By Francie Arenson Dickman
“Is there anything else you guys need for camp?” I asked into the rear view mirror of my car. We were on our way home from toiletry shopping. Piles of white bags from Bed, Bath and Beyond covered my backseat. Amid the piles, sat my daughters. One of whom answered my question with, “I need sushi.”
I answered her with, “You need what?”
“Sushi,” she hollered, as if my confusion was simply auditory.
“I heard you,” I said. “I just don’t understand how ‘need’ and ‘sushi’ end up in the same sentence.”
“I won’t be able to eat it all summer,” she explained. “I need to have it before I go.”
Let me back up to explain that this conversation marked the culmination of a week long field day for my kids, a free-for-all of financially clueless thirteen-year-olds on the loose, making plans to go for lunch, to the mall, the movies, the amusement park, dinner. On one occasion, they even made reservations. All with a few taps on a screen and a click on the send button yet not an ounce of awareness as to the reality that not only did they need the assistance of parents to drive them to their destinations but to help fund them.
I’ve always known that I was going to drop the ball in some parental regard, and during the week between school and camp, it became evident that I had dropped the money ball. Clearly, I’d spent too much time over the years reading Charlotte‘s Web and Harry Potter and not enough time talking about taxes, return on investment and the value of a dollar. Not that I was unaware of these concepts, but I was hoping my daughters would pick them up by osmosis. Like I did.
Growing up, we never had formal financial programs like those Ron Leiber suggests in his book The Opposite of Spoiled, such as the Wants/Needs Continuum, which entails the charting of would-be purchases on a graph according to cost and something else. In our house, we simply had scare tactics.
“Money never burnt a hole in anyone’s pocket. Keep it there ’cause you never know when the banks are going to go bust,” my father, a child of the Depression, would tell us. He didn’t own a credit card, he didn’t miss a day of work and he didn’t need a Wants/Needs Continuum because to him, there were no such things as Wants.
My friends’ financial situations were as simple as my own. In middle school, we’d scrape together ten cents from the bottom of this backpack, a quarter from that, until we had enough money to buy an order of eggrolls at the Chinese place on our walk home from school. Two eggrolls split three ways. Who the hell even heard of sushi? We were, by virtue of our time and place, the opposite of spoiled.
But times have changed. My children are products of their time, and their time is filled with, well, products. Stuff abounds. As does access to it and awareness of it. My children’s estimation of their mother’s value of a dollar is diluted by Instagram, H&M and those God-for-saken Kardashians.
“Oh, we NEED antibacterial gel,” they said as they pushed through the aisles. They also “needed” Airborne, Boogie Wipes, nail polish remover pads, a hairbrush that magically detangles and defrizzes, a solar powered clock as well as a shelf on which to put the solar powered clock. I said yes to Bed and Bath products and no to everything Beyond. My daughters didn’t fight me on my decisions. I didn’t expect that they would. Neither of my two children are spoiled—they don’t ask for much, they don’t protest when the answer is no. But, they aren’t the opposite of it either.
I read The Opposite of Spoiled, hoping to center my girls’ perverted relationship to material things. But while full of great insights and ideas, I don’t have the methodological or mathematical skills to put them into place. If I did, I probably wouldn’t need the book in the first place. Take the aforementioned Wants/Needs Continuum. Even if I had fully visualized the Continuum (which I don’t doubt makes perfect sense) I can’t see it happening, at least in my house, where we barely have time to plan dinner. Generally speaking we buy on the fly as we dash between one activity and another. Not to mention, many of our “teachable moment” conversations occur in the car which is no place to start graphing.
I admit, it’s no place to start Googling either, but I did. In the Bed, Bath and Beyond parking lot, I googled the word “need” from my daughter’s iPhone (an oxymoronic act if there ever was one). “A need is a thing that is necessary for an organism to live a healthy life,” I read and then paused for the words to wind their way through the bags of junk and into their ears. “I don’t think that sushi falls under the umbrella of need.”
I tossed the phone back in my daughter’s lap and continued to drone as I drove, repeating cliches used by parents since the beginning of time, like “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” and “Super Loofah Body Scrubbers don’t buy happiness.”
After a few minutes they said, “Okay, Mom, we get it.” And I felt good.
Until yesterday when a letter arrived from my daughter—the same one who needed the sushi—explaining that she now “needs” return address labels for her letters. If you are wondering why she can’t address them with the same pen she used to ask for the labels, you’re not alone.
I thought one of the purposes of overnight camp was to bring it back to basics. Even Ron Leiber recommends overnight camp because camp reminds children of all that they have that they don’t need. He references air conditioning—but I’m thinking sushi. As far as all the stuff they don’t have that they also don’t need—I’m thinking labels—I guess I’m the one to remind my kids of that. And I suppose I’m also the one to remind them of all they don’t have that they actually do need—here, I’m thinking jobs.
I know two 13-year-olds who are free to babysit come fall. Message me, if you are interested.
Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have also appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.