With all that’s happened on Wall Street in the last ten days, I, like every other American, have had money on my mind. During most of my free time, I’ve been watching the news, reading the newspaper articles, and listening to the pundits on CNN as they try to explain, to those of us on Main Street, what the underlying factors were that caused this collapse, and why the government felt the need to bail out certain financial institutions. And what I’ve realized, is that on the most micro of levels, what has happened in the US as a whole, is no different from what happens in my house on a daily basis.
As a mother, when I created my economic policies, I aimed to be fairly conservative. I tried to keep in mind the goal of imparting to my children a sense of fiscal responsibility, and a less-is-more mentality. I tried to set the standards so that my kids would become conscious of money without becoming money-conscious. I tried to create a program whose overarching theme is that a dollar has value, and that spending a dollar is something to be done carefully, and with thought. And so, to that end, we have two very simple, economic rules in our house.
1. I will not buy toys for no reason. Birthdays, yes. Hannukah, yes. Rewards here and there for a job well done, yes. But, we’re standing in line at the drugstore and you see a toy that you want, you need, you have to have – no way.
2. If my children want a toy for no particular reason, they are perfectly welcome to buy it themselves, with money they earn from doing household chores. And if you read the fine print, “chores” are defined as anything they do to help around the house that is not already expected of them. For example, they will not earn money for cleaning their own room, or for cleaning up messes that they make. They will, however, earn money if they clean messes they didn’t make, or if they help other people do their chores. All chores are worth 25 cents.
I’m proud of my rules. They’re good rules. But like the players in the global financial crisis, I seem to have some trouble sticking to them.
When it comes to Rule #1, I think I’m kind of like Freddie and Fannie. With proper oversight – say, when my kids are in the store with me – I follow along exactly. But when I’m left on my own, unregulated, I often find myself moving away from my core mission, engaging in risky behavior, violating my own principles. When I’m in the toy store by myself, with nobody whining about how they want this or need to have that, I get sucked in by all of those fabulous projects and puzzles and educational games that I know my kids would love. They’re so tempting. So alluring. I’m sure it’s just how the guys in charge of Fannie and Freddie felt about putting money into mortgage-backed securities. They just wanted a better return on their investment, and so do I. I mean, I put so much time and energy into my kids, and it’s hard to always be the meanie. I want the hugs and the kisses and the smiles and the cries of oh, mommy, you’re the best. And so, nine times out of ten, the foundation of my entire economic policy falls apart over a Make Your Own Volcano kit, or a floor-sized puzzle of the solar system.
When it comes to Rule #2, however, I am definitely the government. My daughter, bless her earnest little soul, now brings her life saving with her – in change – whenever we leave the house, on the chance that there might be something she wants to purchase. When I manage to stick to this rule, it’s a great lesson. She’s learned to look at price tags, and to really think about whether the item she wants is worth her hard-earned money. And most of the time, she concludes that it’s not. But sometimes, she comes across something with Hannah Montana on it that is so spectacular, so compelling, she is willing to spend every red cent she owns, and then some. Oh, mommy, she’ll say, her face a crushing mess of disappointment. This Hannah Montana [insert piece of crap item here] is ten dollars and I only have eight dollars and nineteen cents, and I just want it so badly. Is it easy to tell her that I’m sorry, but she’ll have to go home and do some more chores before she can buy the Hanna Montana piece of crap that she so badly desires? No. It’s not. Do I feel like the wicked stepmother from Cinderella when I tell her that I’m sorry, but she’ll have to go home and do some more chores before she can buy the Hanna Montana piece of crap that she so badly desires? Yes. I do. But is it the right thing to do, to tell her that I’m sorry, but she’ll have to go home and do some more chores before she can buy the Hanna Montana piece of crap that she so badly desires? Yes. Yes, it certainly is.
But then she looks at me, expectantly, her little eyes filled with longing. And what do I do? Well, in the interest of avoiding the massive tantrum that would cause my entire world to collapse on the ride home, I do what any good government would do. I bail her out, and give her the extra money.
Of course, I realize that, by intervening, I’m not actually avoiding collapse, but merely putting it off to some future time, when it will be much, much worse. And of course, I realize that, in buying toys when I said I wouldn’t, I’m sending mixed signals, and condoning wild, reckless spending that will no doubt have disastrous consequences for the future, most likely having to do with an ‘emergencies only’ credit card and a trip to Urban Outfitters.
But hey, it’s Mamanonics, stupid.