Illustration by James Callahan
It's been a while since I've mentioned our attempts to educate The Boy on money matters, and I am here to tell you that it is still very much a work in progress. Allowance dollars still burn a hole in his pocket, saving up for high-dollar toys is a challenge, and the idea of long-term savings is nebulous enough that it holds little, if any, appeal. So basically my kid is like most Americans, including me. Just because I know better doesn't mean I do better. But as a parent, it's my job to try and get him to do better, and I'm trying. Not always successfully.
Recently, after watching way too many "unboxings" on YouTube, The Boy decided he needed a gross, squishy rubber ball bearing a cartoon character's likeness. In case you've been spared the unboxing phenomenon, it's a current fad on social media whereby someone meticulously removes a new toy, gadget or other covetable item from its box and expounds on its virtues for an online audience. "Look! I bought this thing! Watch as I open it! It's really awesome! Wouldn't you like to buy this thing, too?" Unboxing videos could make a raw turnip look like a great thing to buy. I might actually film a turnip unboxing just to see what happens. But last week, The Boy did not want a raw turnip. He wanted a stupid, squishy rubber ball.
As it happened, he had some allowance money to spend, and we happened to be going to a store that sold said covetable item, so we allowed him to fork over three of his hard-earned dollars for the squishy ball. The ball was even lamer in person than on the Internet, which is true for just about everything. It was small, and the printing was sloppy, and it didn't really bounce or do anything other than smoosh in a vaguely biological and disturbing way when poked. Oh, and if you were inclined to do so, you could kind of stretch it. But you couldn't stretch it too far, or it would tear and leak slimy goop all over your hands and the couch. Then you would be forced under duress to hand it over to the adults for disposal, at which point you would get impressively sour and sulky. If you were The Boy, that is. And that's what happened.
The resulting sulk lasted for a good part of the afternoon. I didn't give it too much thought. "Let him sulk," I told Tad, "and next time maybe he won't be in such a yank to buy every piece of junk he sees online." Tad nodded and we went about our business. The Boy stomped off to sulk in a different room, because sulking is no good if you aren't getting any sympathy. We figured he would find something else to play with and that would be the end of it. After a while, we heard sniffles coming from the playroom. When we went to check, we found The Boy with tears streaming down his little face. It was a lot of emotion for a $3 rubber ball — but what we didn't know was that it was no longer just about the ball.
"Everything I have is cheap junk," The Boy wailed, gesturing at his toy collection. "I've wasted all of the money I ever had in my whole life on cheap junk, and I got ripped off by jerk toy companies, and now my money is all gone and there's nothing I can do about it!" And then he started sobbing in earnest, with the deep, wholehearted sobs of someone who's peeked behind the curtain a couple of decades too early and realized that no matter what the commercials tell you, you can't buy happiness after all.
Being the literalist in the family, my immediate inclination was to point out the Lego sets and the Hot Wheels cars, the well-built quality toys that will last for generations — but Tad shook his head, and I retired to the next room to eavesdrop on the kind of in-depth, heart-to-heart talk that makes me absolutely and unequivocally certain that I picked right when I married Tad. The two of them talked for more than an hour about money and ethics, and disappointment and happiness. They got theological, psychological and historical, dissecting the incident in detail and relating it to life in general. In the end, The Boy was validated, consoled and advised, and he trotted off to bed lacking $3 and a squishy ball, but having gained something much more valuable that will last him a lifetime — no unboxing required.