comprehending son one evening as I tucked him into bed. "Money is a resource. We spend a little to get a little, and we save a little to have some for another day."
The upshot was that Alyosha squandered his allowance on the day he received it only once. But he quickly recouped and learned to manage his money well. One day when we were out shopping together, I paused to look over some kitchen utensils while Alyosha looked at a bargain box of cartoon videos. Next to him was another boy, perhaps a year younger, screaming at his mother and pulling at her coat, demanding that she buy him one of the videos. She resisted valiantly, reciting "No" three or four times. Finally, she gave in, shoved the video into her son's hand, and they went off together. What struck me about this scene was the way my son had looked at the pair. He had studied them blankly, as if observing people speaking a foreign language. As for me, I felt liberated.
I went over to Alyosha and put my hand on his shoulder as he looked at the tape he held in his hand. "Should I get this?" he asked. I shrugged. "Is it something you really want?" I asked. He nodded. "Then that's what your allowance is for," I told him.
I didn't find what I was looking for. After Alyosha made his purchase we headed home. On the way we stopped for gas at a general store. After I filled up, I went into the store to pay. As I reached for my wallet I experienced one of the most desperate feelings in the world: the empty pocket. Had I lost it? Had it been stolen? Or had I simply left it at home?
I ran back to the car, where my son was serenely reading the package description on his tape. "Alyosha," I said, leaning through the window, "I can't find my wallet. Do you have $5 you can lend me?"
He looked up at me and blinked. Then he took his money out of his pocket and unfolded a five-dollar bill. As I reached out to take it, he pulled it away. "Wait a minute," he said as I hovered between desperation and embarrassment.
"Yes? What is it?"
"Is it for something you need or something you want?"
I firmed up my lips, trying to suppress a smile. "It's for something we both need," I told him.
He handed the money to me, and I set off to pay for the gas. He had learned his lesson well, my boy had, tempering it with mercy.