We learn an unintended lesson in economics

Ever seeking to improve my parenting skills, I was an avid reader of parenting books and magazines when my son was younger. Lord Chesterfield said, "I used to have 12 theories about raising children. Now I have 12 children and no theories." At the time, I was still in the midst of the "12 theories" part, and never, I am grateful to say, made it into the rarefied air of the "12 children" realm.

In my copious reading, I discovered that one of the educational blind spots for kids is economics, so I resolved to teach the little tyke some new tricks ... once I figured out what I was doing, of course. As my firstborn, Ari had the glorious opportunity to prove - or disprove - my child-rearing theories. (He grew up to be a fine young man despite all.)

How do you teach Economics 101 to a 4-year-old? It's an adventure, to say the least. Economics for kids can be parceled out in several recognizable units: designation of worth for labor, negotiation, and translation of whatever is earned for something that is desired.

"Designation of worth for labor exerted" translates as "money for chores." The parent sets forth a set of labors, though none of them is as grand as the Labors of Hercules. (Redirecting a couple of rivers to wash out Ari's room might not have been a bad idea, however.) With chore list in hand, I approached my miniature J. Paul Getty.

"Ari," I said in my best bank manager's voice, "You should be doing tasks around the house on a regular basis. These should not only be for the care and upkeep of your room, but also for the good of the family as a whole, just as we do things for you."

Ari's eyebrows had just knitted themselves together in the middle like one long, furry blond caterpillar. I continued anyway: "In exchange for your efforts, your dad and I are willing to pay you in points. After you get a certain number of points, you can turn them in and buy what you would like, within reason." He smiled, but it was a cautious smile at best. "For instance, if you make your bed in morning and it's good, you get two points. If you do an excellent job, and it's smooth and straight, you get a total of three points. But if it's barely acceptable, you earn only one or zero points. Do you see how this will work?"

Ari grinned from ear to ear, already picturing a GameBoy within his grasp after two weeks of making his bed, but only because his skills at addition had not caught up to his ambition. I closed by saying that if he did a superior job, eager to help at any task and good at it, I'd buy him something for which he did not have to use his points.

One of us would suggest a task, and then we'd negotiate. What happened was that he couldn't wait to spend his points and would cash them in on flimsy little plastic, broken-in-the-car-on-the-way-home toys.

When Ari went above and beyond the call of duty, I'd allow him to pick something from one of those giraffe-sized toy stores, and invariably, those would quickly crack as well. He enjoyed the last-minute negotiation of whether he would use his points today or whether I'd reward him with a "free" toy. "Free" or not, the little rewards crumbled like overbaked clay. As a consumer, I can understand a toy with a planned obsolesce of 10 months, but 10 minutes was a bit ridiculous.

I apparently commented more than once that these toys were a waste of money.

The educational chickens came home to roost about a week later. As we stood outside a gigantic toy emporium preparing to enter its halls, Ari turned to me and asked, "Well, shall we waste my money or yours?"

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