Child Economics 101

monopoly money

Childhood. The closest to Zen simplicity most of us get in our lives. Or at least that is what our nostalgia-infused memory tells us. Truth is, children have issues of their own. Petty problems by an adult´s standard perhaps but, nonetheless, problems that trouble their young souls. Kids spend their lives in an environment not unlike an all-inclusive resort where they don’t have to pay for anything; but where the service staff has to be convinced with very solid arguments each time they want something. This happens because kids don’t have money. But they cannot be classified as being indigents either because they are not supposed to handle money. Such dilemma presents them with the previously described awkward situation of having to ask somebody else for every single material urge they have. In all truth, the only medium a kid has to acquire any sort of personal property is in the form of a gift. That is why Christmas and birthdays are most important when one is a child: those are the only predictable occasions when one can acquire desired personal items.

The rules and regulations of commercial operation are radically different in the world of children. That is why kids will ask you “Who gave you that?” whenever you show them something they find appealing. Not “where” did you get that but “who” gave you that. Such information has value for them because the person who gave you the coveted possession could present them with a similar item. When asked the above question the adult will wonder for a moment and usually reply something in the lines of “I don´t remember” or worse: “No one, I bought it myself” –which is a despairing answer for the child as it arises the money issue once again–. Kids are like Cubans: they have a financial embargo. And they need to work their way around that to acquire personal property.

The kafkian bureaucracy of dealing with parents to get things can be extremely frustrating for the child. A kid sees the TV commercial for some hot new action figure and runs to the old man to make him cough up the big bucks. And also walk him to the toy store that very second, which, conveniently enough, he knows exactly where it is –kids get lost on the way from the water shore to the family beach umbrella but can find the toy store with a blindfold on, in the middle of a blizzard–. Oh, the innocence. And the kid really believes he can pull that off. That he can actually convince his father to drag his grinded corpse on a trip to the toy store and buy a ridiculously overpriced piece of plastic right there and then. Father has the slippers on. Kid fails to read the subtext in that. Put some shoes on, man! The store closes in twenty minutes. We can still make it if we run! Father mumbles something about going to the store after the kid bathes and eats dinner. Naively enough, kid buys into that and gets screwed like a champ.

When I was ten years old I won a gold medal in a skiing competition. My grandfather was quite proud of me and decided to reward my accomplishment by letting me choose anything I wanted. Back then I was quite fascinated by a small hand held pocket TV I had seen somewhere and I decided I wanted one. I wasn’t sure where to get such item –mind you, the year was 1990 and we were in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Portable mini TV sets didn’t exactly grow on trees here– but I assumed household appliance stores would carry such item. Besides, I had an adult at my disposal to drive me around and foot the bill. An unparalleled opportunity. A Golden Ticket, if you may. We took a cab and went to the nearest such store. No luck. Another cab ride to the next store. Nothing there. One more, near downtown. Nope. Try that place. What, mini TV? No way. Go check there. Missed again. Grandfather getting tired. And cranky. Myself, desperate and power-drunk. We have to pursue the quest to its last consequences! One salesman suggested some place in the outskirts of town. Let´s go! What are we waiting for? Grandfather hit the brakes right there and then. Ended up returning home empty handed with the promise of another excursion to find the mini TV on the following weekend. Needless to say, that excursion never happened.

As any other social group, kids are consumers. But as consumers, they are poor. Dirt poor. Well dressed indigents is what they are. Their meager means of acquisition barely allow them to buy some candy and a piece of gum. At most. Adults will condescendingly handle down a few coins and some low denomination currency sprinkled with words of wisdom regarding the benefits of saving. Saving, my socks. What do you expect me to buy saving five bucks a week, more candy? At this pace I’ll be able to buy that Lego pirate ship when I’m 80.

Children tend to associate with their peers in social circumstances to pull resources together, much like adults do in natural disasters, war events or hippie communities. I have a bucket, you have a shovel. Let´s build a sand castle together. You have the He-Man action figure with battle staff, I have a Skeletor. Let´s play. Oh, no! The robot´s batteries are dead! We need to get the batteries from something else! A simple situation by an adult´s standard where the logical solution would be a quick trip to the store to buy new batteries. Not in the world of children. Kid doesn’t have keys to leave the house by himself and he doesn´t have money to pay for the batteries either. Tough spot. Therefore, the solution is getting the batteries out of Dad’s shaving machine. Children are scavengers: something else they share with hippies and refugees. Fish for loose change in Mom’s coat pockets, hunt for batteries in household appliances. Dad will get mad if he finds out we took out the fresh batteries he just bought for his shaving machine but that´s the way things work in the world of children. Angry and unshaven Dad will confront us later on about this but that was the only available solution at the moment. Fred Nietzsche said something about children being dead serious when they are playing and if you have any recollections of your own childhood then you know how truthful that statement is.

I remember a particular Christmas as a child, when I finally received the remote controlled police car I wanted so much and the ensuing horror after realizing that batteries were not included in the set. Grandpa´s eyes sparkled as he disappeared for a moment and came back triumphantly with the batteries from his flashlight. The enjoyment of the present was greatly diminished by the fact that the batteries were almost dead and the police car with its flashy lights and siren wasn’t exactly at its top form but Dad promised we would get new batteries the next morning. Yeah, right.

Kids get a raw deal. Imagine being stuck in their position: You live in a society where money is the only currency and medium established to acquire anything and you, as every other targeted consumer group, are constantly being bombarded by advertising designed to make you want things you don’t have. You do your part: stay quiet, keep your clothes as tidy as possible, eat your greens, brush your teeth, go to bed at nine but you don’t receive any sort of financial compensation for it. And no one in their right state of mind would hire you to do an adult´s work. Nobody hires kids as accountants. Or physicians. We know some places in Asia hire kids. And those places are conveniently close to the places where most toys are manufactured too so that would seem to be rather convenient scheme for the child: Available work in close proximity to the toy factory. But that situation has a whole new set of issues and implications that the kid would probably fail to foresee if presented with such a career option.

Eventually, children grow up and gradually gain financial strength of their own. From a piece of gum to a summer house in a process so painstakingly slow that you hardly notice it. A process so disheartening that you never really stop fearing that something will go inexplicably wrong when asking for a bank loan or paying for something with a credit card. As if the person in front of you will see that you are still a child in disguise, deny your request and send you back home in tears. Such financial turmoil remains the everyday reality of the child. Lucky for us, our nostalgia-infused memory is kind enough to make us remember childhood as a haven of Zen simplicity. Yeah, right.

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