Have You Been Good This Year?

By Sal Haque 2023-12-18 11:15:44

Teaching kids you don't get something for nothing.

The other day, my 10-year-old kid asked me if I was rich. I’m not. I can afford imported cereal. I can do a Westin Brunch three times a year. A Shanghai license plate is just outta reach, and it’s a fact of both math and destiny that I’ll never own a car with doors that open like wings. That pretty much sums up my financial state.



But my kid goes to school with children from very wealthy families, and apparently, they have a lot of stuff. What kind of stuff? I’m not actually sure. But my child is convinced they have it, and continually get more of it. As a result, he too now wants stuff. Fair enough. I could probably up my game and get him more stuff. Raise his schoolyard status a bit, flexing some shiny new trinkets. In fact, as his dad it’s my duty to equip him with the status symbols he needs to survive in the increasingly competitive world of primary school recess. It’s a jungle out there, and primary school kids aren’t exactly known for their heightened sense of empathy. It’s dog eat dog. Kill or be killed. Sink or swim. If you’re a 10-year-old boy in Grade 4 you better step with a Nintendo Switch, football cards (soccer cards), and randomly-themed pens. Those pens are essentially schoolyard currency. They’re the marbles of his generation. My kid traded a Lionel Messi pen and an Ultraman ballpoint for a broken Ukelele and a half-colored Doraemon coloring book. He swaggered home, dropped his loot on the floor like, “Look dad, I provide!”     



I get it, the playground’s no joke. He needs to stay current. So, I’ll get him more stuff. However, the unwavering rule in our home is, “You Don’t Get Something, For Nothing”. It’s practically a mantra. It also seems to be a standard that we as a species have followed throughout human history. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but it’s an inescapable tribulation of life. If you want something, you have to work for it- a lesson my son should learn while he’s young enough to develop the discipline to achieve it.  

My kid disagrees. His argument rests on the landmark Santa v. Kids precedent of 1800. “Papa, Santa gives me something for nothing on Christmas”. No, he doesn’t, I reply. He expects you to be good, and thus earn those presents. If not, you get coal, which really, is worse than nothing.



Again, my kid disagrees.

He had done the math. He realized, that despite his behavior, either good or bad, he had always received gifts from Santa. He understood that Santa’s good-to-bad scale is fundamentally flawed. He’s not wrong. How bad does a kid really have to be, before Santa/we cancel Christmas presents? Like, at what point can any kid really fail Santa’s standard of a decent human being? It doesn’t happen. My kid had me. Christmas might be the one time he will get something for nothing. But fair enough, it’s Christmas, and I love my kid. I’m gonna hook him up. Birthday presents however, come with fine-print.

I digress.    

Christmas or not, dude needs to put the work in. Show improved grades, improved behavior, greater independence, express kindness. Any sort of positive development and I will give you stuff (within reason). I’m sure there’s research to support, and negate that type of positive reinforcement. I’m not checking. Thus far, the reward system is proving an effective motivator. I imagine we can stay the course, at least until he has the maturity and discipline to realize for himself that self-improvement yields positive results.



I’ve heard instances of parents using monopoly money to reward children, which they can in-turn exchange for actual cash to buy stuff. That’s a pretty rad idea. Especially now. We live in a world where our money is just numbers on a phone. The tangible use of cash, can give kids a physical representation of their hard work, and they can have the satisfaction of seeing their hard-earned cash stack up. It also introduces them to monetary value, which is something everyone will eventually have to deal with (because “cash rules everything around me, CREAM get the money, dolla dolla bill ya’ll” - Wu Tang Clan) To frivolously spend, with no sense of monetary value is a straight up luxury, and my kid’s no prince. His skateboard does not have doors that open like wings. And if by chance he does become Lambo-rich, it’ll hopefully be through hard work, with a discipline he fostered as a child. Hopefully.

And really, what’s the alternative? We just give them stuff whenever they want it? We cave to repetitive whining and unceasing demands? What’s the lesson there? Just exist, and you’ll get stuff. Be spoiled and I’ll just keep spoiling you? I’m not sure if that’ll produce a real go-getter work ethic. They may even come to simply expect something for nothing, and I’m not sure I can abide that. But to each his own. Parenting is a complex psychological, social, emotional and financial process, everyone approaches it differently. Do you.



My kid also has a pretty good handle on not getting stuff. He gets disappointed, followed by extreme motivation, followed by begrudging motivation. But he never gets angry. He has the emotional intelligence to understand disappointment doesn’t equate anger, and that’s a pretty good start to emotional management. I also try to instill a healthy dose of perspective to help balance him out, and remind him that maybe not getting a bunch of football cards, isn’t that bad. In fact, there are a great number of children out there who barely get what they need to survive, let alone what they want.

Also, be happy with what you have. There’s something almost spiritual about contentedness. If you’re always happy with what you have, you’ll always be happy. Boom! I’m not there yet. I imagine few of us are. But it’s definitely an idea we can foster in ourselves and in our kids.

I’m not saying don’t want more. Always strive for better. But have the introspection to be content, have some perspective, and foster the art of appreciation. A little bit of appreciation goes a long way, and in my experience, when kids grasp appreciation-because it is a learned process-it tends to develop exponentially. It can even give way to some very cool stuff like empathy, sympathy and kindness.



And what better way to learn appreciation, than working for what you want. With football cards in hand, my kid has the satisfaction of knowing he earned them. Those cards represent a measure of effort. He now has a basis of comparison to better understand the relationship between effort and results, because much like how he worked for his football cards, you too worked for the money to buy them-much like you work to buy that box of 90 RMB imported Cinnamon Toast Crunch he eats for breakfast every morning- a concept he may not entirely understand, but perhaps is beginning to relate to. 

Those football cards also carry a longer lifespan, he can bask in their glow for a week, maybe two, knowing what it took to get them. Appreciating what they represent. And if he’s hungry for more, he knows his ambitions can only be matched by his efforts. While he’s only 10 years old, we can hope his motivation to achieve will eventually develop into habit, and as he gets older, he will learn to seek greater rewards through greater efforts. And that is precisely why my kid will never get something for nothing...except on Christmas.