Help me help my kid
February 11, 2014 9:41 AM   Subscribe

Kid BlahLaLa, an enormously charming, wonderful and sweet 10-year-old boy, is also greedy as all get-out. Help me find ways to open his eyes about his/our incredible good fortune so he can get his birthday present request list into proportion.

About our family: We're middle class, or even lower middle class. We struggle a bit when it comes to finances here and there. We definitely have to keep an eye on money all the time. We are not shy about telling Kid we don't have money for certain things. At the same time, because of some family connections and other good luck, we've been able to participate in some amazing experiences (vacations and the like) and receive amazing gifts (Kid received a MacBook Pro) that don't necessarily correlate to our actual financial status.

About the kid: Bright, intelligent, really a nice guy. He's just got his standards out of whack.

We already do charitable giving. We attend an urban public school, so we have friends with markedly less money than we do, and Kid knows lots of other kids who live in shabbier surroundings and get small birthday gifts. When we give to Kiva, Kid helps me pick out who the recipient will be, and he definitely knows that some people in the world live in poverty, are suffering, etc. But it's definitely something that is happening elsewhere, in his mind.

Now Kid's birthday is coming up, and his list of preferred gifts is an absurdity. There's nothing on it less than $200. He'd also like a particular party set-up that would cost a lot - but isn't interested in doing the fun party experience and skipping the presents. He wants it ALL. A couple of weeks of talking about it with him isn't cutting it - he isn't getting it.

How can I help him grow his understanding here, his empthy, his comprehension of the world and his place in it, and how this all applies to a birthday gift list? Do I take him to skid row? Do we volunteer at a soup kitchen? Is there a book we should be reading? Or a website to visit, a film to watch?

We're in Los Angeles, if there are any city-specific ideas you have.
posted by BlahLaLa to Society & Culture (49 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I was very similar when I was his age. This might not help with the birthday, but that year for Christmas I got a lump of coal. The message came through loud and clear: ask for too much, and get nothing.

It's okay to let him be disappointed. He's going to encounter some of that in his life.
posted by rocketman at 9:50 AM on February 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

It sounds like you're already doing lots with him regarding charity, compassion, etc. But his empathy with the poor of the world might not be what's driving his request. 10 years old is when kids (in my experience) start really caring what their friends think of them at school. This birthday extravaganza he's attempting to negotiate with you might have more to do with his need to impress his friends than it does much else. You mention having talked with him regarding his birthday requests; Can you maybe provide some insight regarding this particular point?
posted by LN at 9:51 AM on February 11, 2014 [11 favorites]

Is it possible that he's not greedy so much as he doesn't understand the value of a dollar? I'd give him an allowance and establish a few things that are now his responsibility to budget for and buy with the allowance. This will help him understand scale a little better (plus give him budgeting skills) -- a $200 item is much, much more expensive than a $2 item. If he's already getting an allowance, I"d make sure to increase his responsibilities with that money, and generally his awareness of the cost of things.
posted by Houstonian at 9:52 AM on February 11, 2014 [18 favorites]

Give him a birthday budget.

It may seem crass to put a price tag on his birthday ("you are worth $300 to us, kiddo), but of course people who have to live within budgets do this all the time, just usually without being explicit about it. If he has a birthday budget to put a limit on his desires, he can spend some time researching what things really cost and figuring out how to maximize his own priorities within that limit. When you first announce the figure to him, he make think, "wow, that's a ton of money!" but when he figures out how much it costs to get a PS4 or to throw a party at a venue or even just get a nice store-bought cake, he'll get a much better perspective on how much life costs.

I think that may be a much more immediate and applicable-to-my-life experience that exposing him to the lives of Other People.
posted by drlith at 9:52 AM on February 11, 2014 [51 favorites]

How about presenting your gross budget to the child on one sheet, a list of potential expenses (gifts and party-related) on another, and allowing him to choose? You might also present an sheet of general expenses -- weekly expense of transportation, price of a trip to the movies -- to provide context he may understand.

It doesn't sound very romantic, but it may be educational. I don't know whether the average ten year old child is capable of much in the way of empathy, but if you could get him as a position washing dishes at a soup kitchen for an hour and then hand him seven dollars he might understand that manual labor tends to be high on effort and low on compensation, and that for many people two hundred dollars is a lot of money.
posted by mr. digits at 9:52 AM on February 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

The kid is 10. Taking him to skid row is just going to be awkward and scary for him. Not saying that you should protect him from all the sadness in the world, but just that you shouldn't inflict it upon him as punishment. That sends the wrong message.

