The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money, Ron Lieber

This week, I finally settled down and read a book that my husband had found for us. Technically, it’s not about babies. He and I are both terrified of our children’s adolescence (and yes, I recognize we have a few years, but it’s never too soon to start worrying about things over which you have little control, like the passage of time), and although we both spend enough time with teenagers to know we’re comfortable with them, we’re not nearly so comfortable with the value based conversations around finances we want to be able to have with them. 

I wasn’t sure it was necessary to start reading up about this topic so early, of course, but as soon as I started Lieber’s book, I was completely engrossed. Here was practical advice about how to approach the topic of money with children as young as three or four years old, as well as how to keep the conversation going until children are out in the world making their own financial decisions. As I was reading though, I had a powerful realization that of all the strengths my parents instilled in me, financial savvy was not one of them. Do I know how to be generous? Yes. Do I understand the basics of budgeting and taxes? Yes, after many years of guidance from friends (and my very patient husband), I have workable knowledge. Do I feel comfortable comparing investments, the stock market, or retirement plans? Not really. More importantly though, having grown up in a family (to be clear – one like almost every other I knew when I was a child) where money was a completely taboo subject, I recognize that my spending priorities are not always what I want them to be, and they certainly aren’t as astute as I hope my own children’s will one day be.

I think it’s possible that by being capable in many other areas of my life from a young age, I tricked my parents into thinking I was also a fiscally responsible person. I didn’t gamble or get into credit card debt when I left home, but that sets the bar lower than I’d prefer. Back then, I knew a few kids who had notebooks with budgets scribbled into them; they would keep track of how they spent birthday money, or, if they got one, an allowance, but even so, I don’t remember any of them having a real understanding of the family’s finances from a practical standpoint or a value-based one. Many of us also had little savings accounts at the local bank, but I didn’t really know what that meant. What was I saving for? And why? 

When I was about six, my dad and I were at Osco Drug (he and I would occasionally have a special walk in the evening if he needed to pick something up, and we were both content to browse for an hour or more – something my mother and brother were more than happy to skip). I wanted him to buy me something – a toy, a special pen, or maybe a notebook – and he told me he didn’t have money to get it. I asked why he didn’t just go to one of the machines in the wall that would give him money; my understanding of an ATM was that a code was entered and cash appeared. It was years before I grokked where that money came from.

That story sums up just about every discussion of money I remember having as a kid. Even though we were an average middle class family, I was often told “we can’t afford that” – unless, of course, I was allowed to have it. My parents’ generosity was flexible, and looking back, somewhat baffling from a child’s perspective. I suspect I spent a lot of time whining to get things I didn’t really want or need because I didn’t understand how my parents were making their decisions about what I got and what I didn’t. 

We’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. With this foundation, we’ll give our kids the best shot at thriving no matter how much money they end up having or what is going on with the economy. (p 73)

The truth was, we could afford that pen or a little toy. My parents just recognized that I didn’t need it and made the decision to use a well-worn phrase to turn me down. I witnessed this innumerable times as I was growing up. Every single parent I encountered used “we can’t afford it” as justification at least some of the time. I never thought to question it because I had no idea where to start. The Opposite of Spoiled is the book I wish all those families could have had back then. Lieber understands the myriad challenges and potential shame or awkwardness parents face when it comes to talking to children about finances, and he has a solution for just about every problem. His favorite starting point is this:

In my years of research on the topic, I’ve determined that there is one answer that works best for any and every money question. The response is itself a question: Why do you ask? This response is useful for many reasons. The first is a practical one. By training myself to respond this way, I’ve guaranteed one thing for certain: that I will have at least 10 seconds to think through potential responses, depending on the reason for the question . Yes, it’s a stalling tactic. But be careful. There is a right way and a wrong way to question the question, given how vulnerable kids are to the belief that certain topics are off-limits. So I always try to say “why do you ask?” in the most encouraging tone possible. If your tone sounds suspicious, like an accusation or an expression of disapproval, it may shut down the whole conversation. (p 22)

As he points out, many times, young children especially are asking questions about money (are we poor; is X rich; why does my friend have Y when I don’t) that are fleeting observations about their social situations and may not require much more than a brief, honest response (we have enough money to buy what we need; I don’t know how much X’s family has; we all own different things – isn’t that nice because it means when you play together, you can bring Z while your friend brings Y). He says if children continue to push and question, it’s actually a great opportunity to start exploring the topic, but many won’t. Even with older children and teenagers, questions about money can lead to frank conversations about how much families are paying for housing, food, utilities, etc. 

