I messed up

As a long-running family tradition, my parents gave our kids red envelopes with money inside for Chinese New Year earlier this year. Being a natural saver and thinking about the future, I then took the money and put it in a savings account for them. Mrs. T and I figured that since both of them still don’t quite grasp the concept of money, we just save whatever gift money they receive.


Giving the money lesson

Recently, Baby T1.0 discovered the Youtube sensation, Ryan’s Toy Review, and started talking about buying a giant Ryan’s egg. He then remembered that he had received a red envelope with money and wanted to use that money to buy the giant egg which has a mystery toy inside amongst other things.

Both Mrs. T and I were very much against blowing that much money on a toy that costs around $50. After reading a few reviews about the egg, we quickly learned that it’s basically a giant plastic egg with a bunch of plastic wrappings and a bunch of cheap plastic toys inside. Being environmentally conscious, we did not want to buy something filled with that much plastic. The idea of spending $50 for some cheap plastics is outrageous! (I have to say, this Ryan kid definitely is a marketing master!) 

At the same time, Mrs. T and I also felt that it is Baby T1.0’s money and he should have every right to decide what he’d do with the money. If he decides to blow it all on the overpriced egg with cheap plastic toys inside, so be it. Maybe he’ll learn from a financial mistake. Making a $50 financial mistake at five and a half years old is probably way better than making a huge financial mistake when he’s 25.

As his parents, Mrs. T and I feel it is our responsibility to teach him about money. So we explained to him how we manage our money – by dividing all income into the different categories. To keep it simple, we explained to him about Spending, Saving, and Giving accounts. We also explained to him that we could divide up his money into the 3 accounts and let money in the Savings account grow so in the future he’d have enough money to buy a small LEGO set (we obviously ignored the super low interest rate).

The discussion ended positively with Baby T1.0 stating that he’d save the money for a LEGO motor instead (he wants to build a LEGO robot). And Mrs. T and I padded each other on the shoulders for a job well done.

On a side note, we haven’t told Baby T1.0 that we created a portfolio for him and his sister which is almost $20,000 in value. I guess that might be a surprise when both kids are a bit older. 

The surprise

This past Friday, Baby T1.0 stated that he wanted to stay at my parents’ place for a few nights. Since it’s summer time, we agreed that he’d come back on Sunday afternoon while Baby T2.0 would stay with us. 

To our surprise, my parents dropped off Baby T1.0 while we were out Sunday morning. When I returned home with Baby T2.0 (Mrs. T had an appointment), we were greeted by my parents and a very excited Baby T1.0.

“I have hidden something in the garden!” He told Baby T2.0. 

The two of them quickly ran to the back of the house toward the garden. Then my parents told me that they had just went to Walmart to buy a couple of Ryan’s toys. 

I became very upset immediately. I thought that my parents had spent $100 on a couple of those stupid eggs with cheap plastic toys. 

As it turned out, my parents luckily didn’t purchase the giant eggs. They had purchased a couple of smaller eggs with some squishy toys inside for $7 each. 

Being a great big brother, Baby T1.0 thought about his sister and asked my parents to buy an egg for her too. He had hidden the egg for Baby T2.0 in our backyard garden as a surprise. 

But I was quite upset and was a bit furious with the situation. I scorned my parents a bit for spoiling Baby T1.0 and buying cheap plastic toys for the kids. When both kids ran toward me with their eggs, I quickly ripped them out of their hands and told Baby T1.0 it was not OK and he was not getting the toy.

Baby T1.0 got very upset immediately and started to cry. I was just as upset and told the kids to go inside. Didn’t want to interrupt, my parents left me with the kids so I could do my own parenting. 

Once inside, still frustrated, I told the kids that they wouldn’t get the eggs. I told them it was a waste of money. Both kids were quite upset and proceeded to collapse on the couch and continued to cry.


The important lesson of delayed gratification

After 10 minutes or so, I became calmer, but still frustrated about the idea of my parents giving in to Baby T1.0’s request/demand and spent $14 on cheap plastic toys. Then I got an idea! 

