Kid Economics

It is a right of passage.  The lunchtime trade.  Every day, kids across the United States sit down for lunch and begin wheeling and dealing.  Candy bars, Hershey Kisses, homemade cinnamon rolls, Fruit Roll-Ups.  Looking to trade something you don’t like for something you do, or even better to trade something you like for something you love.

And the world of kid economic transactions doesn’t stop at desserts.  Baseball cards, small toys, Cracker Jack prizes, rocks found in the front yard…if a kid can possess it, then a kid will trade it.

What I find interesting is that on several recent occasions recently, I have seen parents involve themselves in this world.  Acting as a parental SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), they advise upon and even nullify trades.  The goal appears to be keeping things fair, and helping kids understand the value of things.  But I think it is a mistake.

Now, I understand not wanting a twelve year-old to take advantage of your five year-old (or more importantly not wanting your twelve year-old to rip off some small child).  But when a parent or authority figure steps in because one child “seems” to get the raw end of the deal, I think we miss the point of what is happening.  We don’t understand how kid economics work.

We think like adults.  This cost more than that so it is worth more.  This is bigger, newer, better made, a name brand, so it shouldn’t be traded for that trinket.  We think in terms of some kind of “objective” value.

But that is not how kids approach a transaction.  The Kelley Blue Book price of a toy or dessert means nothing to a child.  What matters to them is what they like or want.  It is simple: that may be the much more pricey toy, but if they like this one better, it is the one they want.  Children cry more over a broken $1 toy they love than over a $200 toy they don’t really like.

There is a valuable lesson here for those of us who are “adults.”  Too often we determine value by the rules of the world.  The market says this is more valuable, so it is.  We make decisions based on those values and costs.  And we accept those values and costs without ever thinking as a kid would: do I truly want it?

Example:  Several years ago a couple was leaving a church I worked for.  There was much hand-wringing over losing this valuable couple.  They volunteered, looked out for others, and were kind and generous with both their time and money.  The congregation was losing something of great value.  But any time a conversation came up about their impending move to a new town, the same logic was mentioned.  They had to move because you can’t turn down that kind of offer.  The job the man was taking was such a step up in both prestige and money, that they had to go.

But here is the thing, they didn’t have to go.  They could have stayed.  I am not saying they should have, but to act like they had no choice is to buy into the system of the world completely.  Rather than thinking through what is good and right and best and even what we really want, too often we run with the assumptions of the culture around us.  And when we do, it takes some of our noblest endeavors and changes them into petty economic transactions.

The goal of ministers becomes moving up to bigger and better (whatever that means) churches.

We equate someone who makes more money as being more gifted, talented or a better leader.

We appoint elders or leaders in the church based on their “success” in the world of business.

Parents view children as economic “burdens” rather than blessings.

We view how we spend our time in terms of what we accomplish, rather than what we are becoming.

We can spend huge chunks of our lives chasing things we never really wanted or desired.

Jesus calls us to be child-like.  Perhaps one of the ways to do that is to rediscover the economics of childhood.  A child-like approach recognizes that time spent with people I love or doing what I love is more valuable than the money I could have earned with that time.  Kid cost-benefit analysis views contentment and enjoyment as more important than abundance and success.  A child economist might summarize: Seek what you love, not what the world says you must have.

A child-like view of economics sets us free from the tyranny of a world that says our only value is what we produce.  But to find that freedom we must learn to trade like a kid; willing to let go of what our culture says is valuable in order to get what is actually priceless.


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