The Lesson of the $5 Fries: Money, Kids and Envy

friesGetting toward the end of the WordCount Blogathon here! I was thinking about my boys starting daycamp again in a week and a half, and I’m already anticipating the Battle of the Concession Stand, wherein I dissaude them from spending their own money on crap food, but also tell them that, no, sorry, I can’t support that habit myself, either. I happen to think no one “needs” cheese fries; then again, I’m not a 10-year-old boy. And if he’s envious of the fry-buyers? I get that. I feel it. It’s hard. I wrote this post last year, and I think it deserves a re-run now:


I talk a good game about how important it is to let kids feel disappointment, to experience failure. That’s how they learn important life lessons, how they grow stronger, how they develop skills to get along in a world that, come on, is not fair or, as kids would prefer it to be, “even.” In a 2012  New York Times Room for Debate feature, I contributed an essay about this very subject. Life isn’t fair, kid.

Still, it’s easier to talk about how your child needs to understand that he won’t get whatever he wants, whenever he wants it, than it is to watch your child feeling the very slings and arrows you’re convinced will help him grow.

Because in the moment, all the slings and arrows do is hurt.

Yesterday evening, my nine-year-old came to me while I was preparing dinner and asked, “I know what you’re going to say, Mom, but, um, do you think you could give me $5 or $10 for camp tomorrow?”

Yeah. He knew what I was going to say, which was no. No, because of a few things:

  • No child needs what my son thought he needed to buy with that $5 or $10, which is something from the concession stand near the camp’s pool, like chicken wings or cheese fries, on top of what I pack him for lunch, and on top of the $1 or $2 he takes out of his own allowance for the vending machine now and then.
  • The camp itself, in the rules sent home at the start of summer, expressly say, “no child is permitted to bring money to camp.” (A rule we found out is routinely disregarded). The concession stand and vending machine are meant to serve the rest of the general public who use the park and the pool, which are town-owned, so I guess that no matter what the written rules are, on the ground, it’s hard to keep a bunch of school-age kids with cash in their pockets from buying crap.
  • I can’t afford $5 a day for him. Not this year. Not usually, in fact, but for sure not this year.

I explained all this, and not for the first time. And I know he gets it. I’m beginning to suspect he gets it a little too much, for a boy his age, especially the part where we can’t afford it. The principle part of the thing — that he doesn’t need French fries in the middle of the day; that treats are not daily privileges but, you know, treats; he understands that. He pushes against it, naturally, but he understands it. But should he have to understand the grinding, unpleasant fact that money is tight?

Normally I’d say yes, yes he should understand that. The kids want to go to Disney again this year, and I don’t think it’s wrong for their father and I to make it clear to them that Disney vacations are something we wait and save for, that they cost a lot, that we want to go, too, but we’ll have to find our fun closer to home this summer.

But here’s what happened next, when I pressed him for more information about what goes on at camp. “It’s just that I guess I feel jealous, mom.”

Knife, meet gut. Now, twist.

He’s envious of the kids who get the $5. Of course he is. It’s only human. I’m jealous, too. I’m jealous of other people’s vacations, other people’s kitchens, the fact that other people don’t have to constantly defer the things they want for the things they have to have. I even know that much of what I see that other people have is a credit-fueled illusion (not all of it, but some of it). But when you feel jealous, cool intellectual understanding of fantasy versus reality goes out the window.

I know what my stance is on teaching kids the value of what they have and the tough lessons about getting by in a world that (sometimes) seems to have more than they do. My mother tells a charming story about how, as an extremely picky eater when she was a girl, she’d hear the old admonition: “Eat this! There are children starving in India!” To which she’d (logically) reply, “Send it to India! I don’t want it!”

How deep does the lesson have to go? I mean, just how many sides of a story are kids capable of weighing? (I may not have the vacation or a backpack supplied with camp cash, but I do have a roof over my head! And the mortgage does get paid!).

When you want the $5 fries, it doesn’t matter that your stomach is full from a healthy breakfast. All you feel is the jealousy. And it hurts.