Instead, why not have him get involved in planning the party? Set a budget. Take him to Target and let him go down the party aisle and see exactly how much things cost and how those fit into his budget. Have him work out pizza and soda and cake and how much that costs per person. Anything extra he wants over the budget he can earn himself--shovel neighbors' sidewalks, do extra chores, etc--or have in trade for gifts. 10 years old is old enough to start to sort out these kind of choices.

It's also extremely normal for kids to have insane wishlists, so explain to him that he can't have a whole bunch of extravagant things but try not to worry about that too too much. If he's still doing it when he's 16, then you might have a problem.
posted by phunniemee at 9:53 AM on February 11, 2014 [28 favorites]

How does he react when he doesn't get what he wants? Or rather: does he want these things, or does he expect these things? My 7-year old wants a lot of things -- o, the list is endless, and includes an iphone -- but she doesn't really expect to get most of it. If he rolls with it OK when reality doesn't match up to his fantasy, I wouldn't worry to hard about it.

If, on the other hand, it doesn't -- if he really does expect these things, and reacts badly when he doesn't get them -- then it may be time for a serious curtailment of things. Sit him down and explain to him that his expectations are unrealistic to the point that they border on the offensive, and that there is going to be a major cutback in the consumerism in the house as a result. And then, just don't buy him stuff. After all, at this point you have control over what gets spent in the household.
posted by KathrynT at 9:53 AM on February 11, 2014 [20 favorites]

I grew up very comfortable - not upper class by any means, but my family had lots of nice things even though my parents did always have to be careful about keeping an eye on the checking account. I went through a terrible greedy phase around middle and high school, and am ashamed to admit that I really only came out of it in my early 20s. My parents came from markedly less-comfortable backgrounds, gave to charity, promoted the idea of caring for the less fortunate, and made sure I understood from a young age that I was incredibly lucky. They did all the right things, in my opinion, but I was still very self-centered and greedy for years. What changed how I saw the world was experience: when I moved out of the house for college I started seeing how other people really lived, and when I became financially independent I finally understood how lucky I was and how much other people were struggling.

I say this not to discourage you, but to say that artificial experiences like books, films, and websites aren't particularly useful here. Even manufactured experiences like work in a soup kitchen might not quite do the trick. You need to find ways to organically show your son how other people live and struggle - poverty is pretty abstract for a child, so real-world, close-to-home examples can go a long way. This might include speaking with homeless people, giving gifts to poor children, and other tasks.

Good luck. You sound like a caring, thoughtful parent.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 9:53 AM on February 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

i wholeheartedly agree with the birthday budget. my brothers and i had a set amount based upon our age that we knew from about the age of 5 on. i always enjoyed it for setting expectations.

also - stop abstracting the charity. make him go out and get his hands dirty volunteering. giving money to those less fortunate that he picks out on a website is probably not making that much of an extended impact. i'm not suggesting taking him on a tour of poverty porn - but let him help build a park, or volunteer at a soup kitchen, or adopt a senior at the nursing home. it'd probably be best to do a bunch of different stuff and have it be a repeated activity. maybe find local service projects in your area and you guys pick out one a month to take part in.
posted by nadawi at 9:58 AM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

drlith: It may seem crass to put a price tag on his birthday

On the contrary, and it's not saying "you're only worth $x to us." You're saying "we can only spend $x on you for your birthday, period."

It's easier when you have a couple kids, because you can then say "well, we're just being fair with our limited resources. We gave your sibling the same budget for their birthday." But birthday (and Christmas) budgets make life easier for parents.

Mind you, I first experienced this with my wife's parents, who have four daughters. When I joined the family, birthday and Christmas budgets were just what the family did. The daughters could straight-up ask "what is your budget?" if they weren't told up-front.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:58 AM on February 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Does Skid Row or third world suffering relate to his birthday list? I mean, you're not going to buy him a bunch of $200 gifts because you can't afford them, not because it's better to give that money to starving kids in Africa.