The hidden message of offering the truth to children is that you and your children can work together to manage difficult issues. Children also learn that if they ever need a straight story, they can count on you. (p 20)

Lieber sets out reasonable guidelines for talking to children in age appropriate ways about spending, saving, and giving. He’s upfront about the fact that it’s easier to start this when children are young, but also offers compelling evidence that even with teenagers who haven’t been exposed to discussions about budgeting, it’s possible to set guidelines and have conversations that will improve their perspective on spending and save them debt later on. Personally, I was thrilled that he covered everything from introducing an allowance to helping children budget on vacation to how to set reasonable expectations for expensive gadget purchases – all questions that have been plaguing me for years. I want my children to have what they need, and beyond that, to feel treated to some things they desire, but I also want them to understand boundaries and respect them – not just for my own sanity, but for their future financial independence.

By the end of the book, Lieber had moved into a powerful discussion about making financial choices rooted in the value system of a family. He had many wonderful stories to share from parents of many different backgrounds (part of his work is writing the “Your Money” column for the New York Times, but another significant chunk is traveling to schools to speak with parents about these ideas); his point in sharing these stories was to illustrate how unique each family’s approach to this topic was while still being successful. 

You’re telling your children that your values helped you decide some of these big questions, that this is a value you hold dear to your family. What’s potent about that is that it’s part of how a child acquires an identity, which helps dictate behavior. Values should drive behavior. And you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes you whole as a human being. That’s worth teaching. (p 33)

The point he makes throughout the book is that these decisions are not one size fits all, except in the idea that money should be a topic of honesty. His core belief is that by opening up what has long been a taboo topic, we can improve the lives, not only of our own children, but of the larger economy by introducing ever more educated, thoughtful generations into the conversation. I, for one, am with him on this.

For more about Ron Lieber, head over here.

God and Goodnight Moon: Finding Spirituality in Storybooks for Children

After three weeks of heading deep down the rabbit hole into the life of babies, where they come from, and what to to do with them once they’ve arrived, I felt like I had reached my saturation point. Don’t get me wrong – this is all exciting and necessary information, but I’ve started to really look forward to my (slow) elliptical workouts at the gym, because for forty minutes a day, I get to read fiction, and it’s absolutely glorious. I find myself drawn to books with plenty of swashbuckling adventure, inappropriate language, and over the top romance to balance out all the studying I’ve been doing. 

It probably doesn’t help, of course, that aside from reading all these baby books, I’ve also been taking a class for the last eight weeks to hone my skills writing for children. I scheduled it back in January when I was absolutely lousy with energy, and by the time it started in March, I felt like a sponge that had been wrung out to dry. The first week, I absolutely despaired. How could I possibly get through my class reading, plus check out all the children’s books recommended as supplementals, while also getting my assignments in on time and staying on top – if not ahead – of all my actual work that has to be done before the baby arrives? 

There might have been some crying and some gnashing of teeth, but eventually, I settled into a routine (a routine that absolutely required and justified an hour long nap every afternoon) that was doable, and I remembered exactly why I love taking writing classes when I have the chance. It feels amazing to stretch parts of the brain that have been atrophying, and even though I’ve had the best of intentions in regards to several projects for younger audiences in the last year, none of them had even made it into the solid outline stage. Taking this course was exactly the kick I needed, and I found that it actually energized other writing projects simply by forcing me into more of a time crunch. Truly, nothing motivates me to work on a new chapter or essay like the threat of missing a deadline (as an anti-procrastinator, it really is a marvelous scramble to stay ahead!).

