It is the first day of my children's so-called Midwinter Vacation and I don't know if I can bear the next six days to come. As my friend and I debate whether the creator of the Midwinter Vacation concept was a sadist, a comic, or a bit of both, one thing remains certain: he or she was never a working parent with children!
Normally I really enjoy being with my kids. I cherish our special time together -- before school, after school, and on the weekends. But as things stand, I have another job, aside from my full-time parenting responsibilities. And that's where Midwinter Vacation really brings me to an impasse. Between phone calls to my boss in New York and a graphic designer in Israel, with children, pizza, and a loudly barking toy dog in the picture, I felt myself stretched very thin indeed. It was time for back-up.
The one bright spot of Midwinter Vacation is that it's a malady that affects not only my children, but every single child in the entire school. That means there are actually babysitters lying around with nothing to do. I eagerly pounced on the nearest family with babysitting-age kids, hoping against hope that one of them would be willing to bail me out.
"I'll send someone right over," Mrs. M. said cheerily, after patiently listening to my tale of woe. The angels sang.
"How much should I pay her?" I asked. Since the higher mathematics of babysitting wages have never been my forte, being upfront about the money puts me in a more comfortable position.
"One is okay," Mrs. M. replied.
Between my kids yelling and the noise on her end of the line, I had no idea what she was saying. "Excuse me?"
"One is good," she repeated.
"One?" Was there a form of currency that I was unfamiliar with? I was asking a simple question: How much should I pay your daughter?
"Yes," she patiently responded. "One dollar for the hour is fine. We like to keep the stakes low in our family."
I hung up the phone feeling shell-shocked, torn between utter astonishment at getting away with paying a babysitter a buck an hour, and embarrassment at essentially taking advantage of her services. But there was another, more predominant thought, and it was: Wow!
From an early age, I was driven to engage in various businesses and odd jobs. Make no mistake: I was in it for the money.
It's hard for me to relate to working for a dollar an hour. I think I was born with a heavily entrepreneurial streak and I never quite lost it. From an early age, I was driven to engage in various schemes, businesses, and odd jobs, ranging from summer camps to calligraphic services, and everything in between. Make no mistake: I was in it for the money.
I know I'm not alone in this not-so-secret motivational tool. Money is the driving force behind nearly every modern infrastructure in today's society. They don't call it the bottom line for nothing.
On the flip side of the coin, too much of an interest in money can lead a person down a slippery slope. Mrs. M.'s response got me thinking: what am I teaching my children about money?
No question, it is a delicate balance. On the one hand, we strive to teach our children to work towards financial independence by teaching them a work ethic, encouraging them to pursue lucrative careers, and modeling responsible spending. But on the other hand, how do we balance out the importance of money with the importance of, well, that which is not money -- namely, the truly important things in life?
I once saw a fantastic expression: We make a living with what we get; we make a life with what we give. In this context, Mrs. M., who feels it is best for her daughter to earn $1.00 per hour, has really mastered the beauty of the balance. She has woven into the fabric of her home the importance of values that far surpass anything money can buy.
Mrs. M. is essentially teaching her daughter this: Here's a woman (me!) who really needs your help. Chances are, she doesn't have a lot of money (correct!), and even if she did, there's something greater for you to achieve than a big chunk of change.
What could be greater than earning money? Doing a good deed, perhaps. Feeling a sense of self-worth for a job well-done that is not extrinsically rewarded, for another. She is not depriving her child of money entirely -- one dollar, after all, is something. In fact, she is doing her children a favor by keeping their expectations low. At the same time, she is certainly instilling a good work ethic and responsibility in her kids which will stand them in good stead later in life. All this, while understating the understated: money isn't everything.
Mrs. M.'s outlook on money has some pretty far-reaching effects. Her children are probably far from spoiled -- how could they be when they keep the materialistic stakes low? They are probably happier than the average American kid who needs constant material reinforcement to stay convinced of a certain sense of contentment. And the fact that the babysitter offered to come again tomorrow -- knowing she would only receive a small pittance for her efforts -- leads me to believe that Mrs. M.'s children do not feel deprived, taken advantage of, or mistreated.
As my children grow older, it is important for me to envision the way I would like to shape their concept of money -- as a tool or a vice; as a primary purpose or a means? But knowing that children live what they learn, the only person who I can really teach is myself. Mrs. M.'s values, imparted casually in the course of an almost mundane conversation, were a big wake-up call for me to examine my own inner constructs. I hope to be able to communicate to my own children that deep sense of priorities in life, while putting a perspective on all things financial.
So I paid my babysitter one dollar an hour. She left my house with a grand total of two dollars. And a goldmine of values far more valuable than any paycheck.