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.

Young House Love, Sherry and John Petersik

Am I the only person who gets hit by an intense wave of pride after replacing an old toilet seat with a brand new one? Or after putting up shelves in the garage that require several iterations of measuring, drilling, and stud finding? Or planting tomatoes and keeping them alive long enough for them to actually provide me with fruit?

I  can’t be the only one who sometimes stares at home improvements months after they’ve been completed with a disproportionate sense of satisfaction at what I’ve accomplished. If I am, well then, you’re not doing right. Or possibly you are so used to doing it right that it’s lost its magic. Maybe you picked up a hammer as a child and you’ve been wielding it Thor-style ever since. You probably look at homes that need a little TLC and think, yup. I can do that. I can take that run-down pile of junk and turn it into something unique and wonderful.

That’s not me. It never has been. I didn’t grow up in a house with handy folk (apologies to my parents, who are wonderful people, and talented in many other ways, but it’s true). After my grandfather passed away, my brother was the only one of us with innate mechanical skills, and we’ve always turned to him when we need something repaired. The thing is, he lives three thousand miles away, and even if he didn’t, I’m as capable as the next guy (seriously – you should see those shelves I put up!), and with a little bit of research and a lot of patience, I’ve taught myself a lot about home and garden improvements over the last few years.

Of course, it helps that my husband knows about things like turning off the power at the source before beginning an electrical repair and measuring twice (yes, twice!) so we only have to cut once. His dad was apparently more hands-on when it came to tackling home repairs, and he has benefitted from those early years of experience. When it comes down to it though, most of the projects we take on are totally out of our wheelhouse. Typically what happens is that one of us will be struck by an idea, and after a few week of casual discussion, we’ll jump in. (“Let’s just try it!” is basically my mantra when it comes to all things home related, followed closely by “What’s the worst that could happen?” Let me tell you, I’ve changed my tune about that one after almost losing my left eye while trying to cut dead branches off our tree without safety goggles on.)

I probably should let inspiration guide me a little less than planning and research, but that’s one of the great things about Young House Love. The projects discussed by Sherry and John Petersik are cheap,  straightforward, and satisfying (like a big bowl of spaghetti without the carb coma). When I’m in need of a simple pick-me-up project for an afternoon, I can flip through and get inspired, and when we’re  about to tackle something bigger, I can check both the book and their blog for help. Their instructions are easy to understand (and include plenty of pictures), and as a family, they approach these tasks with a sense of humor and enjoyment I find refreshing.

Summer is here, and with it, my desire to clean up, reorganize, and tackle projects I’d been putting off in colder weather. With hours more of sunlight to work with, even week nights are becoming project friendly, and with the Petersiks behind me, I’m ready to break out the tools and go to town on our house! After I buy some safety goggles. Very important, those. Not the same thing as sunglasses, by the by…


For great project ideas, check out Young House Love at its source.

The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education, Carolyn Edwards (editor), Lella Gandini (editor), George Forman (editor)

Last week, I was having dinner with a friend with whom I used to teach preschool. She was telling me about the work she was doing in her new classroom with her new teaching team. In case you aren’t aware, in many preschool programs across the US, teachers have a week or less (in this particular case, three days) without the children present to “transition” their classrooms. Also, somewhat unusually, at this school, teachers do not instruct the same class every year; the program enrolls children from three months to five years, and in the infant program, teachers have the option of moving with the children for up to three years. As a result, it’s highly unusual to have the exact same teaching team (three or four teachers depending on class size, ratio necessity, and age) for any classroom from one year to another.

Since I left the school, I’ve depended on this friend to keep me in the loop about the changes, struggles, and triumphs that come from working in this constantly revolving scenario. After she went home, having stuffed my little brain with plans for the new year, I was inspired to pull out one of the books I read back when I began teaching there.