“Kids, please come sit down in your seat at the dining table.” 

I went in the pantry room and took out a bag of dark chocolate (Mrs. T keeps a few bags of chocolates around for Christmas chocolate making).

“I will give each of you 2 pieces of chocolate. I will set the alarm for 15 minutes. If at the end of the 15 minutes you still have chocolate left in front of you, I will give you 5 more pieces. But if you eat the 2 pieces before the alarm rings, then you don’t get anything.”

I went over the rules several times, figuring this would be a perfect time to teach them about delayed gratification. 

“I can’t wait anymore!!!” Baby T2.0 said with about 3 minutes left. She then ate both pieces of chocolate. At the end of the 15 minutes, Baby T2.0 didn’t have any chocolate left while Baby T1.0 still had all his pieces in front of him.

Figuring that 15 minutes was maybe a bit too long for a 3 and a 5 year old, I decided to give them another chance. I told them that I’d give them one piece of chocolate again (one piece total for Baby T2.0, three pieces total for Baby T1.0). After 10 minutes, if none of them ate the chocolate pieces in front of them, they’d get 2 extra pieces. And I started the timer.

To my surprise, both kids managed to not touch the chocolate before the time expired. By now I was much calmer and decided that it was OK to give the kids the eggs with squishy toys inside. However, I wanted to teach them something still.

Knowing that Mrs. T would return home shortly, I first gave each kid 2 pieces of chocolates. I then put the eggs in front of them.

“If you can sit in your seat until mommy comes home and not eat the chocolate and not touch the eggs, you can have 2 extra pieces of chocolate and the eggs when mommy comes home.”

For the next 20 minutes or so, both kids sat in their seats. I could see they were agonizing over the chocolate and the idea of touching the eggs. But they seemed to remember the end prize and avoided the temptation completely.

I was very pleased to see both kids passed my ridiculous contest. When Mrs. T got home, they were able to have their chocolate pieces and open up the eggs to discover what squishy toy they got. They were happy and played with the toys for a number of hours.


The painful childhood memories

Later, I called my parents and apologized for my behaviour earlier. I had a long talk with my dad and about our parenting style. My dad reminded me that Baby T1.0 got an extra egg because he wanted to surprise his little sister. We should have praised him for such thoughtful gesture. Toward the end of our long conversation, my dad said…

“Baby T1.0 had been talking about the squishy toy egg since last night. He was so happy when we went to Walmart. He was so happy that we purchased an egg for him. He was also so happy about buying one for Baby T2.0 and hiding it to surprise her. Then you came home and completely ruined their happiness. When you were younger, we often couldn’t buy toys for you and your brother due to financial reasons. Do you remember what that felt like as a kid?”

Then it hit me. I immediately remembered what that was like. All of a sudden I became very emotional and almost couldn’t say bye to my dad.

After the phone call, still very emotional, I went up to our bedroom and shut the door. I sat in the room and cried. 

I recalled what it was like, as a kid, to see my friends having the coolest toys like Transformers toy figures, Tamagotchi eggs, Game Gear, Super Nintendo, Voltron figures, etc, and wondering why I couldn’t have the same toy. I remembered the frustration and disappointment I felt as a kid. I remembered drooling over these new toys at the department stores, secretly wishing that my parents would get them for me for my birthday. I remembered leaving wish notes on my nightstand, hoping that my parents would see and would buy what I was wishing for for my birthday or Chinese New Year.

I remembered that most of the time, my wishes never materialized. 

I sat in the room and cried, wondering what have I done. Am I a bad parent? Did I completely mess up? Have I ruined Baby T1.0? 

Mrs. T entered the room later to find me sitting on the ground crying. She knew right away that I was really upset and gave me a hug immediately (according to her this was the 3rd time she had ever seen me crying since she met me 10 years ago).

We sat there on the bedroom floor and just talked. We talked about our childhood, we talked about financial independence, we talked about our dreams, we talked about Baby T1.0 and Baby T2.0, and we talked about what we want to do in the future. 

