Our Money, Our Children, Ourselves

February 1, 2012
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Marcella Kanfer Rolnick

A few months before my oldest son, Meyer, (now 7 years old) turned 3, my father, who loves teaching him new concepts while they play on Shabbat mornings, was explaining “duplicates.” He had gathered all of the redundant matchbox cars and suggested that Meyer give away his duplicates to a boy who didn’t have any cars. Meyer said, “Maybe tomorrow.” Three weeks later, while getting dressed, Meyer opened his dresser drawer and pulled out two identical pairs of underwear. He declared proudly, “Look, Daddy! Duplicates! I can give one to a boy who doesn’t have any underpants!” And so my husband and I learned that, at only 34 months old, our son was grappling with competing impulses to give and to possess; we learned, as well, that he was internalizing important life lessons.

Like many parents, I have come to understand the process of raising children to also be

the process of raising our adult selves. For instance, because I scrutinize my consumption behaviors and rationales through the eyes of my children much more closely than I did before I became a mother, I grapple with values-clarifying questions and answers and the notion of consequences every time I shop.

The predominant perspective on money and what it afforded my birth family is summed up in Exodus Rabbah 31:3, which describes the world as an ever-rotating wheel: One who has means today may not tomorrow and vice versa. My father taught us (his children) to enjoy what money could buy as long as we could imagine being just as happy without it if it were to disappear. It was his way of living with the blessings of the fruits of his labor (and good mazal, he says) without allowing money to become a master. In other words, he challenged us not to let money become too precious; to appreciate it but not to idolize it. I was raised seeing money as a tool: for self-advancement, for helping others, and (by my mother, in particular) for expressing care for others through thoughtful gift giving, as well as for enjoyment and satisfying desires, as long as the spirit of moderation was present.

While this philosophy seems to be working with my own children, slowly moderation led to excess where Legos were concerned. Meyer and my second son, Heshel, 5 years old, have been “Lego fanatics” for years already. Originally, I would buy them a new Lego set after (and only after) they’d completed the set they were working on. I reasoned that Legos enabled them to develop fine motor skills and the ability to follow directions and pay attention to detail, as well as stick-to-it-iveness, patience, and a focus on goal attainment. But after a while, I had earned far too many VIP points on Lego.com and our home had Lego creations on most horizontal surfaces. My children didn’t have any sense that getting a new Lego set was not something to take for granted.

So I turned to a “Moonjar” moneybox: one part wallet (“spend”), one part piggy bank (“save”), and one part tzedakah box (“share”). Rather than judging what and when to buy non-essentials for our children or judging their purchases, we give them a relatively modest weekly allowance that they divide into the three compartments. They get to choose how to use the money within its allocated purpose. But the Moonjar can only teach so much.

Last year, recognizing my growing exasperation over our accumulation of stuff — an accumulation at odds with my intensifying commitment to sustainability — my husband gave me Bless Your Mess by a Zen-like spiritual guide named Ashi. The book, which enabled us to jumpstart our “de-materialization” project, helped me to shift not only my own orientation to goods but also my approach to teaching our children to think about desire and measuring what is “enough.” My involvement on the board of American Jewish World Service also has led me to confront resource inequity on a very human scale. I am more conscious of the tremendous global imbalance and recognize that I have yet to manifest consistent buying habits that truly match my values.

In the meantime, I keep returning to a few questions with my children that may help — especially as they grow older and become more complex thinkers. I do not look for particular answers; I just hope some wisdom comes from the asking.

1. Why do you want this item? How might your life be different if you were or were not to get it?

2. Do you have the money to buy it? Is it a good use of money (which is limited for all of us, to a greater or lesser extent)? Is there a better use?

3. Do you have room and time in your life and your home/room for it? If not, what will it replace? Is that a good trade-off?

4. Is it well made (for what it is) and likely to have some longevity? Or is it junky and likely to end up in the scrap heap soon?

5. Is it a long-experienced desire or a passing fancy?

6. Does it enhance who you are or are becoming? Does it build skills or capacities?

7. Where did it come from? Is there anything problematic about how it was made?

8. Can it wait? Let’s sleep on it and talk about it tomorrow when there is less consumerist urgency.

I encourage readers to enhance and expand upon my list through shma.com. Perhaps, through our online “village,” each of us will become better stewards of the young people in our lives and better decision-makers ourselves.

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Marcella Kanfer Rolnick is building and stewarding her family’s multigenerational enterprise as vice chair of GOJO Industries; co-founder of Walnut Ridge Strategic Management Co.; chair of Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation; and ima (mother) to Meyer Paz, Heshel Rom, and Levi Beari. She champions strategic thinking by and capacity building for innovative Jewish organizations and early-stage ventures.

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