Monday, August 8, 2011


I was the daughter of a single mom who was also a student, so as a child, I always felt like we were living in poverty. Toys were something I got on my birthday and Christmas, and that was it. So when I was four years old and I saw this set of three identical blond-haired dolls of different sizes at the drug store downstairs, I knew I had no chance of getting it, even though I really, really (really) wanted it.

Then, miracle of miracles, I got the chicken pox and my mother bought me the dolls! It was totally worth being covered in pox to get that toy. I will never forget it.

My daughter is now four years old. She doesn't need to be pox-stricken to get toys. We buy her toys all the freaking time because she wants them and we can easily afford it. And as the only grandchild on both sides, her grandparents shower her with toys.

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a present (a pet shop dollhouse) for the birthday girl at a party we were going to and my daughter saw the present and threw a fit because she wanted it for herself. She even said she'd skip the party if she could keep the present. And in the back of my mind, I thought to myself that it wouldn't be so bad if we bought a second pet shop dollhouse and it would make her SO happy. Then I was disgusted with myself. What have I become that I would even consider such a thing?

That's the problem with being financially comfortable. You can easily afford to buy your child whatever toy they want, and in fact, it's easier to do so than to listen to them scream. It takes real self-restraint to say no. But every time I buy her something, I feel like I'm spoiling her and turning her into a person who doesn't appreciate what she has. There's no way she's going to look back fondly on most of the toys in her room 25 years from now.

Our resolution was to make a sticker chart on the wall, to allow her to earn the present by cleaning her room, brushing her teeth, etc. Since then, she's entirely forgotten about the pet shop dollhouse and now wants something called a pillow pet. (It's a pillow! It's a pet! It's a pillow pet!) But either way, she's going to earn it and maybe that will make it worth more to her.


  1. Although I feel pretty broke right now, my husband and I realize that our brokeness is hopefully temporary and we both grew up a lot like you did as far as getting gifts and toys and have discussed how we plan to raise our daughter to appreciate things . I think your plan is an excellent idea! We've had similar ideas of earning it. My parents gave us really small allowances when we were younger and we had to sit down and make a budget for our allowance and we were required to put part of it in "savings." I think that helped us to assign value to the things we wanted.

  2. Good idea. At what age are kids old enough to get an allowance? I feel like 4 is still a bit young...

  3. Completely OT, but I thought I remember reading that your dad was a doctor?

  4. When Stubble was little we worried about "spoiling" him with things. It was difficult for us because we went "without" often as children, my husband because he was the child of a single parent, me because my parents were older and trying to save and put money away on a different schedule from my friend's parents...
    When Stubble was old enough to help around the house and yard in a significant way (about age 11) we started a program of paying for chores. NO ALLOWANCE. He had to work for any money that he got. Simple things - doing laundry including sorting and folding, making a simple dinner, weeding and watering the garden. His friends were amazed that he "made so much money" for helping around the house. Then he would tell them that he had no allowance...
    We figured that it would teach him the value of working for things that you want. Along the way he earned the money for a PSII, a TV set, and a computer. It made it impossible to take those things away for "punishment" and we had to get creative, but we managed.
    He never got "money for nothing" and as a result you should hear him go on and on about his friends poor choices now.
    He is 20 and knows that choices, sometimes hard ones, are involved in making financial decisions.
    At times it was difficult watching him making poor choices when he was younger, but we stuck to our guns, made him "loans" complete with payback notes when he needed it, and he seems to have really figured it out.
    Our basic idea was that it was far better to have him experiment and make mistakes when he was 13 or 14 than when he was an adult and had significant cast to "play" with.

    Your sticker chart sounds like a great place to start. Stick to it even when it gets hard and I think you'll achieve your goal.

  5. Christie: Sounds like you did a great job with him. Kids don't seem to get that it's harder for us than it is for them.

    Anon: My father is a doctor, but my parents divorced when I was 3. I lived with my mother and whatever child support she got wasn't enough to make her feel financially comfortable with no other income and tuition bills.

  6. in response to Fizzy's question, we started getting allowance pretty early actually - probably around 5 or 6 and we also had to complete chores, etc in order to get the allowance (maybe I'm not supposed to call it allowance if you had to do chores to get it re: Christie Critters). It was barely anything when we were really small, but I literally remember saving up to buy jacks for $1 at Big Lots when I was really small.