I’m truly blessed to have an amazing and supporting life partner.

Later, I came to the realization that I was perhaps too hard on Baby T1.0. Rather than focusing on spending $14 on a couple of cheap toys, I should have been focusing on having abundance. I shouldn’t tell him that it was a “waste of money” or use terms like “we save money only,” or even “we can’t afford it.” I shouldn’t have been a party pooper and ruined his happy moment. Rather, I should have cherished his innocence, praised him for thinking about his sister, be happy, and use this occurrence as a money learning lesson. 

I realized that at this age, Baby T1.0 is still learning and exploring the world. He needs to learn through failures. He needs to learn through successes. This is even more true as he grows up as he will need to learn valuable life lessons throughout different experiences. Although I am his dad and loves him dearly, I cannot teach him everything. Some lessons he must go through himself, just like what I did with some of the lessons I’ve learned so far. For example, like finding the right balance between saving for the future and spending to enjoy the present moment, buying mutual funds does not provide the best returns, financial advisors that work at banks are usually sales people and do not have the best interests for you, etc. My dad could have lectured me on these lessons but I probably wouldn’t have listened. I had to learn these tough lessons myself, without anyone’s guidance. 

When it comes to parenting, there are many different ways. One way isn’t necessarily more correct than the other. It depends on the circumstances. Similarly, there are multiple paths to financial independence. 

For me, this experience reminded me to always evaluate the situation through different lenses and look at the bigger picture. In my moment of frustration, I had forgotten about that…

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37 thoughts on “I messed up”

  1. Beautifully honest post. Some of my frustration around the kids toy desires comes from the money, but more the eco impact, which you mention, and especially the consumer manipulation of children’s desires with things that are not necessarily good for them or the earth. The FI community emphasizes value based living, and it’s hard to suspend that while figuring how much to give our kids. I am quite sure I dont always draw the line in the right place, but trying to keep an open mind and heart during the process as you did is a good way to move forward.

  2. As a parent myself, I know how hard parenting can be. I think we adults make mistakes about as often as the kids make mistakes growing up. We’re still learning too! Remember not to be too hard on each other! 🙂

  3. I needed to read this this week, and I’m so glad you shared with us. This is an issue that I’ve found challenging with my parents lately as well. We’re really trying our best to teach my step-kids the lesson that love does not equate with gifts, and how much you spend on someone does not determine the extent of one’s love. This is especially hard because the children’s mother is the complete opposite of frugal. The problem is that my parents LOVE spending way too much money on gifts for the kids for Christmas and their birthdays. Just this week, I asked my parents to please not go all out on my stepdaughter’s birthday gift, explaining my reasoning behind the frugality, but they ignored it and went all out anyway.

    I never stopped to think about the beauty in it: that receiving gifts can be one of the purest joys in a child’s life. I also didn’t think about how it makes my parents feel- they are so happy to have step- grandkids, and have been waiting for a decade to have some kids to spoil! It brings them great joy as well.

    So I thank you for raising those points. However, my step-kids are now 17 and 13, and I wonder whether you might feel differently if your kids were significantly older. For now, my fiance and I have agreed to loosen up a little and let the grandparents do some spoiling, but still try our best to instill our values of frugality and minimalism where we can. We don’t want to deprive the kids of a childhood, but we also want to be careful about the messages we send regarding money, gifts and materialistic goods.

    Ah, the joys of parenting!

    • Exactly, how much you spend does not equate to how much you love someone. But I suppose grandparents want to give the best to their grandchildren. The best thing, I found, is to communicate. Explain reasons why you’re raising your kids this way so the grandparents can understand and respect that.

  4. Thanks for sharing that parenting frustration. I have had to struggle with finding a balance between encouraging positive life lessons vs. being overly controlling. I’m sure when my kids get older they’ll say they had a “very strict” father.

