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This Is What Happens When You Give A 4-Year-Old $40

The following was syndicated from The Good-Bad Dad for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at [email protected].

“Look at all my money!”

My 4-year-old was giddy as he leafed through the $40 in one-dollar bills he’d opened from his grandparents on his birthday.

There is nothing like seeing your child’s eyes light up – there is a moment of purity in their happily shocked face that is marvelous.

child holding dollar bill

For that instant, we parents, again, fall in love with our sometimes-devilish little ones.

The pride we feel quickly subsides, though, giving way to dread for the impending parental responsibility of helping our kid spend their new, crispy bills wisely.

The birthday cake hadn’t been put away and, already, Everett was inquisitive:

“Dad, can we go to the toy store?”

“Dad, can we go so I can spend my money?”

”Dad, I have lots of money now. We need to go buy toys.”

No matter how many times I responded with, “Not now, buddy. But soon”, the questions were relentless and my 4-year-old’s impatience grew.

Standing in my kitchen, watching him try to cram fistfuls of cash into a wallet that had been empty for nearly a year, I came face-to-face with the 4 stations of a 4-year-old with $40:

Station One: I WON THE LOTTERY!

My son became instantly wealthy when we opened the first grandparent’s card containing $25 in small bills. He did not even bother counting his cash, he just knew the toy world was now his oyster.

His mind immediately began to drift to our next shopping trip and the power he now possessed. Namely, his cash gave him the ability to combat me consistently telling him, “No, Everett, we’re not buying that. I have no money, bud.”

Like any person experiencing unexpected riches, he was ready to spend quickly and frivolously and I was the enabler.

Station 2: The Fake Philanthropist

Everett passed through Station 2 rather quickly, but I cherished it all the same.

As the party wound down and the guests began to leave, he became exceptionally generous to his siblings.

“Vivi, I can give you a $1. I have a lot of them.”

I was so proud.

That is, until a line of older siblings formed and his pre-school brain started doing the math on the cash he was giving away.

All of a sudden, Mr. Philanthropist became Mr. Budget.

“After I buy toys, I can maybe give you some money if I have some left. Ok, Vivi?”

Everett’s strategy worked – the swarming older siblings disbanded in disgust quickly while the wealthy 4 year-old stuffed the crinkled bills into his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle wallet.

Station 3: The In-Store Miser

When taking a child to spend birthday money, trust me, clear your afternoon schedule and leave the tired baby home.

My lottery winner had transformed into a Scrooge, keen on spreading each dollar to its breaking point.

I noticed the Miser Stage to be precipitated by 3 key features:

  • Four-year-old’s have no clue of what things costs
  • They are appalled that they can’t afford everything, and
  • The number of items always wins when evaluated against quality

“Dad, can I get 2 of these Power Rangers and the cars?” Everett asks me.

“No, bud. You can get one of each or just the 4 cars.”

This evaluation process will go on for as long as I let it – until I find the quantity that he would define as “a lot”. Buying “a lot” is the ultimate, 4 year-old goal.

kid sitting by car window

Station 4: The Remorseful Buyer

During the drive home, Everett came to a couple difficult realizations: (1) he was no longer rich and (2) his birthday was over.

Everett became overcome with regret, “I don’t want these cars anymore!”

This station, to me, seemed less about the “stuff” and more about the brush with power he was forced to abandon.

Despite his crying, I knew he’d love playing with the cars we’d bought – his smile would soon return.

Unwrapping the packaging of Everett’s new cars, I felt a bit sad too. I wasn’t down because of the time wasted at the store or the tears I wiped from my exhausted son’s face.

Another birthday was gone and that fact provides a “Station 4” moment for me.

I felt that way for a fleeting minute or 2 – until Everett hugged my leg, wiped his runny nose on my jeans, looked up at me and said, “Dad, wanna play cars with me?”

I sure do.

Tobin is a husband and father of 5. Tobin’s rambunctious family life provides ample opportunities for thoughtful pieces about fatherhood. Check out his writing at goodbaddad.com.