He's old enough to start to understand how your family budget works and how much money you actually have to work with for things like birthday presents. Talk to him about how much the things he wants costs, versus how much money Mom and Dad actually make, versus how much rent and food costs.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:00 AM on February 11, 2014 [10 favorites]

I remember being a kid and making immensely long Christmas lists. My parents must have thought I was terribly greedy - but I didn't want all the things on the list! I was just making a list of everything I liked, and hoping people would choose one. Would he really be disappointed if everyone in the family clubbed together to get him one of his preferred items?
posted by Daily Alice at 10:02 AM on February 11, 2014 [7 favorites]

He's 10. At that age, you're still very self-centered so understanding the plight of others doesn't mean he's going to see why he can't get what he wants. Perhaps you could say we have X dollars available for your birthday. You can spend that on the party, on the gifts you want that fit in that budget, or you can have money to save for the expensive thing you want. Have him participate in the planning if he chooses the party and get his help with budgeting. Including him in allocating funds might help him start to understand the cost of things.

I didn't fully understand the value of money until I had a job and could personally comprehend the correlation between time toiled to things acquired. Despite my parents' valiant efforts on that front, I had to work, earn, and feel it to understand it.
posted by cecic at 10:02 AM on February 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with LN that he may have entered the "keeping up with the Joneses" stage with the kids at school, and I remember it well. You may be able to approach it from that angle and tell him that you might be able to swing one of the more pricey items, but not all of them, and that he may think that all of his friends have all of the coolest high-end stuff, but most of their parents are getting them one or two of those things as well.
posted by gimli at 10:02 AM on February 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's great to expose him to charitable giving, but unless he's giving something of his own, the message may not be totally clear. Some parents give allowance with the caveat that a certain percentage must be set aside for charitable giving and a certain percentage has to be put in a college savings account. Some also require that a child give some of their old toys/possessions before getting new things (one in-one out). It's not until he gets in the habit of the sacrifice part of the equation that he'll get some of the message.

I also think that it's absolutely fine to not give him anything that's on the list and also forgo the lavish party. It's ok for him to be disappointed. I never received anything on the scale of a $200 gift as a 10 year-old (even correcting for inflation). I think some recalibration of expectations will be hard, but will serve him well in the long run. I remember desperately wanting all kinds of designer this and that because I went to a wealthy grade school. I didn't get any of it. I turned out just fine.
posted by quince at 10:11 AM on February 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

another idea for the big ticket items - don't give them as gifts, make him earn them. every video game system we got as kids we worked pick up summer jobs for them - delivering phone books, mowing lawns, shoveling drives, holding a garage sale with the last video game system up for sale, and so on - now, there were more than one of us to pool our resources and i think we bartered some of our gift budget to get the last little gap for one or two of them - but it very much connected in my head how much work went into big purchases.
posted by nadawi at 10:20 AM on February 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've seen plenty of poverty in my home cities and abroad, and it doesn't stop me from buying nice clothes, going out to decadent brunches, and upgrading my computer regularly. What DOES constrain me is having grown up with the mindset that resources are limited and that I should only spend money on what I NEED, and that there's no reason to spend a certain amount of money on something when spending less (or not spending at all) will do just fine.

Teach your child to make choices about what he really wants and explain that resources are limited. Show him how to save money and spend less rather than more.
posted by deanc at 10:20 AM on February 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Does Skid Row or third world suffering relate to his birthday list? I mean, you're not going to buy him a bunch of $200 gifts because you can't afford them, not because it's better to give that money to starving kids in Africa.

Yes, Skid Row and third world suffering are related to his birthday list - they are important reminders that even if he doesn't get a bunch of expensive gifts, he is still remarkably lucky.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 10:26 AM on February 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

agreed. most of my childhood my family was below the poverty line and volunteering helped me get some perspective. as a kid you see your peer group as "everyone" and sometimes it can feel like "everyone" got a new xbox and expensive sneakers. it's a good to remind anyone, and especially kids, that the world is filled with lots of different types of opportunities and struggles.
posted by nadawi at 10:29 AM on February 11, 2014

> Do I take him to skid row? Do we volunteer at a soup kitchen?

On the contrary, I wonder if understanding how lucky he is makes him more likely to ask for the moon. Because he is not poor, his family must be rich because you can afford to donate to the poor.