    One of the most frustrating things for us is when we are on a strict “no sugar belongs in any baby’s mouth” plan, and later we find an elderly family member suddenly placing a sugary lollipop into a child’s mouth while they are still an infant (usually happens when the kid is about 11 to 15 months old). The elder is overjoyed, but the child immediately stops liking vegetables and starts seeking out the next sugar fix. At the very next meal, the child will, for the first time in life, turn his or her head away from an offered spoonful of vegetables. It’s happened that way with four kids in a row.

    We’ve also read that cavities are often acquired from other people – the saliva of someone who has ever had cavities can transmit the cavity-causing bacteria to a child’s mouth, so, we’re (understandably, I feel) freaked out when we see an elderly person in the family making a child share a glass with them. Or even taking out a piece of ice from a glass, and making an infant taste the ice (yuck!!!!). Nothing we say can convince the family, but we’re the ones who have to go to the dentist and watch the teeth get drilled and cavities get filled.

    So I can sympathize with your plight – it’s difficult trying to raise children a certain way and having other family nearby who are oblivious of your plans and who, even when they find out about them, they may think you’re being silly or that you’re just wrong. Of course the benefits of living near family far outweigh the downsides. But it does mean that sometimes we choose not to take them up on babysitting offers. Leaving a kid at somebody’s house for 5 hours means they’ll have 5 hours of TV and about 300 grams of sugar in the form of a bagful (literally) of candy.

    Keep your chin up, Bob…and hopefully you can take comfort in the fact that kids will learn a lot more from what they see you doing, than from anything you can tell them verbally.

    • I can see how that’d be so frustrating to see grandparents giving your kids candies when you are on a no-sugar rule for the kids. Maybe what you need to do is educate the grandparents about the effect of suguar on kids?

      Raising children can certainly be challenging and frustrating when other family members don’t respect some of the rules you’re trying to enforce. I think the key is to communicate with your family members and let them understand your point of view.

  5. I know we all make these mistakes, flying off the handle, but it takes a good parent, IMO, to sit down and reflect on our mistakes and to apologize to the injured parties. And most importantly – to do better next time. I don’t remember much of childhood myself, other than desperately wanting books which are never waste! 😉 so I appreciate these reminders that things we see as waste can feel so important to the young ones. And it’s so important to remember that we aren’t the only ones they’ll be learning from.

  6. Such a deep learning moment for yo and the kids Bob, very personal and real. Both us as parents and them as children, our life long path of learning never ends. There is no manual to this, the kids learned something out of all of it and you will also look at situations differently in the future so take comfort in knowing that you are doing good things for them and their future.

  7. Thank you for sharing your experience. It is a great reminder to enjoy today’s little pleasures and while still finding a way to honor your beliefs. The sheer fact that you are thinking about your kids and their future this much means you’re a great parent in my eyes.

    Also, being vulnerable and emotional in front of your family is something that should be commended. Holding back our emotions, thoughts, feelings and beliefs can reak havoc on our mental health. Kudos all around.

  8. Great post Bob!! I love this, and can entirely relate to the difficulties posed when trying to teach your kids solid money skills (without ruining their childhood lol). It’s definitely a fine balance! Personally I have found the key to feeling confident in how I teach my children about money is to focus on small building block style lessons when the opportunities arise (which is often), and to keep in mind that small incremental lessons over a long period of time are substantially more effective in building a strong financial foundation.

    Now that your 5 year old has the toy, it might be a great opportunity to revisit the purchase with him in a few months. Ask him how much he has played with it, and if he thinks it was a good use of money in terms of the value/playtime he got from it. The answer doesn’t really matter, because either way he’ll be developing an understanding of how to assess what brings him value, and could be a useful reference point when discussing future purchases with him.

    Thanks so much for sharing this experience! It’s so valuable to be able to draw from other parents working through similar challenges!!

    • Thank you Phia. I definitely plan to revisit the purchase with him in a few weeks’ time. I don’t believe he played with the toy in the last few days, I could be wrong though. A discussion afterwards to provide a learning opportunity is always a good idea.

      And you’re totally right it’s a fine balance about teaching kids about money and that it takes many steps to get there. Focusing on the small building blocks and slowly build up the knowledge is exactly what we plan to do.