She and I had both been hired the same summer, the year the school opened, and at that time, the center was hoping to practice a philosophy inspired by the work in Reggio Emilia, Italy. It’s a common misconception that the philosophy itself is called Reggio Emilia, but in fact, it’s the name of a town that happened to be the origin of some truly groundbreaking work with young children. The book, The Hundred Languages of Children, is a dense look the history and philosophy of teaching that has developed there and is probably not a strong choice for the casual reader. I know, however, that many of you are teachers who struggle to bring best practice to the students, families, and communities you work with. Even though this book is aimed at Early Childhood educators, it is an inspiring and fierce read for people who demand more from educational practices.

The history of Reggio Emilia is especially fascinating to me. This is an entire community that decided to work together to create a better education system. Who are these people? How did they get motivated to do this? In the book, it talks about the era of change that Italy went through – how the country was working diligently for the past forty-five years to establish better rights for working people, families, parents, and children (especially children with disabilities) – but how was it possible a single community managed focus enough to create the Reggio Emilia experience?

If this had been done in the United States, it would have been an elite program, open only to families that could afford the luxury of a top-notch education. Instead, in Reggio Emilia, the system was designed to be free and available to every member of the community, regardless of a child’s economic, religious, or developmental background. It was also created, through enormous struggle, by the community. This was not a school that dropped itself into the middle of a town and expected families to jump on board. The town went through an incredibly grueling process, together, of determining what they wanted and needed out of public education. This system required buy-in, and discussion, and disagreement. It was and is not always pretty (although as a teacher, swept away by what they have managed to do, it certainly seems absolutely remarkable from the outside).

The program the Italians have established relies almost entirely on documentation collected from classroom work with the children. The teachers record conversations with the children; they spend time note-taking and photographing the children’s work. They meet with other teachers to discuss what they have observed, and they do their best to share all of this with the wider community. Unlike in the US, where research must be disseminated by widely “reputable” sources before educational systems can even consider the information, this  style of data gathering has informed the entire system of pre-primary education.

This requires a huge amount of work, but it provides opportunities for a much greater range of people to have input (parents, teachers, administrators, interested citizens), which then leads to opportunities that would have not have been possible otherwise. It is also a reflection of the type of work these professionals seek to have the children do themselves – questioning, documenting, experimenting – and in practicing it themselves, they develop their own skills to scaffold the children’s investigations.

One of the things I remember wanting when I first read this book was more of the Italians’ notes and observations about the children’s work, especially when they were first starting out. To me, coming from a more traditional teaching environment, these new ideas were a thrill, but also proved daunting to execute. How was I to go about observing the children thoroughly enough to find the right topic, then create questions and hypotheses to move the curriculum forward with enthusiasm? I found myself grateful that at the end of one chapter, they emphasized how important small projects were to eventually having the ability to work with children on a deeper investigative level over the course of months.

When I went to the end of the year celebration in June of children I had worked with as infants (they were going off to kindergarten in the fall), we were treated to an amazing twenty-minute video presentation of the children’s investigations about space. The whole school was filled with the work they had done (all of it originally inspired by the flyover of the Space Shuttle Endeavour in September), and although all of it was impressive on its own, it was even more so when I heard, from their own mouths, the children’s discussions, questions, and conclusions over the course of nine months about the solar system and NASA’s role in space exploration. I was so proud of having been part of their very earliest experiences in education and yet also (blissfully) dumbfounded by what they were capable of doing and knowing at five years old as a result.

One of the most critical things I absorbed from this book is that the goal of teaching is not to indoctrinate children with the idea that every thought they have is perfect or to give them the false hope that every one will be successful.  Instead, the teacher’s role is to engage them in problem solving with their peers so that their work is meaningful to them.  Protecting them from failure was not my job.  Providing support when they felt sad, angry or frustrated was, of course, but that could be done in many ways.  This book revolutionized, for me, the belief that caring for children is not a separate idea from encouraging them to be competent, questioning individuals. This has been done magnificently in Italy, but it can be executed successfully on many levels anywhere people care enough to start asking questions.

For more information about the North American Reggio Emilia Association, go here. If you’re curious about the history and details of Reggio Emilia, the Wikipedia article here is a great place to start.