As a nice addition to my classwork, a couple of months ago, my parents sent me a book that’s less of a sit down and read than it is a reference for families looking to explore the themes of some of their children’s favorite stories within the context of Christianity (in this instance, “Christianity” is defined as a value system that encourages tolerance, compassion, understanding, and equality while using stories from the Bible to supplement these themes). I read through it this week, and while I doubt it will be my go-to activity book (I liked a lot of the ideas, and I’m sure I’ll use some of them, but I also have years of preschool teaching materials that may well see more use), I did get a chance to learn about some wonderful children’s lit that I had either forgotten about or never heard of in the first place. 

The absolute best thing about the book was how diligently researched it was to find such wonderfully diverse books for children. Not only were children of many races represented, but also children with different abilities, children from all sorts of families, children from countries around the world – each suggestion had been carefully chosen to intersect between the deeply well known (Goodnight Moon, The Velveteen Rabbit) and the joyfully affirming (Crow Boy, Hope, The Story of Ruby Bridges). As I was reading, I found myself making a list to take to the library, and at this point, anything that gets me that excited to move off the couch gets a thumbs up in my book.

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, Anne Lamott

The friend who told me about this book has four children, a full time job as a UCC minister, and a husband who commutes every day about an hour each way to his job as a child advocacy lawyer. To say that they always have a lot on their plate would be a massive understatement, and yet whenever we have a chance to visit them, their house is always filled with the most joyful kind of chaos. Everywhere I look, there’s learning happening, and negotiations between siblings, and exploration sanctioned by loving, tolerant parents. Nobody there has a minute to waste trying to make life look perfect because they’re all too busy being fully engaged in the passionate need to be doing. I should have known, then, that a book recommended by a mom who seems superhuman yet manages to be completely down to earth, self-deprecating, and hilarious would be exactly the right sort of thing to read while on the precipice of this new journey. 

Of course I was crying by the time I’d finished the introduction and had to put the book down to email and scold her for telling a hormonal pregnant woman to read such a thing. She was appropriately amused by the situation and pointed out that when she read it, parenting blogs didn’t exist and it was books like this one that kept her sane after she had her first baby. I tried (and failed) to imagine how much harder that would have been. I’ve followed at least five parenting blogs for years, all written by mothers who are willing to be honest about the shit storm that is parenting – how it can be the most precious gift in the world and still completely miserable at the same time. These women write about situations that don’t always pop up in that stream of adorable kids pics on Facebook or Instagram, giving hope to all the struggling parents out there that, yes, this insanity is completely normal, and no, you’re not a terrible person if you sometimes have to lock yourself in the bathroom with a handful of gummy worms and an episode of Orange is the New Black streaming on your phone.

Before we had the opportunity to connect with other people like this online though, there were writers like Anne Lamott bravely breaking down the parenting experience. As a single mother and recovered addict, her journey through the first year of her son’s life is a tumultuous one, and she doesn’t spare her readers from the gory or glory of it all. She is blessed to be surrounded by a solid tribe, friends and family who continuously offer help when she’s at the end of her rope. I was in awe of all the people who lived nearby and were willing to jump in and lend a hand when Lamott felt like she was so buried she’d never survive.

Because the book is an exquisitely shaped journal of that first year, the highs and lows come heel to heel. One moment, she is so blissed out feeding her son that life seems like a hallelujah chorus, and in the next, she hasn’t slept for a day and a half and can hardly stand the sight of the little boy she loves so dearly. I don’t know if everyone can relate to such a feeling, but even just today I was thinking about how fortunate I am to be doing a basket of stinky gym laundry because it meant I actually had the time and energy to work out this week, and the next, I was furious about having to clean the kitchen for what felt like the tenth time. 

I wondered at how I could have felt so completely zen about my circumstances only to have everything fall apart into frustration. There was no logic to it, no reason for one moment to be as easy as breathing and the next, an epic struggle, but it made me feel profoundly close to Lamott. Here is a woman who understands and fights through these ridiculous ebbs and swells – here is a writer who wonders whether her baby is stealing her ability to be creative and productive, whether her work will ever circle around to what it once was. 

It made me feel so safe to read a book published twenty years ago that could have been taken straight out of the lives of countless parents I know. This journey is chockfull of the unknown, and at times it’s lonely and unbearable, but admitting that can be hard when it seems like every other parent must have a better way of handling the stress. Lamott makes it seem okay to embrace the crazy because she knows it brings the sublime along with the shit. 

