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. 

C’mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark, Ryan Knighton

I have been wanting to read Ryan Knighton’s memoir about his first year of parenting as a blind man since I heard an interview with him on NPR in 2010. Unfortunately, the book proved hard to find here in the States, and when I put it on my Christmas list this year, I didn’t have high hopes. Consequently, I was amazed and thrilled when my in-laws were able to find it for me, and it ended up in my stack of must-reads for this January.

Admittedly, my memory of the book was limited to its topic, and to the compelling section read on This American Life – a passage about Ryan and his infant daughter, alone in a college campus parking lot early one morning in the moments after the girl utters one of the few words she knows (and that her father knows she knows). That word was bear. Very little could sum up the hysteria and helplessness that plagued much of Knighton’s first year better than that scene, and it stayed with me over the last four years.

His storytelling was in equal parts hilarious and frightening, and when I finally got a chance to read about the rest of his experience, I also found it heart-wrenching. In fact, I cried at least once every chapter. I also cried when I finished the book, and when I considered how many obstacles face parents with disabilities. It’s hard to admit, but I’d never given it much thought before. As a teacher, my mind has always focused on the experience from the child’s perspective – how the child, and his or her abilities, fit into the classroom, the wider family unit, and the world at large. It had never occurred to me just how frustrating and frightening it would be to perform simple tasks with a baby without sight, mobility, hearing. While I have been trained, over many years, to recognize the signs of abuse or neglect, of emotional instability in parent or child, of the challenges that exist for a child with special needs, I haven’t given enough thought to how a condition, such as Knighton’s degenerative blindness, would strain a couple and their new child.

Blindness has taught me to move through space exclusively by memory, even in my own home. Rats navigate this way too. Their movements are patterned, and the patterns are remembered by their muscles, not their minds. If a rat runs along the edge of a particular wall on a feeding route, and that wall is removed, the rat will continue to run along the phantom edge. Rats map the ghosts of bygone buildings. I move likewise through my home, habituated to its different turns and timing. That’s why, if I move too fast, or lose track of my angle, I can actually become disoriented in my own home. I live in a habit, not a space.

This is why, as I bolted through the doorway carrying Tess and her soother, I clipped the threshold with my arm. And with Tess’ little head. The sound was like the strike of a hammer on wood.

At that moment, I was introduced to her pain cry, which I thought I knew, but had actually never been heard before. It may have been her first pain from without. She was inconsolable. Me, too.

The ember in my skull felt at its brightest, and the most searing, and suddenly I saw the fear for what it was. Tess, whom I couldn’t soothe, represented the greatest pain I would ever know, should something happen to her, and worse, should I be to blame. Parents endure a constant, low-grade anxiety, it’s true, but the love that fills us is made of equal parts terror. I wasn’t afraid of Tess, but afraid of my love for her. It could, and will, hurt me one day, and so I’d stood back from it, so wary, so taken by self-preservation. I was in awe of this love. I was also ashamed of how I’d received it.

“I’m so sorry, Papa’s so sorry,” I pleaded as we sat on the couch.

Of course Tess couldn’t tell me she was okay, nor could she forgive me. My own pain cycled through my body, as did hers, unable to find an exit. A sadness clung. I couldn’t shake the thought that I’d hurt her. Didn’t matter that it was an accident – I was the cause. My blindness had shown the smallest example of what it could do to her, and to me as a father.

Knighton, as a man and a father, is not any better or worse than the average first time dad. The difference, though, is how hard he has to work for it. Every task he takes on is more fraught. Every task he can’t do is a greater burden on his wife. He is caught constantly in that struggle, twitching between independence and fear, ability and its natural limitations. His struggles and successes are familiar ones, but they’re painted with a new brush here.


For more about Ryan Knighton, head over here.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

There was something fitting about picking up this book over Father’s Day weekend. I first fell in love with it when it appeared on a syllabus for one of my classes in Early Education at UCLA, and, in fact it is, along with its “cousin,” Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, my go-to book for family dynamic issues. It’s been years now since I’ve read it, and I had forgotten just how much of my teaching philosophy stems from this book, but after spending the evening babysitting my neighbor’s children, I decided a refresher course was in order. (That came out wrong. The boys are delightful and I adore them, but right around the time I was commando-crawling out of their room hoping they wouldn’t wake up as I slid over the creaky floorboards, it occurred to me that it never hurts to take a second look at a great resource.)

Both Siblings and How to Talk are quick reads – perfect for the hectic parental lifestyle – and they include hilariously old-school cartoons, stories from parents, and Quick Reminder pages to distill information for the most harried readers. My copy is also filled with highlighted paragraphs and scribbled notes in the margin; the fact that I never mark up my books leads me to believe that upon first reading, I was absolutely terrified this information wouldn’t sink in.

My teaching career at that point was mainly hinging on a naturally empathetic nature and a high threshold for stickiness and screaming. I didn’t have many tools at my disposal, and I was panicked that I had already been hired by a lovely school desperately in need of teacher’s aides. Even though I wouldn’t be taking point in the classroom my first year, I still felt wildly unprepared (a feeling I suspect many parents share). As an educator and a student, however, I was fortunate enough to have more than my fair share of amazing professors who recommended resources like this one and were paid to spend time discussing the finer details. I learned so much from them, and as I took this information in, I was able to turn my time in the classroom into a wonderful experience.

Not everyone has that opportunity, of course. Even though this book was written in 1980, I’ve met very few parents who have read it, although I know plenty who are bombarded by complete crap on the internet on an hourly basis. I’ve spent a lot of time in the parenting sections of bookstores and  websites reading about claims to fix everything from colic to biting to tardiness, and it seems to me that most of the material is designed to make parents less secure (and therefore more likely to buy buy buy a solution).

Faber and Mazlish have a more holistic approach. Everything they discuss comes from a combination of personal experience and study with the esteemed child psychologist Dr. Haim Ginott . Not only have they used these methods with their own children, but they’ve also led workshops on this subject all over the country for many years. They’ve tested what they teach, and they have encouraged their audience to experiment, question, and explore these resources with a critical eye. Through all of this, they are optimistic about the possibility of building healthy, respectful relationships within the family and classroom, and the techniques they present are simple and straightforward.

As I was pouring over the material on Sunday, I couldn’t help but compare these ideas with my own upbringing. At first, I found myself being extremely critical – I could only see the things I would have done differently. After more consideration though, I realized that my parents had used quite a few of these suggestions when raising us. I don’t know if they were motivated by something they read or if it simply came from a natural instinct to be trusting and compassionate, but the foundation was definitely there. I realized that between them and the parents of my closest friends, the combined parenting styles stretched over just about all of the material covered in the book.

Wouldn’t it be great it have all that patience and skill in one family? Of course, but I’m ninety-seven percent sure it’s impossible, and in the end, I don’t think it mattered. Spending time with those families gave us exposure to a wider variety of ideas about limits, discipline, and family roles and helped to shape us into the people we are today. And remarkably, we’re all still friends, most likely because, despite our flaws and differences, we share the same values of love, forgiveness, and perseverance instilled at a young age.

That being said, I wish parents would read books like this because families deserve to live better. Parents, children, siblings – and to be honest, anyone who has to interact with other people  – should take time to learn how to communicate more effectively, and Mazlish and Faber make it easy. Cooperation shouldn’t be a desperate and unachievable goal. Shared responsibility shouldn’t be impossible. Respect should definitely not be a one way street. Regardless of age, we all want to be treated well, to have our ideas heard, and to feel like valued and contributing members of our communities. I’ve seen these ideas at work, and the results are well worth the time it takes to read the book.


For more about Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (including details about organizing workshops), head over here.