I know you said that you've talked about it, but I agree with the posters above that getting really concrete with a budget is a great idea. You may even be able to work in a bit about long-term budgeting. For example, you could afford the fun party and the smallest of the expensive presents if you skipped a few Friday pizza nights, but you like having a night off of cooking. Is he willing to take charge of dinner for the family on Fridays for two months? (Okay 10's a little young to do it all but he would know why he was helping a lot.) Maybe he loves swimming lessons, and the cost of one 8-week session could mean affording the gift he really wants.

As a kid without much money, the idea that everything costs money and spending in one place meant scrimping elsewhere was really well understood by me. Maybe he's missed that lesson.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:30 AM on February 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I heard a great tale, I don't know if it's true or not, of parents that got their pay out in $1 bills one week and stacked it on the table in front of their children and said this is how much we make each week. And all the kids were googly eyed at the huge pile of money, then the parents went, and this much is how much we pay in rent, this is how much we pay in electricity, this is how much we pay in food or save, etc etc until a small stack of notes of around $20 was left sitting in front of them. This is how much we have left each week and this is why you can't have everything you ask for.

In this day and age of debit cards I don't think kids have any real idea of just how money is spent, it just happens. Sitting him down and showing him that you don't have infinite money to spend each week and that he can have either expensive present A but nothing else or a selection of smaller presents to a budget value you guys set is probably not a bad idea.

I would also be getting him into using his own pocket money for things, it's amazing how creative kids can be come at stretching a dollar when it's their own money and when they understand there is a limit. Watching my 10yo nephew wangle the $50 I gave him at Christmas into a second hand bike, so his mum didn't have to use petrol to drive him to school, a secondhand computer game he wanted and a pair of trendy shorts that were on sale all because he was aware of just how tight his mums money due to some horrible things that happened last year was amazing, but he was only able to do that because she didn't hide from him the realities of their financial situation and he understood budgeting from years of getting pocket money when the families income had been many times greater.
posted by wwax at 10:30 AM on February 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

LN has a really good point. This is a tricky age: old enough to care about social status and having "nice things," but not old enough to have a realistic concept of money.

Most kids wise up when they have their own money to spend, either through an after school job or an allowance. Does he get an allowance? Has he had the opportunity to save his allowance for a big-ticket item? That will teach him more about money than taking him to gawk at the less fortunate.

In the meantime, you've said no. It sounds like you've explained well enough why the answer is no, and I suspect he gets it. Sometimes "sorry, we can't do that" is enough of a lesson.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:31 AM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

schoedingersgirl and cecic have said what I came to add, which is that I simply didn't understand why I couldn't have certain things (or, more accurately, why my mother wouldn't give me certain things) until I was supporting myself. (Even my high school jobs didn't really drive this home, as I lived in a really affluent suburb where a lot of kids had part-time jobs but also received ample allowances AND big-ticket gifts, like cars, from their parents.) A budget - perhaps one that makes explicit links to other kinds of household costs, sounds like it would be the best way to begin encouraging the kind of understanding that it sounds like you'd like to cultivate in Kid in the long run. Could you compare the gift list or party expenses to your typical grocery run, for example?

While I agree that this is probably the earliest stages of that pernicious "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality, I absolutely wouldn't make your case to him by talking about what others likely will or won't receive from their own insane wish lists. For all that you know, Friend's parents may well be buying him all of the things, not just one or two, and inviting that comparison isn't going to give your son the understanding of your own family's reality that it sounds like you're aiming for here.
posted by Austenite at 10:32 AM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, Skid Row and third world suffering are related to his birthday list - they are important reminders that even if he doesn't get a bunch of expensive gifts, he is still remarkably lucky.

I get that that's the point that the OP hopes will get through to him, but money is already an abstract concept to 10-year-olds. Money and how it relates to other people is a level further removed from that. I think a more close-to-home discussion about the value of money and how it relates to birthday gifts and hard work and having enough money to buy groceries is more likely to make sense to him.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:36 AM on February 11, 2014

If "Kid knows lots of other kids who live in shabbier surroundings and get small birthday gifts," I don't see how bringing him to poor areas would help. It might feel more like an attempt to shame him rather than increasing his empathy, especially when the problem is likely a lack of understanding about money. I agree with other posters about a budget. At his age, I was given a budget for gifts and was handed a catalog out of which I could choose those gifts. I also had an allowance that I earned through housework. Both were excellent preparations for adulthood.
posted by ceiba at 10:38 AM on February 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you want to extend the understanding of money beyond chores or birthday gifts, you could offer him a set amount of money to start managing his own expenses. A friend in Jr. High was given a block of money each month/year, and his parents sat down to talk with him about the cost of clothes, toys, and summer camps. Maybe 10 is too young to start working this detailed/forward-thinking of a budget, but you could start involving him in daily purchases. Maybe just sit down with him and show him how much money his parents make, and start detailing all the costs they have to manage.