  9. That’s good your kids passed your version of the marshmallow experiment. 🙂 I think the only objectively wrong way to raise kids is to spank or hit them. Otherwise it’s just a matter of different parenting styles.

  10. Thank you for posting such and honest article about those feelings. I have a 5 and 6 year old, so this struck home.

    So far, we haven’t had to get a lot of cheap plastic stuff, except for Happy Meals. It kills me to have to overpay when the Dollar Menu is a better food fit (at a cheaper price).

    I’ve found a couple of things that have worked with us, so maybe they will work with you. I bring the kids to the dollar store and tell them they can get anything they want. Yes, it’s cheap plastic crap, but it’s also only a dollar. It makes them happy for awhile. We sold a bunch of the old stuff at the yard sale (in a 5 for $1 bin), that made me feel better about the environmental impact.

    One time we even made our own Falcon Blaze (from Blaze and the Monster Machines) out of card board that we were looking to recycle anyway. I had to do a lot of the work, but they certainly helped coming up with ideas. There was a good sense of pride and teamwork and I think it was their favorite toy for quite awhile.

    • I didn’t realize you have kids around the same age as ours. Yea Happpy Meal toys are pretty silly. Luckily we don’t go McDonald’s or really any other fast food places, so we’ve been able to avoid this.

      Dollar store is another good idea, or give the kid like $5 and tell them they can get as many things from the store as they want. 🙂

  11. Tawcan, You are a good parent because you care that you are doing a good job with them.

    I never electrified money for my kids. Lecturing kids would likely turn them off the lesson anyway.

    What I observed was how my children respected finances growing up in a working class neighbourhood. My children respect their friends who all got jobs during high school. They quickly followed suit as well.

    I taught my children that money was about freedom and options.

    We can only hope to do the best we can as parents. We are all learning ourselves.

  12. Fantastic post! The most important thing is “(…)this experience reminded me to always evaluate the situation through different lenses and look at the bigger picture.”

  13. I like my parents’ system which was that 50% of any money had to go to savings but the rest was mine to spend on whatever my lil heart desired. I’m glad you’re teaching your son responsible money decisions and try not to beat yourself up too much over one mistake. Your heart was in the right place after all.

  14. I think it’s still too early for such parenting. Let the kids have fun and a little bit of spoiling is fine. There should be a small budget set aside for all kind of stupidities that make your kids happy. I think $40 per month for both kids for little purchases here and there will keep them excited and happy. That’s just my opinion. Thanks!

    • That’s one way to do things for sure. We haven’t quite figured out whether to give them an allowance or not yet. Having grown up in a household without an allowance, I thought no allowance worked just fine for me.

      • We’re giving our son 5 dollars/week, but he has to help wash the dishes. I think that’s a good compromise. He just sticks it in his piggy bank.

        • Yea that’s a good way to do thing. We just don’t believe in giving kids allowance for doing chores. Chores are a household responsibility everyone share.

  15. Good post. The kids are still very young. Just keep teaching them about money and they’ll learn. It’s not just one moment that builds their financial habits. It’s what you do every day. I’m sure they’ll turn out very well.
    We all messed up sometimes. Don’t be too hard on yourself or the kids. 🙂

    • Thank you Joe. Yes both kids are still young but I want to start teaching them about money and good financial habits. And you’re right, it’s not just one single event, they will learn about money throughout their lives. Heck, I’m still learning. 🙂

  16. Good write up. As parents, we all go through situations like these. If I can recommend, Kevin lemann has some fantastic books on parenting. His strategy has done wonders for our kids. I recommend ‘parenting my powerful child’ and ‘the birth order book’ to start.

    All the best

  17. This is one of the best posts I’ve read in the FIRE community. Writing and thinking about these events must have been emotionally gut wrenching for you. I have wondered how parents balance achieving FI and raising mentally healthy children who aren’t left resentful or damaged or scarred in some way by the experience.

    • You are a good parent . Sometimes when I knew I blew it, I just went to the kids and apologized. Kids are great and they forgave me. We all hugged and went on.


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