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Pocket change became paycheck

Life with children

As Tax Day approached - it's today, by the way - I got to thinking about how we form our views on money and wealth and such things. It occurred to me that it's a process that begins early.

Until about seventh grade, I was satisfied with my allowance and the occasional cash that would show up in a birthday or Christmas card from the grandparents. A kid could only buy so many baseball cards, Classics Illustrated and Icees.

Then I tired of the limitations imposed by my allowance, which remained stagnant at about 50 cents a week. I devised a kind of piece rate wherein I could increase my income by taking on work around the house, using a list of tasks and a sliding pay scale I'd created. As I recall, the big jobs like doing the dishes or sweeping the basement might bring in as much as 25 cents.

The next time I felt the need to improve my financial standing was in high school. One of my best friends was a year older than the other two or three of us who hung out nearly constantly. He got his driver's license, and a car, first, and was pretty much our gatekeeper to the wider world.

The problem was that he was not about to ferry the gang around for free, so he'd hit us up for gas money, and hit us hard. Often, he'd make a handsome profit, collecting enough for gas to travel exponentially farther than we were actually going.

But that wasn't the real problem. He also had a job. He'd work afternoons and weekends at the service station his dad operated, and that meant he had real money. We'd hit the bright lights of places like Gladstone and Milwaukie on Friday nights, and his spending power seemed limitless. Those of us who scratched together an occasional dollar or two mowing a lawn were in awe.

At the time, you could get a work permit - and a real job - at 15, and we couldn't wait.

But where is the point at which a kid makes the really crucial decision, the one about what he or she will spend a life pursuing? And how exactly does money come to fit into the calculation?

I was 14 when the thought of being a journalist suddenly made perfect sense to me. I had my first paying gig within months, at 25 cents per column inch. Granted, it was a career I would end up pursuing somewhat sporadically, but I might've known it wasn't going to make me rich.

By contrast, there's my older sister. As best as I can judge, her ambitions never rose beyond looking really good and meeting really good-looking guys until well into her adult life. She worked, and was good at whatever she did, but mostly in the service of that primary goal.

Now, she's married to a hardworking, successful guy, has two handsome children and lives in the most exclusive neighborhood in San Jose, Calif. A few years ago, she got licensed to sell residential real estate, and now routinely makes, in one or two sales, what I earn in a year.

What's both scary and thrilling to me is that my daughter is not much younger than I was when I made my career choice. Realistically, she could stumble across a notion of who she wants to be any day now.

What if it's something that doesn't pay very well? Or pays well but offers no other reward?

There's an unforgettable line in the somewhat forgettable '80s movie 'The Flamingo Kid,' in which a working-class kid played by Matt Dillon becomes enamored of the highflying lifestyle of a sports-car salesman.

The boy's dad, who is a plumber, disapproves, and tells him that what matters in life is figuring out what you're good at and figuring out what you love. And that, if you're lucky, they'll be the same thing.

Maybe I should stop nodding patronizingly when my daughter talks about being a veterinarian, dismissing it as a childhood fantasy based on her love for furry things. Wait, veterinarians perform a valuable, even noble, service - and they make good money. You go, girl!

And if my son persists in reading comic books and playing with his Xbox instead of cleaning up his room? He could become the next great graphic novelist and screenwriter. Or a software genius. I'm going to stand in the way of that?

I suppose figuring out who you are results from a process that neither parents nor anyone else can really control. Like most aspects of parenting, the instruction is handed down not in the big moments but in the everyday minutiae of life, in the myriad tiny notions and styles and attitudes that surround young people and shape their view of the world like the hands of a skilled but impulsive artist.

The kids will figure it out, I suppose. Meanwhile, I'm wondering if we'll get any money back on our taxes.

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