  7. I can totally relate to this. Toys were never a feature in my childhood. Although, I know for sure that my parents tried to do their best to provide us a childhood much better then their own. My mother didn't even go to school, because they were so poor.
    I think as parents we always try to do as best as we can for our children, within our means. If the resources expand, so does our list of what constitutes affordable.
    But your blog-post is food for thought, and I will try to make changes at our household now (means renewed vigour in the battles with my husband to not buy our son a toy everyday!)

  8. Great topic ! I was resovled to stick to few toys only for my kids. My childhood was toyless, yet very happy and rich educationally. I wanted the same for my kids. It was impossible. Consumer society puts toys and food on every corner of chilren's venues. Thus a trip to the water park, zoo, even theater is not free of whining and power struggles. First I stuck to my program, then a friend asked if she could buy my kids toys if I was unwilling. I went the other way for a while. Of course, I saw very quickly that no toy lasted more than a month, sometimes a week. Now, my kids earn stones for chores and put stones in jars. When the jar is full, they have allowance. That created an argument "I have to work for everything". My answer - "I have to work for everything too". I do not think my final stop is a perfect one. I still feel it is unhealthy for children to "work" toward a material posession. I saw kids work at a young age, and all they want is the next 5$ to buy the next thing, while doing poorly academically. I would love to hear from someone if they can somehow forego "money for chores" and still reach balance. I did chores and performed at school without anyone rewarding me financially or otherwise. I was not even getting Good job, way to goes. Do not know how to instill the same in my kids.

  9. I agree with Anonymous 12:12pm. I don't think it's right to tie all of the child's responsibilities to monetary or other rewards. It teaches them that you do the things that you have to do so you can get the material reward at the end. I also did tons of chores and got straight As with no money as inducement and no allowance. Parents never bought us toys. The only way I ever got anything was to occasionally filch money from my mom's wallet. So obviously this is not an ideal solution. I think some kind of middle ground would be to link a few of their responsibilites (some chores, or practicing an instrument etc.) to a sticker chart and they could earn the right to buy things. The rest of their responsibilities they have to do because it's the right thing to do. I mean, they use star charts at school to help remind the kids to stay on track--I don't think kids necessarily learn, "I'm only going to behave so I can get a star". Sorry this comment is all over the place. Obviously, I'm also trying to figure this out--will be eagerly reading other's comments.

  10. In terms of motivating kids to do well in school, that's really tricky. I think it's hard for kids to be self-motivated in grade school. I didn't get toys or prizes for doing well in school, but I'd get screamed at if I didn't... that was a big motivator for me and not necessarily a good one. Anyway, maybe it's like Pavlovian... if you reward kids when they get a good grade which then makes them feel good, they will eventually just associate doing well with feeling good?

    Oh, and I love the stone jar idea! My daughter would really go for that, but now we have a baby in the house who would likely eat the stones, so I think we'll have to hold off on that idea for now.

  11. Question for Christie Critters: why couldn't you take things away your son had earned as punishment? Yes, he earned it, but I would think behaving badly negates privileges such as TV, video games.

  12. To anonymous asking why we didn't take away things that Stubble had earned:
    We could be more diabolical than that. What fun was using the PS II when he couldn't have friends over to share it with him...

    One reason for doing this is that kids these days are such social creatures that limiting access to friends was far more effective (for him) than limiting "things".

    It may seem strange, but both his dad and I come from a long line of stubborn people and Stubble is unbelieveably stubborn also. A very wise man warned me that a child like Stubble will be very likely to run from home and get into huge trouble on the streets if his "escape time" (video, etc.) is COMPLETELY removed. He warned me to keep him safe at home even if it meant overlooking things that drove us crazy - ie messy room and un-stellar grades.

    The messy room is still there at age 20, but the grades (now that he is approaching his life goals) are the stellar that we had hoped for long ago. And neither of us (his parents) has had a stroke or developed heart disease...

  13. Cristie Critters last line is a little humorous. Reminds me of someone I knew who was unhappy with his two grown kids. His friends would ask him why, according to his also elderly friends "if son is not a drug addict and daughter is not on the streets" they both turned out just fine. He would then answer "sure, if you start using such criteria, everything is fine".

