If you are going to focus on teaching kids soft skills for successful living, then of course you are going to teach them about money. The idea of an allowance is becoming controversial. Maybe it’s not such a great idea. But if you are going to teach money, then why not teach how to buy happiness? After all, what better lesson is there? So here are four lessons about buying happiness that kids can learn as kids.
1. Anticipation makes a purchase more exciting.
It was clear to me that we’d be buying a bike this summer. The kids learned to ride bikes on our trip to California, and my youngest son is hooked.
He’s been talking about how we need to pave our dirt road so he has somewhere to drive. I tell him “maybe” in that way that parents say maybe when they mean no chance in hell. But he’s been relentless about the bike. I told him to wait until the snow melts. I told him to wait until we go to a town that sells new bikes (ours does not). He waited and waited and waited and then waited more.
Side benefit: Not only does anticipation make a purchase more satisfying, but also, young kids who are able to wait for a reward are more successful later in life. So the waiting definitely counts as homeschooling.
2. Buy experiences.
You get a lot more happiness for your money if you buy experiences rather than things, according to Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness. I think a bike counts as an experience.
We had extra time after our cello lesson in Winnetka. So we drove to the Wilmette Bike Shop, where I bought my bikes when I was a kid. (I think this counts as buying a flashback. I had to email my brother fifteen times to tell him what it was like and to reminisce about how negligent our parents were when it came to buying us anything, including bikes, which we purchased on our own, in grade school, with the piles of cash my parents left laying around the house for such purchases.) My son spent an hour picking out his bike.
3. Buy lots of little things.
Happiness that comes in frequent small blips makes us happier than isolated, big blasts of happiness. That’s because the happiness wears off so fast—whether it’s big or small. Which explains why we also bought a bell. He was shocked by the selection. Actually, he was shocked that there bells to be bought because this is not something country kids buy for their bikes.
I told him I’d buy the helmet, but he had to buy the bell.
4. Buy things for others instead of yourself.
Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her book The How of Happiness, prescribes repetitive behaviors that will make us happier, and one of them is buying little things for other people. (Which makes me think, actually, that parents should be the happiest people in the world because we spend all our money on our kids, but she’s not talking about that. She’s talking about random gifts.)
So, my son biked up and down the streets of my childhood. On a particularly good ride around the block he said to me he was tired and needed an ice cream.
I said no. We’ve had enough for today. Get some water from the car.
He said, “How about if I use my money to buy you a treat at the ice cream shop, too?
A stranger sees this as a childishly transparent act of manipulation. A mother sees this as a gesture of kindness that hopefully will continue when her son gets married and has a wife of his own and they take the mom to buy ice cream together.
I say, “Sure. It feels good to buy something for someone else, doesn’t it? I buy you a bike and I feel good and you buy me an ice cream and you feel good.”
He responds to my heavy handed lesson with a ring of his bell.
I don’t tell him the ice cream shop is the first business in a long string of businesses that fired me.
We are having an educational day of the glories of buying happiness. I don’t want to mar it.