Loco Parentis: He’s Gotta Have It

Who decides what a kid should spend money on?

I’M IN THE kitchen, making a fruit salad, when my son Jake appears. His cheeks are flushed, his eyes are bright, and his voice is fraught with excitement as he announces: “Mom. I need a book.”

Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that there must be parents out there who have never heard their child say “I need a book,” and who no doubt would be tickled to death to do so. It’s not the object that interests us here. It’s the verb. “Need” can have such different meanings, as 15 years of life with Jake have shown. So:
“Do you mean you need a book for school?” I probe.
“No, no,” he says, shaking his head. “I just need a book. I’m out of stuff to read.”
You could say a lot of things about my house — that it’s messy, that it could use some paint, that the screen doors really, really need to be replaced. But you could not say of my house, with any degree of accuracy, that you can’t find anything in it to read. In fact, reading matter makes up most of the mess — books overflowing shelves, magazines heaped on counters, newspapers piled on chairs, some of it more tantalizing than the rest, but all of it more alluring than, say, shopping for screen doors. Still, that’s to me, not Jake.
“Is there some particular book you want?” I ask, also from experience, because on more than one occasion the kids have talked my husband Doug into emergency trips to Barnes & Noble for The Great Gatsby, or something else we already own.
“No, just something to read.” That’s when I remember: There was a card to him in the mail today, from his grandmother.
“Did Grandma send you money?”
“Ten bucks.”
That explains his mission. And actually, I could have guessed the amount, since if it had been $20, or even $15, he’d have wanted to go to the video games store instead of the bookstore. But the cash in his pocket explains my son’s urgency.
Jake is allergic to money. He has to spend it as soon as he gets it. He’s always been this way. He has zero interest in long-term accrual. He can’t even pause to count or fold his cash; he hands salesclerks big messy wads of ones, dumps piles of change on store counters, itching, no, burning to buy. Food commercials make him salivate; Xbox ads make his thumbs twitch. He’s Madison Avenue’s dream child.