There is a difference between "you are a lucky kid, don't be greedy" and "we don't have enough money to pay for all the things you want and still buy food and pay the bills."
posted by filthy light thief at 10:39 AM on February 11, 2014

Well, it could be better, but it could be a lot worse.

I would use this opportunity to give him a lesson on money. Take him through a kids' abridged version of the the family finances. Give him a budget. Allow him to work for a small amount of extra cash. Help him save. Show, don't tell him how you can't have everything you want - and how some things you've got to build up to, work and wait for.

At 10 kids are beyond the concept that they are the centre of the universe even if they aren't socially aware like an adult. They can understand concepts like poverty, budgeting, fairness and so forth but when food magically appears on the table, clothes get cleaned, presents get bought, they often don't stop to think about how the family ecosystem works. Why would they? They're too busy rushing about doing their own thing. Little boys especially.

Don't try and explain why the shiny things advertised on TV that he obsesses over and which he believes a) he'll love and b) will give him kudos among his peers have a conceptual, economic or ethical relationship with poor neighbours or even poor people somewhere else. Start from the idea that money is real, not abstract. Show that. Show why that means one has to compromise, forgo, prioritise, save, wait.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:43 AM on February 11, 2014

Given what you've said, any kid would have a difficult time understanding money in that situation. Are you lower middle class or are you upper class? That would be confusing for a child. He's having a hard time processing both being of modest means and getting nice vacations and MacBooks.

This is problem that can be resolved through chores, allowances and budgets. Earning money helps kids understand the value of money. It stops being $200 bucks and starts being a year of cleaning the bathroom. Also, children need to have the experience of saving money for things (and not getting the item now and then paying you back).

From there, you can spring into conversations about jobs, wages, why school or vocational training is important. Kids don't really understand how much things cost until they understand the relationship of money, time and labor.
posted by 26.2 at 10:44 AM on February 11, 2014

already an abstract concept to 10-year-olds. Money and how it relates to other people is a level further removed from that.

Taking him to work in a soup kitchen is most certainly NOT an abstract concept. It is as concrete as it gets. You don't have to understand money and financial markets to understand the pain and suffering int the eyes of poor.

Taking him to soup kitchen will obviously not teach him monetary theory - but it will give him an opportunity to empathize with the poor. And, that will make him question his understanding about money.

Yes - take him to a soup kitchen. Make him bear witness to poverty.
posted by Flood at 10:45 AM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Folks, let's keep this narrowly focussed and not go too far off into soup kitchen discussions please?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:54 AM on February 11, 2014

Many great ideas, particularly the budget-for-your-birthday. I wish I'd had that practice when I was a kid! And your concern, in and of itself, is teaching him a lesson. But please, please -- rethink using the word "greedy." He's 10, the world is full of wonderful things to have and find out about and mess around with .... he just wants lots of stuff! Thinking of it as "enthusiasm for Life" instead of "greedy" would be a great gift to him.
posted by kestralwing at 10:59 AM on February 11, 2014 [7 favorites]

Agreeing with the birthday budget. Could Kid be trying to make it easier on you (in a misguided way), like, look there are a lot of choices here, I'd take any one of these items.

When I was that age, my parents enjoyed watching me open a lot of gifts from them. It wasn't a "real" birthday or "real" Christmas to them, unless there was a huge pile of gifts. But what was in those boxes? Cheap, generic things that frenemies and bullies ended up mocking me for. I often ended up in tears after opening presents, and they thought it was because I was a greedy child who wanted more.

There was so much miscommunication between me and my parents about that, because no matter what my parents told me about their finances I knew my middle class family could afford about the same as any other middle class family could afford. My middle class peers had more name-brand things than I did, and some of them teased me mercilessly for not keeping up.

It wasn't until years later that my mom finally "got" that all I wanted was one, real, name-brand item, yes, even if that meant it was my only present and there was no party, it was that important to me at that age.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 11:04 AM on February 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Definitely clarify whether he *expects* these items or merely *wants* them. A ten year old kid is not that removed from the "letters to santa" years of his life, when you straight-up ask for magic because, what can it hurt?

