THERE’S AN ONLINE forum where writers of articles can request “expert” opinions for pieces they’re working on. Recently, a reporter was seeking recommendations for gadgets parents can buy to keep their children amused on family vacations.
Normally, I either send what I hope is a helpful reply or I move on. In this case, however, I responded—but my answer wasn’t positive.
I first railed against the idea that children needed anything beyond the trip itself, in which the parents had no doubt invested considerable time and expense. I also asked when boredom became a disease that had to be prevented, rather than an occasion for introspection or imagination.
My major concern, however, was as someone involved in financial literacy education. Buying such gadgets was a terrible economic decision, I told the writer. These electronic opiates are almost never cheap—especially knowing that what you’re buying isn’t satisfaction, but temporary placation and fleeting amusement.
The cost, however, goes way beyond money. The parents are modeling spending as a non-thinking, quick response to a perceived temporary discomfort. Many parents say they’ll teach their children responsible money management “someday.” But instead of taking those positive steps forward, they take far too many “just this once” steps backward. All the while, their children are watching and learning.
What else could be done? I suggested to the article’s author that one alternative would be for the kids to keep a journal of the trip, with the goal of recreating the vacation as a board game when the family gets home. This makes the opportunity cost of buying a gadget enormous:
Best of all, the vacation doesn’t end when the family gets home. The kids will turn their notes into a game, which can then be played on a family game night. Parents can even allow kids to charge a small “admission” fee as they emcee the evening, showing how creativity and a bit of work can lead to a great return on investment—one that comes in the form of both fun and profit.
I’m the father of two rambunctious boys. I get it. Every parent has moments when forking over a big handful of money seems like a small price to pay to hear your own thoughts. Still, on vacation, I did the board games with my sons. Many of my students’ parents found the suggestion equally successful.
It all comes down to the example that parents choose to model. If you show your children that the top choice is to spend your way to short-term happiness, you’re setting your kids up for a lifetime of terrible spending habits. On the other hand, if you teach them to analyze a situation and find a low-cost or even investment-style solution—sacrificing a little now so you gain more later—then your children will be well-equipped for the challenges they’ll face when they travel financial roads without you.
Jim Wasserman is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. His previous articles include Shame on Us, Under Attack and Terms of the Trade. Jim’s three-book series on teaching behavioral economics and media literacy, Media, Marketing, and Me, is being published in 2019. Jim lives in Granada, Spain, with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab. Together, they write a blog on retirement, finance and living abroad at YourThirdLife.com.
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