    Personally I think it WOULD give me heart attack watching messy room, PS time wasting, bad grades. But it is reassuring to see a more lax parenting approach work. Congratulations, CC!

  14. Anonymous: It doesn't mean that it was easy to be more lax. We white knuckled it at times and it required much deep breathing (and primal screams in the garage) but the wise man who warned me about Stubble's personality type was a psychiatrist who knew Stubble and who knew first hand what kind of trouble we could run into if we pushed too hard.
    There were times that I was sure we were wrong, but at this point he's home, alive, unaddicted, and doing fine now and I can't second guess it at this point.

  15. I think it is a hard row to hoe for us as parents, because, like our parents before us, we want our kids to have it better than we did. Somewhere there's that small, child-like voice that whispers, "Well, when *I'm* the parent, things will be different!"

    FWIW, I feel what you feel often, like my kids have it all and appreciate little what they do have (what I wouldn't have given to have my very own bathroom growing up, it was my dream - sad, but true). Not too long ago, my daughter exclaimed how "horrible" her life was, simply because I asked her to put a cup in the sink that was not hers. (The horror!)

    We try to combat this with having "family chores" for which there is no allowance or payment, it is simply our "job" as being part of the family. (For the kids, this is clearing the table, picking up their laundry and bringing it to the laundry room, keeping their rooms clean, etc.) Then, there are "extra" (read, less palatable) chores that can be done for money. So far this is working well.

    Of the money CindyLou gets (Bean, at 4, I think is too young yet), she gets to spend 1/3, save 1/3, and donate 1/3 (church or other charities). Trying to teach real-world concepts on their level, and hopefully giving them some idea of the value of a dollar. It's not easy, the fact that you are thinking about it, IMO, puts you ahead of the curve! :)

  16. I got so sick, as young as age two, at my kids getting wrapped up in whatever was tempting them in the stores that I started saying "Oh look at all those wonderful things! Why don't you pick out what you want for your birthday (or Christmas, whatever was closer)?" They loved it, started rattling off everything they wanted. When it got close to the date, the things they remembered to ask for, I decided were most important (not much).

    That lasted until they were around 5. Now at 8 - Cecelia does chores for a weekly allowance. We loosened up over the summer - need to get serious again. Jack, at 6, started making his bed this summer - so I will probably start him with an allowance this fall.

    For a while at 4 & 5 we did a toy bag - they saved up "tickets" based on good behavior (there were some negative events that could cause them to lose tickets, much fewer, but still) and if they had enough tickets (they always did, it was the threat that worked) they could pick a toy from the toy bag at the end of the week. They loved that. You can buy a giant roll of tickets, like fair tickets, at Office Depot. They had ticket boxes by their beds.

  17. We have a system of "gold stars" which seems to work for our 3 kids (ages 3, 6, and 7). They earn a gold star by doing something above and beyond what we expect of them. It can be an act of unexpected kindness to a member of our family or a friend; handling disappointment unusually well; being more helpful than we would ask of them for their age. Basically when we have a "Wow, buddy!" moment, they get a gold star. We don't give them out willy-nilly, and they come with a heaping dose of praise. In the 2.5yrs we have been doing this, my 6 yr old for example is now approaching 200 gold stars. We have a treasure box (a wooden box I got at Michael's, spraypainted shiny gold, and covered with foam stickers saying "Way to go!" etc) that has things like lip gloss, card games, Lego minifigures, etc. When they get to a multiple of 20 gold stars, they get to pick a prize from the treasure box. When they get to a multiple of 100 gold stars, we do a special family outing (e.g. the fall festival at a nearby farm with burlap sack slides and a giant pumpkin hurling contest, the state fair, or whatever is seasonally available). We expect them to help out with the work of our family (folding laundry, unloading the dishwasher, cleaning up play areas, etc, with our help) and occasionally pay them for larger chores like cleaning up a big mess they didn't make alone (e.g. the playroom after a multi-kid playdate) or helping to shovel snow. Most of their money comes from bday gifts (they get $1 per yr of age from both us and the two sets of grandparents), which they save up to buy things they want. Otherwise, if they ask for toys at museums, water parks, etc, we follow the Gizabeth model and tell them to remember to put it on their Xmas/bday list. Most of these coveted items are fleeting desires. The ones that keep being mentioned are the ones that Santa remembers.