Also clarify for yourself whether you want to teach him not to feel or act entitled, or teach him not to want. Instilling reasonable understanding of budgets and finite resource is one project. Teaching him to value and pursue modest living is an entirely different project. And one, I might add, that probably won't bear fruit until he is an adult.
posted by like_a_friend at 11:05 AM on February 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I wonder if there is a disconnect between what you've said to him, what you meant to say, and what he interpreted (regardless of either of the former). There is a big difference between writing a birthday "wish list" where he writes out all the things he wants, and "create a list of presents that we and our relatives will buy for you". He's ten years old - why can't he dream big? What's wrong with showing you what he finds exciting and interesting? I feel that he may have created a wish list, when you were expecting an itemized list of present ideas.

Perhaps that is not the case, but I don't feel like shaming him for being honest with you about what he wants or alternately, teaching him to only dream small, is really the best plan. Just something to keep in mind.
posted by valoius at 11:25 AM on February 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

he definitely knows that some people in the world live in poverty, are suffering, etc. But it's definitely something that is happening elsewhere, in his mind.

Parents shelter their children from any of their financial insecurity as best they can, for good reason. I generally take it as a sign that you've done well when a kid in this situation has little grasp of the family's financial limits. In my experience, as an adult he'll look back and put two and two together and realize a lot of sacrifices were made (previously invisible to him) to give him his upbringing.

I like the budget for birthday planning idea, but I wouldn't include gifts in the budget explicitly. For gifts, I would give him a clear ball-park. Ie not spelling out a budget, but he should know that say, this that and that are not even in consideration, this thing might be possible if he's ok with getting nothing else, etc etc. (Even just categorizing the smaller things on his list as "big-ticket" is giving him some scale reference).
I don't think he's greedy, I think he doesn't have a realistic ball-park, and doesn't know that yet, and he might be disappointed when he finds out the big-ticket items won't magically appear, but he probably already suspects that and probably won't be surprised (but also probably won't be convinced it's really out of the question until some pleading has ensued :-) )
What was said upthread was good advice too - sometimes the item has a social significance, and so brand/model/color etc can be very important. Be wary of getting something that's functionally just as good as the thing on the list - it might hold no value to him at all but still cost you almost as much. Or it might go down a treat and be a great deal for both of you. Just be careful it'll be the latter and not the former :)
posted by anonymisc at 11:26 AM on February 11, 2014

Related to birthday budget/allowance. You might want to open a bank account for him. My parents did it for me when I was a kid, and by the time I was in college/young adult I had a little padding that lots of my friends did not. When I was young, my parents made a rule that x% of any big gift (birthday money, Christmas, whatever) had to go to the bank. (You may also want to include some guidelines about tithing/giving if that is part of your life or you think it could help send the message.)

So, giving a gift of some money, along with opening a bank account might give him a better sense of what it takes to get to a $200 wish item. I think many banks try to make banking "fun" for kids (or mine did when I was young). I remember getting stamps for every x dollars deposited and when you got 10 stamps you could pick some kind of prize. A bank account may not seem like an awesome gift when you're 10, but I know I really appreciate that my parents did it for me. And who knows, maybe he'll get really into seeing his money grow with interest (is he into math?) or saving up for a coveted item. If you go the allowance/bank account route, it may help to generate a list of chores or tasks he can do to earn money.
posted by kochenta at 12:28 PM on February 11, 2014

By all means, take your son to volunteer in a soup kitchen or whatever else you can think of to get him involved in the world around him. It will pay off in the long run by helping him to develop into an active and compassionate citizen, but don't expect that to change the fact that he wants expensive stuff right now. Kids want what they want, and they will always want more. Ten is not really old enough to process that other people don't have enough to eat, therefore I can't have a Playstation 4. But ten is old enough to process that my parents are just not going to buy me a Playstation 4, so what else would be cool to have?

Tell your son that the crazy-expensive gifts and party are flat-out NOT going to happen. No negotiation or compromises. Just No. He can either accept that and talk to you about more realistic ideas, or he can hang on to his expensive demands and be disappointed when he doesn't get them. Either way, it will be easier to get him to lower his expectations next time (and there WILL be a next time).
posted by Dojie at 12:35 PM on February 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

In my family we have a tradition for the kids around your son's age of a Birthday Shopping Spree. First thing in the morning, instead of a gift, the birthday boy or girl is given and envelope with ~$100 in crisp one-dollar bills . In my experience, a big stack of ones always feels like A LOT of money to a kid that age. Like, freaking out, counting it, "I've never held this much money in my life!" excited.