The Food of Love, Kate Evans

I have to be honest. At this point, I’m amazed I’ve made it through two child-rearing books. The amount of anxiety these books give me, after repeatedly and forcefully telling me it’s alright if I don’t do things a certain way – then proceeding to dump three hundred pages of advice that, if ignored, will turn my child into a depressed, obese, alcoholic – is getting steadily higher. I went from being the expectant mother with very few expectations to the expectant mother who’s clearly a reprobate for leaving all this research until the seventh month.

It makes me a little resentful because I’ve always trusted and loved books, and now I eye them with an air of suspicion. What will this one dictate? What will that one prepare me for that I had never even considered before? Will the pictures in this one scar me for life, and if I do feel scarred, what kind of person am I that I can be so easily damaged by photos or drawings of a completely natural and healthy process?

I miss my uncomplicated relationship with well-worn paperback novels. I miss the hours of escape the right book provides. I especially miss feeling a little guilty for reading a book with zero literary value. Reading books like this one remind me that in a very short time, my life will be drastically different, and there will be no going back to the way things were before. Sure, every few days and weeks, something will change; one of the most critical things I learned in the years I worked with three month to five year olds is that little is constant when it comes to small growing humans. This is not comforting. It’s familiar, in the way that observing and learning about anything becomes familiar after you’ve done it for long enough, but viewed through the filter of imminent arrival, it’s not comforting.

Many people find that comfort in research. I get it. I personally take more of a measure once, cut twice approach to life, but I’m not fairly confident that’s not the best approach, so I absolutely don’t judge those who want all the data possible before making a decision. That’s where books like these come in. It can be incredibly helpful to have resources like Evans’ book available both before and after a baby arrives. In fact, I learned more from reading this book than I could have possibly imagined. She’s thorough, funny, and of course, consistent in reminding me that although breast is best, formula fed babies probably won’t be horribly scarred for life.

I’m joking…sort of. On the one hand, I definitely plan on bringing this book with me to the hospital when I go into labor because I found it that helpful. On the other, I occasionally felt like taking up arms for a more neutral stance on the baby feeding bandwagon on behalf of all my friends who, for whatever reason, weren’t able to breastfeed and have amazing, well-attached, sweet, smart children who I love to spend time with.

Evans’ strength is really in the palatable way she breaks down the information a new mother might need about how to breastfeed, what kind of help to ask for if things are going awry, and how to handle the strain this process can put on a mother’s body. After I finished the book, I looked back and counted fourteen pages I’d flagged so that I could go back to those sections quickly if I needed a reference. I certainly felt better prepared to approach the process, which before had seemed like a complete mystery to me, with confidence. I’d also made note of some questions I wanted to ask the friend who’d given the book to me, a mom who had great success with breastfeeding her children and who I feel comfortable asking questions that make me feel vulnerable and sound (probably) idiotic.

I actually have a hard time imagining a better written reference guide for families interested in breastfeeding, or for those who are struggling and would like concrete solutions for their problems. It was a light-hearted read, especially considering the topic, and if I hadn’t felt the author’s occasional pressure about making the “right” choice for my baby, I would have been completely smitten. As it was, I finished the book with the feeling that I had a well-intentioned if slightly preachy friend on my side for tackling this particular hurtle of parenthood.

That being said, after I was done, I ate half a sleeve of Thin Mints and binge-watched some really trashy tv in an effort to keep from going full-on crazy mom mode. It seemed like a fair trade off for all this responsible pre-parenting…

Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, Ina May Gaskin

Sometime in the next two months, (by June 1 at the latest), I’ll be taking parental leave from reviewing books (as well as my other work, of course!). I expect my leave to last about three months, although if things go well, I may be back, at least sporadically, sooner than that, but I’m making no promises. You’ll have to muddle through the hot months of summer without me, although hopefully you have a shelf full of books to read on the beach, or while commuting to and from the office on a train with intermittent AC while surrounded by folks with even questionable hygiene, or while sipping a cool drink on a tiny balcony while the sun stays out until ten pm. Wherever you choose/have to spend that time, I know it will be full of stolen moments reading whatever your guilty pleasure is (because what is summer for if not indulging in things like ice cream for dinner, or taking an extra long lunch out in the sunshine sans work email, or reading a book other people might judge you for?!). I suspect I will be doing quite a bit less reading than I’m used to, at least for a while, and what I do read will probably have a lot of rhyming and primary colors. 