  18. Great post :)
    I can't say that I actually 'felt poor' growing up as I was not surrounded by too many rich kids to compare myself with, but I know I was poor. My mom, brother and I immigrated to Canada in 1981 with $200 and 3 suitcases in hand. My dad had arrived a few months earlier to find us a basement apartment to live in. My brother and I grew up a struggling immigrant life with hardly any toys and certainly no extracurricular activities. My parents toiled through various low paying jobs and juggled shift work (yet never left us on our own or with babysitters) so that they could send us to a somewhat decent private school.
    After all those difficult financial years, my brother and I ended up in medical school and now we are practicing doctors with families. I really do think we are a success story knowing where we came from :-)
    But we are a success story only because of what we went through and I know there is no way to re-create those circumstances for our children in hopes that they have the values that we were raised with. We simply had no means, and we knew we were lucky to be where we were so we made the most of it.
    I have one son right now and another on the way. I do love to buy toys and clothes for my son and I love to be able to take him to museums, play areas, bookstores and sometimes buy him a little souvenir from those places. Being a physician married to a business owner, we don’t struggle for money of course, so we also eat out often and buy whatever groceries and treats whenever we feel like it.
    I so want my sons to be raised knowing that they are lucky and to appreciate all they have. Not quite sure if a sticker /reward system will do that for me though…I’m planning on taking my sons to volunteer when they are older and exposing them to real poverty. I want to take them on a trip to the country where I was born and actually spend some time getting to know the culture.
    I think it’s extremely hard not to ‘spoil’ your kids when you have the means. And I don’t mean spoil in a bad way. I’m certainly going to try my best to raise my boys the least materialistic as possible, but I know this is going to be a challenge!

  19. Trust me,kids need to feel the pain of not having and not receiving. The force that drove you to succeed and be successful will be sucked out of them if you indulge them too much. They should feel a little of what it is like to earn their way and to have *discomfort.* I currently have a family member who came from a single parent family, struggled and paid for ALL of his undergrad and med school. His kids have EVERYTHING they could want and they live in an area where all of their friends have it all too. So guess what one of their kids does almost reflexively and without remorse when his own iTouch was lost (the one he did NOT pay for ?). He STOLE an iTouch from a family member...a family member who had EARNED every.single.stinking penny for her device. Moral of the story = surround them with *just enough*, but not excess; make them struggle a little bit to fuel the fire of determination.

  20. I am the product of parents who didn't believe in giving freely. When I was younger, I always thought it unfair that all of my friends just got stuff. When I was little, we would get a dollar for making the bed every morning. As I got a little bit older, I got paid for things that my parents would otherwise pay others: I got paid to babysit my sister (money for me, a much cheaper rate for them, along with the values of responsibility and financial planning), mow the lawn, we each cleaned our own rooms, but I got paid if I cleaned the whole house. We each had our own chores (dishes, table-setting, etc). When each of us turned 15, we were expected to get a proper job (one fitting a high schooler, and school always came first).

    Good grades were just what were expected of us. We were always taught to do our best. Sometimes my parents pushed too much, but overall we came out unscathed.

    When I got to Uni, I took out all of my own loans, and since I had proven myself responsible and studious, my parents co-signed, which gave me an excellent interest rate since they had such good credit. To minimize loans, I took a position as an RA (free room and board), and also took a job in the dining hall for spending money, while making dean's list for all five semesters I was in school.

    By 20 I was more responsible than many in their mid-20s. This afforded me to travel to several countries in my early 20s. I am currently serving in the military, and I am one of very few who isn't in debt (since it's mandatory service, we really get more of an allowance than a salary), and I only get help with foodstuffs from my parents (because they make me).

    Basically, what I'm getting at is that in the long run I couldn't be happier that my parents raised me the way they did - work hard for what you want. Because in real life, you don't get stuff for free. Aside from learning how things work in the real world (rent, bills, financial planning), I learned important values: independence, never give up on something you truly want, and if there's a will there's a way.

    I'm ever grateful for this because it seems I'm always looking for the more challenging (and therefore more interesting) route in life. And I wouldn't trade it for all of the free shoes and handbags in the world.


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