The kid is then told that they have the whole day to go to whatever stores they'd like to buy whatever they want, but they have to spend all the money that day (hence, the spree). The day is always a blast for the whole family, filled with touring the Birthday Kid's favorite places: ice cream shop, bookstore, toy store, etc. Plus, the Birthday Kid very quickly figures out budgeting and there's usually quite a bit of deliberation (I can have the big Lego set from Toys R Us OR I can have the small lego set and still have enough money for a board game and a candy bar).

We have pulled this off for many kids in the 8-12yo range with great success!
posted by lakemarie at 12:56 PM on February 11, 2014 [20 favorites]

I was just thinking about a cash gift when I read lakemarie's answer. I think you should give him the equilivant of two weeks of grocery money. Or one week's utility bill, mortgage payment, whatever sum works out to what you want to spend that can be concretely tied to his daily needs. "Hey Kid, we couldn't decide what to get, so here's the amount we spend for TWO WEEKS of food for the whole family!" He gets to buy whatever he wants, and will be able to see the relationship between money and value.
posted by raisingsand at 1:18 PM on February 11, 2014

You sound like an awesome, thoughtful parent :-)

I don't have a lot to contribute to this discussion. The one thing I'd mention though, that I think my parents did really well, was that they "matched" contributions I made to big purchases. When I was 12 for example I wanted a crossbow that cost something like a hundred dollars: once I had saved fifty of my own money, they bought it for me.

This was a really good practice because it painlessly, routinely eliminated impulsive fad-type buys and forced me to prioritize because I of course had limited dollars, and limited ability to earn dollars. I think it was good for my parents too because it meant they didn't need to guess-vet my wish list: if I had saved up half, that was a pretty good indicator I was serious about wanting something. And it helped me build work ethic / value of dollar / ability to delay gratification muscle. (I don't wanna sound too rosey here: I was a pretty entitled kid. But not in the tantrum-for-toys way.)

Not directly on point for your situation, but maybe useful anyway. Good luck.
posted by Susan PG at 2:22 PM on February 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Does he get an allowance? From the time I was very young, my parents gave me an allowance. It really taught me the value of money. If I wanted a video game or toy, I would save up to buy it. From this, I understood how much $50 or $100 could buy. My parents still bought me things for Christmas and my birthday, but outside of that, I was expected to use my allowance or other budgeted money. At the beginning of the school year, they would give me a set amount to spend on clothes. I could buy a few very expensive items or a bunch of cheap items. It was up to me. The idea of giving your son a budget for his birthday is fantastic.

I wonder if your son understands the "value" of $200 if he doesn't have an allowance that teaches him what different amounts of money will get him.

I don't think your son is being greedy. I just don't think he understands the value of $200. I remember asking a girl about your son's age what she wanted for Christmas. She listed a bunch of video games and said he wanted them all. We pointed out that one of them was out of publication and cost $100, so we wouldn't be getting her that one. She looked perplexed. She had no clue about money or that $100 was significantly more than $50 when it came to game buying.
posted by parakeetdog at 2:52 PM on February 11, 2014

Yeah, 10 year olds don't understand the concept of how they fit into an economy (financial or emotional). They are inherently selfish. Not because they're bad or because their parents haven't brought them up right. I don't think their brains are wired to think outside of their own desires expect for in an abstract "save the whales" kind of way. I don't mean to be dismissive of your charitable giving. I think it's great. It's just that when I was a kid, my family usually donated money to "save the whales" types of causes.

Do the birthday budget thing, by all means, if you think it will teach him things and be interesting and if you think you can stick to it.

But don't sweat it, really. Just tell him to suck it up and that you don't have that kind of money. And if it's the grandparents giving him outrageous gifts, tell them to knock it off. It's not going to help manage his expectations if Grandma blows the budget each year.
posted by dchrssyr at 3:38 PM on February 11, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the help so far. You've given me a lot to think about. Kid does get an allowance ($5 per week) (which is linked to doing household chores), FYI.

