“We knew it was time to teach you about money when you stopped trying to eat money.” — Mom and Dad
As soon as a child recognizes that money is not food, you can begin shaping their mind about what money is, and what money can be: an incredibly powerful tool that can lead to many good things in life.
One of the BEST things in life is one of the most basic things in life: FOOD! Kids need to know how they can obtain food, and one of the main means to obtain food is to use money.
You may ask, “so when will a kid stop eating money? I’m not exactly eager to give my kid a penny and see if she wants to pop it in her mouth!”
Touche. It takes a bit of bravery to trust a toddler with small coins that are choking hazards. Every kid is different, too. Trust your parental instinct about your kid’s ability to keep your money out of their mouths. But if you think maybe, just maybe, your kid won’t try to eat your money, it’s time to give it a shot.
Under your direct supervision, let your child simply play with a coin or two. Let them gaze at the shiny metallic colors, finger the little pictures on the sides of the coins, even try to squish the coin in their palm tight enough so that the little images dent their skin. Let them color on the coins with crayons or washable markers, and trace the coins on paper. An older sibling or family friend could show them how to roll the coins across a smooth surface, or spin the coins with the flick of a finger. Answer all of the creative and weird questions they may ask about the coins. Indulge in the strange backstories and fantasies they devise about the coins.
And that’s ultimately the key concept with money: if you give your child a positive experience with money, they’ll continue to use money in positive ways for positive reasons.
Now, I don’t mean you should spoil the kids by buying them nice things. What I mean is that when a child handles money—even if it’s just for a moment’s entertainment—they find money fun to play with, and fun to think about. Money shouldn’t be something that gets them in trouble when they touch it. Money should be something that they feel comfortable around, something that they feel confident with, something that they’re interested in learning about.
When I proved to my parents that I wouldn’t eat coins, they gave me a small present: a play set of plastic coins shaped like American money. The coins came in a small plastic cash register. I loved sorting the coins by color, and then by size. My parents made sure that I “clean up my coins” by putting them back in the little cash register drawer when I was done.
When I decided to play with my coins, my parents would closely supervise me. They would watch what I did with them, and maybe throw a suggestion or two my way. Why don’t I try sorting the coins by color? How about by size? Why not put the piles in order from smallest coins to largest coin? Why not make little stacks out of my piles? There were endless hours of toddler entertainment right there!
The next thing my parents did was very sneaky. With 20/20 hindsight, it was downright ninja parenting.
When my parents saw I had finished sorting piles, they would ask me how many coins I had in each pile. When I looked up at them with confused eyes, they would sit down next to me and teach me how to count. They would touch each coin with a finger, and say three little words: One…two…three! One…two…three! Over and over and over again.
And when I could count to three without a mistake, my parent taught me to count to five. When I could count to five, my parents taught me how to count to ten…soon, I could count all of my coins. It’s a little funny how fake little coins magically turned into an incredibly cheap educational tool. And I thought I was still playing and having fun!
Over time I slowly learned more and more about my coins. When my parents saw that I recognized the different coin sizes, they started to teach me what each coin meant. The brown ones were pennies. Each penny is one. I can count my pennies: one, two, three…the baby grey ones—the itty, bitty grey ones–were dimes. Each dime is ten. Ten, twenty, thirty…
With almost no effort, I could now count, name colors, and recognize coins.
Dollar bills are a different story. Dollar bills are too easy to crumple, too flimsy to withstand the destructive nature of the average toddler, and I just wasn’t ready to handle such fancy paper. But my parents took every opportunity to show me what to do with dollars. When the family ate out at McDonald’s, they would take me with them to the cash register, lifted me up to the counter or their shoulders so that I could see, and would say, “look! See all that yummy food they’re making in the kitchen? See how I give the nice lady my dollar, and she gives me these yummy chicken nuggets? It’s really cool, huh?! Would you like some chicken nuggets, too?” I learned that if I gave the nice lady this special green money—this “doll-er”—I would get some tasty food in return. Another positive memory, and another lesson about money, was formed.
This method leads to a cheap yet major reward for kids and parents alike: kids learning how to order their own food. I don’t mean a toddler screaming “I want nuggets!” to mommy or daddy. I mean coaching the kid to actually go get their own nuggets from a cashier. Under your supervision at first, of course, but eventually on their own.
(And when I was old enough to drive, this meant fetching the family groceries myself, too, but we’ll come back to this concept later).
In my case, I loved ice cream, especially the plain vanilla soft serve at McDonald’s. By then, I was a tall 4-year-old, just able to see over the McDonald’s counter, and able to hold onto money without dropping it. One parent—usually Mom—would take me to a table near the register (and away from the distractions of the McDonald’s playground), teach me to say, “may I have an ice cream cone, please?” and give me the exact change. Mom would watch me from the table as I scampered right up to the register, held out my handful of coins to the cashier, and said in my big little kid voice, “may I have a cone, please?” If the cashier didn’t understand my words, they would glance at Mom. Mom would then say to me, “Hey Big Girl, I think you mean you want an ice cream cone, please.” The cashier got the drift and started pressing buttons while I shouted out my sentence once more. About a minute later, I happily returned to Mom, licking my ice cream cone.
But McDonald’s ice cream is just what worked for ME. What about being able to buy food from the movie theater concession stand? Or get food at a baseball game? Or buy a drink from the local kid-run lemonade stand? Pick the tradition that your family enjoys, and see if your kid can develop social and financial skills via a simple transaction.
And in the end, kids learn one very important thing: stop eating money, so that you can buy better food!