How to teach kids to buy happiness

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.


14 replies
  1. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    This post has to be one of my all-time favorite posts for reasons too numerous to mention all of them.
    Riding bikes isn’t just for kids you know!
    I happened to meet up with another rider yesterday morning about half a mile into my ride. I rode with him for about ten miles and then we split off in different directions. We talked about everything from the local Amish to biking techniques. It was a really good ride. Of course, every ride that’s a safe ride is a good ride!

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        Hi Pirate Jo. I haven’t tried Ragbrai but it sounds like a lot of fun. I haven’t done those type of trips but did a century ride on a Tour de Cure six years ago. My rides range from 30 to 50 miles. I live in the foothills of the Adirondacks in upstate NY so I have a good mix of hills and flat stretches.
        How about yourself? It sounds like you’ve done the Ragbrai. If so, what was it like?

  2. Mark K
    Mark K says:

    If I am not mistaken, each of your points reflect the antithesis of your title, while technically satisfying it. And I find that delightful.

    Anticipation makes a purchase more exciting: the capacity to exercise control over our desires and spending behavior gives us a freedom from the mindless cycle of need-buy-need-buy. Using the desire as a way to develop self-control, rather than an opportunity to surrender control to the impulse of the moment shows how the same desire that could be part of an addiction now frees you from addiction.

    Buy experiences: turns the attention away from the material thing and bring attention to what matters–how we feel, what we experience. Realizing that the things are means, not ends, is a valuable lesson indeed.

    Buy lots of little things: realizing that how much you spend has little bearing on the resulting satisfaction. The difference between a lot of money and a little is not such a big difference after all.

    Buy things for others instead of yourself: use material wealth to invest in relationships, since relationships are a true and lasting source of deep satisfaction. As so many intangible things are.

    I love that in an article entitled “how to teach kids to buy happiness” you have in fact shown us a glimpse of how you communicate your spirituality to your children.

  3. Sandy
    Sandy says:

    Is buying a book considered buying a thing or an experience? Does the answer change depending on if you’ve read the book or not? I love reading, but I have more books than I can read in the free time I have available now.

  4. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    A money-motivated miracle on Memorial Day:

    daughter who loves to *destroy* the playroom as she creates and disassembles wanted to buy a special Pony toy.

    She did not have the $.

    I need the playroom clean so I can remove the carpet. I offered 20.00.

    She worked for about three hours in a room that most closely resembled the garbage chute from Star Wars. She even vacuumed w/o prompting.

    I took her to the store. The Pony toy was half the price she expected. She got her Pony and did not feel urgency to spend the rest.

    We’re all happy. Now if someone would just offer to pull up that carpet for me…

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I do this stuff, too. I offer to pay the kids for doing stuff around the house that I really really don’t want to do, and then they get totally focused and motivated because they know what they are going to buy.

      Here’s a problem, though. I’ll do something like pay the kids $20 to water the garden, which takes about a half-hour. And then they discover that the guy building our deck is making less per hour than they were watering the garden.

      It’s a problem. Maybe this is only a problem since we live in a very poor area of the country and my income comes from outside this area. I’m not sure. But anyway, it’s something I grapple with all the time.


  5. Tanya
    Tanya says:

    I do believe this is one of my favorite posts and makes me feel better about my buying habits for my child. Just before reading this, I had ordered a few Cars my son had been asking for. The big items he wants we put on a wish list for purchase at a later date. I also love that you have done all this happiness research so I don’t have to. :)

  6. Andi
    Andi says:

    I love that you gave your son an opportunity to do something for you — my daughter LOVES giving me gifts, & making things for other people, & asking if we can buy XYZ for so-n-so. I don’t know why some people lose this love of giving as they age. Hopefully those of us fostering this quality in our children will find a way to secure this trait as they become adults. I still get a kick out of giving small things to people, even if it’s just a silly doo-dad I pick up out of dollar-bin that reminded me of a shared conversation, inside joke, or inspiration. Great job, Mommy!

  7. Andi
    Andi says:

    PS. I just put the two books you mentioned regarding “happiness” on request at my local library — thanks for the suggested reading!

  8. Lori
    Lori says:

    the only problem i see here is with the side benefit to #1. you were the one making your son wait, so it doesn’t really reveal whether he has the ability to to wait for his reward (classic marshmallow test) – he had no choice but to wait.

    i love “the how of happiness.” parents can help their children develop the habit of choosing many small pleasures instead of one big expensive treat. it’s all in our daily/monthly/yearly choices.

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