In the meantime though, I’m taking April to read the many books people have gifted me with over the last seven months in preparation for this major life change. I realize this may not be of much interest to some of you, and for that, I apologize. Nevertheless, if I want to feel the least bit prepared, I have to sacrifice some of my preferred reading habits for a more educational bent, and I have to say, I couldn’t have picked a better place to start. 

Like most people (I presume) who have not had children, what I know about labor and delivery comes from Hollywood. I vividly remember watching a cesarean section on The Learning Channel in the eighth grade when I was babysitting. This was back when TLC showed mainly educational programming, and there was definitely no sugarcoating or cutaway shots. Aside from that experience though, I mostly owe what little knowledge I had to hour long medical dramas, and it wasn’t until we took our birthing class a few weeks ago that I realized how much of that information was inaccurate and misleading. 

Our teacher for the class was wonderful (and I’m saying that after eight hours in a room with her on a day when I was nursing a painful back injury), and over the course of the day, I realized just how ignorant I really was about the process. While she gave us a lot of wonderful information, I also realized that I would benefit from reading some of the resources given to me by experienced friends who had been through the process several times. I picked Gaskin’s book primarily because it’s the only one I have (aside from what my doctor recommended) that actually talks about the experience of labor and delivery, and it seemed to make sense to go in a sort of chronological order.

I cannot recommend this book more highly to women who are pregnant or who may want to get pregnant. For the last few months, I’ve been thinking about my own delivery as though it were a marathon – not a metaphorical one, but an actual 26.2 mile run. My experience becoming a runner in my late twenties has been a huge part of shaping who I am. I am not fast or particularly well-designed for running, but I love it, and one day I hope to complete a marathon, which is possibly why this challenge of giving birth has presented itself to me this way. I see it as something to train for, both mentally and physically, because as much as it’s a big deal, and by many accounts painful, it’s also a process that the human body is designed to succeed at.

Ina May’s book is such a positive experience when thinking about the process that it actually inspired to me to feel excited rather than terrified about the big day. It even made me feel less crazy for comparing labor to running, since running is something I have to use a lot of positive mental energy to accomplish. It’s not an activity I go out and do with great ease, and it’s not always painless. In fact, when I ran the Bolder Boulder last year, despite months of great training, I felt nauseous and rundown the day of the race and made it through (barely, and with a lot of unplanned walking) only through strict mental fortitude. I knew that my body was capable of completing the race even though it felt horrible to run. There were periods of time when my mind went completely blank as I focused on moving one foot in front of the other, and still longer periods where all I could do was coach myself to dig deeper. Everyone around me seemed to be in high spirits, and it was all I could do not to cry, and yet I crossed the finish line in one piece with the valuable knowledge that I could trust my body to do what it had trained for, even if it didn’t do as well or as easily as I had planned. This kind of failure crops up often for me in running, and it seems like it might end up being the best possible way to have prepared for an experience like labor and delivery.

 This book is full of affirmation about what the human body is capable of if we approach it with the right attitude, much like some of my favorite books on running have been. Her advice is straightforward, compassionate, and body-positive, and her experience in the field is exceptional. She supports a holistic view of health and views birth as a wellness experience instead of a trauma. Her tone didn’t feel judgmental toward the possibility of a hospital birth versus a home one but rather focused on the inner strength women have to make whatever path they choose as joyful and informed as possible.

It’s always amazing to me to find books like this one – books that focus on building up the image of ourselves as strong emotionally and physically in order to tackle seemingly impossible challenges. We don’t often get the chance to see our best selves reflected back at us this way, and when we do, it feels like a precious gift. I look forward to the day when I can apply that same powerful response to crossing the finish line of a race like the Boston Marathon, but in the meantime, I’m happy to have found it as I get ready to face this next challenge.

For more about Ina May Gaskin, head here.