01/07/2013 04:24 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2013

A Fistful Of Dollars

I don't pretend to understand the fiscal cliff. I hear those two words and my brain shuts off and all I hear is Miss Othmar from the Peanuts. I know that this financial precipice had something to do with the debt ceiling, taxes, expiring legislation and some seriously pissed-off members of Congress, but none of it really came together until today. Today, I discovered that the entire problem could be fixed with a magic trillion dollar coin. This sounds like a solution my 5-year-old could have come up with, and I know this because last week I tried to teach him about the value of a ten dollar bill and it became clear that he was operating in a universe devoid of sense or reason. The same universe in which one would think that a trillion dollar platinum coin will eliminate problems with the federal budget.

I should probably start at the beginning.

Little Dude is saving to buy a fire station. He has a wooden one we bought him two years ago, but he wants to replace it with a Playmobil version that has millions of tiny plastic pieces that I will step on in the middle of the night and lose in the crevices of the couch. He is saving for it because Santa didn't bring him one. Santa brought him the Playmobil police station instead. Santa was working off the list Little Dude made in November because Santa was too stupid to realize that a preschooler is unlikely to stick to his original Christmas list and Santa wanted to preorder everything online to avoid holiday crowds and make more time to drink egg nog. Santa thought that Little Dude would forget about the fire station. Santa is too stupid to be allowed to have children.

So 2013 started off with a deep and meaningful conversation about gratitude and plenty and a consumer society run amok that went right over my son's head. Little Dude listened patiently, nodded thoughtfully and then insisted that he really wanted the fire station. He asked if he could do chores to earn the money to buy it himself.

Now Little Dude helps walk and feed the dog, take out the recycling, unload the dishwasher and clean up his toys. He earns a quarter here, a dollar there, and begs everyone in the family for change like an experienced panhandler. He has an old cigar box to store his dollars in and a piggy bank for the coins. Every so often, I find him on the floor, counting his "monies" surrounded by piles of nickels and pennies like Scrooge McDuck.

Last week, I took him to the grocery store to put his change "in the machine that gives us dollars" which everyone else knows as Coinstar. For a mere 9.8 cents on the dollar, Coinstar will exchange your jelly jars of coins for crisp paper money.

My financially motivated son raced to the corner of the store where the giant green monster sits and poured his change in. He had saved an impressive $10.51. I had been less thrifty, collecting only $7.10 for bag of loose change. We took our voucher slips to the cashier to redeem for cold hard cash. Little Dude was electric with excitement. He made me promise we would come home right away and look up the fire station online so he could see if he had enough money to get it.

So far, so good. I should have known it would all go off the rails.

The cashier handed me a five, two ones and a shiny dime. Little Dude got a new ten dollar bill, two quarters and a penny. He held them in his mittened hand as we walked to our car. I chattered away, telling him how proud I was of him for saving his money.

Little Dude was silent. Something was not right.

"Hey, what's wrong?"

He looked at the ground. "You got more money than me. You got three dollars and I only got one." The word "one" trailed off into that low pitched whine that preschoolers have perfected when disappointed.

"Oh no, sweetie. You have more money than me. Even though you only have one piece of paper, it's worth more than mine."

"No it's not. You have more than me." Stubborn refusal to accept reality set it. He started to cry. I wondered if he might have a future in politics.

You have got to be kidding me, I thought. Kid just got ten dollars and he's freaking out? I took a deep breath. I would not shirk from this teachable moment. I showed him the number 10 on his bill and the 1 and 5 on mine. I explained that the bills stood for other amounts of money. I counted on my fingers. I had him count out loud with me. I made piles with things in the car. "Look," I said desperately, "I only have seven gummy bears, but you have ten crackers. Ten is more than seven." He was adamant. I had more than him. He was not happy.

We were heading towards the fiscal cliff-preschool style.

I considered new ways to talk with him about his savings. I searched my brain for an example that would make sense to him. Then it came to me. The solution.

I gave up. Because sometimes, the best thing you can do as a parent is let go. If what makes sense doesn't work, embrace the irrational. Choose to believe that ten is less than seven. Let emotion trump reason. Remember that childhood isn't a place where 1+1 always equals 2. Mint a trillion dollar coin. At some point, it will matter if Little Dude understands how money works, but it didn't have to be today. I did, however, make a mental note that perhaps he won't have a future in business.

"Do you want my three dollars and I'll take the one you have?"


I handed over my money and he passed me his.

"You understand, right, that you have less money now? You have seven dollars and I have ten."


"You're ok with that?"

"Yes mommy. Thank you!" He held his three bills against his cheek. The tears were gone. He had less than he started with, but he was happy. That was good enough for me. I don't have the heart to tell him he's three dollars short of that fire station though. Some lessons you have to learn on your own.