EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is George Bailey's weekly report on he and his wife's efforts to teach their kids financial freedom.
I'm a pretty big fan of The Lord of the Rings. In fact, I had actually read the trilogy years before the movies came out, so when I say I'm a fan, I'm being legit.
You might think that it's not fair for me to imply that post-flick Tolkien fans are not legit, but that's because you've forgotten that there was a time when it was not cool to be into fantasy novels. In other words, my fandom came with real sacrifice. I couldn't identify with my peers and would sooner have talked elvish than sports. I pretended well into my teen years that I was on a quest to save the world from dark forces, which didn't do me any favors with the ladies. Peter Jackson's popularizing of Middle Earth brought people like me in from the cold. I could now declare my passion for the tale of the One Ring without threat of reprisal or blank stares.
I will add that even though I was a nerd before all the Academy Awards and handsome non-nerds playing elves—I'm looking at you, Orlando—there were other fans who settled down in Tolkien Town in cult-like fashion. I won't go into detail because you know who I'm talking about—people who own real swords. No amount of pop culture finessing will redeem these curious hobbyists back into the mainstream. (I don't mean that as an insult; I promise you that these folks wear their devotion like a badge of honor.) I, on the other hand, am now considered fairly normal ("A bit free with that word, are we?" — Asclepius, the pet snake).
Honestly, all of this is beside the point. My actual purpose in invoking the trilogy is to recall the defining scene in which Cate Blanchett's Galadriel muses over the possibility of possessing the Ring. As the temptation eats at her, she reaches increasing heights of intensity until she lights up into a 70s' rock singer and shouts that the result of her newfound power will be that "[a]ll shall love me and despair!"
Fortunately for Frodo and the overall plot, Galadriel rejects the ring and lives out her simple elvish existence. Unfortunately for the rest of us, dark forces have crafted another device to enslave our minds and keep our dreams just out of reach: the claw crane.
You know what I'm talking about, right? That big box in grocery stores and Chuck E. Cheese's nationwide in which you insert your quarters so that you can experience the thrill of lowering a claw into a treasure trove of toys and wonders? The machine that grabs your desired prize with all the enthusiasm of an office intern's limp handshake? The one from which you have never and will never win a single reward for all the wealth you've wasted on it?
There's a Walmart not too far from my house that has one of these machines. My kids used to want to play the machine every time they saw it. Having learned my own lesson, I would instinctively tell them the machine is a blackhole into which people throw their money never to see it again. But now that my financial education sensors are constantly on, I've started to feel like there's nothing wrong with allowing my children to learn the lesson themselves.
Recently, my eight-year-old decided to take some of his money and play the game. I held back from caring about his certain defeat. He put in his money, aimed the claw, lowered the claw, and then watched long-faced as the claw retracted empty-handed.
Now came the learning opportunity. Rather than preach to my son about his poor judgment in having thrown his money away, I merely asked him questions in an indifferent tone. "What did you like about that game?" "Getting to push the button." "What did you not like about that game?" "I lost my money."
It was a simple conversation, and I'm pretty sure that after this reflection exercise, my son will probably not want to play the game again—at least not after a brief reminder. It required no judgment, no preaching, no argument. I had faith in the machine to do what it does every time it's played: take money in exchange for human suffering.
I told Christina about this experience, and she thought it was a good idea. So, the next time she went by that same machine with our six-year-old daughter, she thought it harmless for our daughter to give the claw a go with her own money.
Quarter in, claw sideways, claw down, claw back empty. As sure as the sun rises in the morning, the claw achieved its purpose of fueling despair. Then came the opportunity for introspection.
Christina asked, "What do you think of the game?" Our daughter burst into tears, not because she lost but because she ran out of money with which to play. To make matters worse, she ran out of money with which to purchase gum. To this day, she still has a hankering to shove every quarter she can get her hands on into that machine.
Let this be a lesson to us parents that not all children—even siblings—have the same learning style. My current position on our daughter is that I'm going to let her burn through her small stash until she realizes how futile the game is. I'd rather have her learn it now than at a slot in Vegas.
It's difficult to watch our kids learn the hard way that the world is filled with cruel claws of misery meaninglessly descending and retracting inside of big loser-machines. But these machines can be a valuable learning resource.
Galadriel saw through the deception of the Ring and prevailed after a short spell of power lust. Let's have faith in our children that they can make bad financial decisions and still get back up after all the tears.