The interesting thing is, when I just picked him up at school, pretty much the first thing he said to me was, "I've been thinking…" and then he proposed a situation where he gets his 1st choice birthday gift (PlayStation) but he pays for 75% of it with money he's saved. I LOVE THAT HE'S THINKING THIS WAY! (Not sure that's what we'll give him, but I still love the thinking.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:43 PM on February 11, 2014 [16 favorites]

So I might be parting from the mainstream on this one, but how about just getting him a modest birthday gift and throwing him a modest birthday party (like a fun picnic at the park with some balloons).

When I was a child I used to make multiple page birthday/Christmas lists with things like a unicycle from the Spiegel catalog, Baby Uh-Oh and elaborate Barbie neighborhoods I'd seen on T.V. What was instrumental in my development was not getting the outlandish things I'd asked for. My mom must have just taken the lists and nodded and discarded them, because I'd end up getting a doll or a track suit or something, and having a sleepover party and I turned out fine.

I would take note of Playstation request and tell him he might enjoy playing it at a friend's house, but then again, I might be destined to be an awful parent.
posted by mermily at 5:20 PM on February 11, 2014

I think a lot of the problem probably stems from the fact that you guys are getting gifts of big ticket items from somewhere/someone: the Macbook, the vacations.

The way gifts work in our society (and even quite young kids become quickly adept in these rules) is that (a) reciprocity is important - you can't give someone something really cheap and crappy if they gave you something amazing and (b) the gift's value should be proportional to the closeness of the relationship - i.e. you can't give a new computer to your sister-in-law on the same holiday you give a $10 paperback book to your wife.

I think he's probably internalised these rules, and at the same time, he's using the vacations and laptop as a sort of "anchor". You didn't spell out where they came from, but if, for example, his grandparents gave him the laptop, then logically, a present from you guys will be even bigger and better and more expensive. Or if the vacations are freebies through work, that's like a gift from your boss. He might subconsciously be thinking, "If Mum's boss gives her trips to Paris as a gift, then imagine what sort of gifts she will give me!"

I'm not sure exactly what the solution is, but I wonder if thinking about it in these terms will help. He's not being greedy - he's just applying the usual rules of gift-giving to come to the wrong conclusions. Maybe you can try framing these exceptional gifts for him a bit differently from how you have been, and/or making sure that other gifts within the family are very low value, always, no matter how your finances are.

I grew up in a family where $20 was the accepted amount you spent on a gift for another close family member. Distant family members got homemade gifts. Because that was the default, yes, it was acceptable to ask for something bigger from your parents (and you SOMETIMES got it), but you knew you were asking for something that was a big deal, and you knew what sort of tricks and offers might help you get it. E.g. if asking for a $50 item, that's more than twice as much as a "normal" gift, so you might ask for it as a "joint birthday and Christmas gift". Or if asking for something worth $100, the only chance of getting it is if all the siblings offer to have it as a joint present.
posted by lollusc at 5:49 PM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Birthday budget sounds right. I really don't think soup kitchens are relevant to the task at hand, which is to help him understand what's realistic to ask you for. Identifying your ceiling total amount is a good exercise for you as well.

(Ugh, these venue partie$!!! By golly when I was a kid we played pin the tail on the donkey in the backyard and WE LIKED IT.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:16 PM on February 11, 2014

Our son is like this. It's no big deal, it's just that there is no concept of "money." It grows on trees!

Best thing we have done is set up an allowance system where our son gets to save. Puts money in concrete terms.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:30 PM on February 11, 2014

One idea would be to not have him make a list at all. Just get him something you know he'll like, in a price range you feel is appropriate, and give it to him as part of a loving celebration. Nobody's disappointed because no specific expectations have been set up to break.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:12 PM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

My kids each get an allowance and have chores, and we are very realistic about the value of money, but they still write Christmas lists that provoke honest laughter year after year. That's just the kind of thing a kid will do when you tell them to write a list of stuff they want.

For example, they all always ask for an iPhone, no matter how many times we explain that the phone won't place or receive calls without a $2000-per-year contract.

Their lists, to us, indicate the kind of things they are interested in, and we treat them more like suggestions or the product of pre-teen brainstorming. :7)

In short: it's not a character flaw, it's just…people. (You may also wish to pilot the use of the phrase, "You get what you get and you don't get upset." Teeth-grindingly awful for kids, naturally.)
posted by wenestvedt at 1:02 PM on February 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

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