Big little concerns

P Anima | Updated on January 11, 2018
Catch them young Children register the presence of money early — in a friend’s tall talk or at a dinner-time conversation. Photo: T Singaravelou

Catch them young Children register the presence of money early — in a friend’s tall talk or at a dinner-time conversation. Photo: T Singaravelou   -  The Hindu

Spell it: Parents need to explain the relative concept of what constitutes “expensive” for their family

Spell it: Parents need to explain the relative concept of what constitutes “expensive” for their family   -  PTI

It spins the world of grown-ups, but how does money colour a child’s universe?

On our way to the neighbourhood supermarket, my eight-year-old asked casually, “You are going to pay by card, aren’t you?” An affirmation brought on a faint smile. It was not difficult to decipher what was on her mind. That I was buying what she wanted and not paying for it in cash — physical evidence that every commodity comes for a price — created an illusion of free exchange for her. Her engagement with banking had not yet begun. The ATM was merely an enclosure one walked into, swiped cards and walked back with notes the machine spewed out. Until I sat her down, pricked her little bubble and explained rudimentary banking: The concept of a bank account which is linked to my card and is depleting the reserve with every buy, whether I pay by cash or card. The information dismayed her. If that has lessened her requests for beyblade games or potato chips, I haven’t noticed it yet. But every time we go shopping, she does not forget to enquire about the bill. If it runs into a couple of thousands, she wrinkles her nose in disapproval.

For someone who thinks nothing of spending an evening with new friends, yet not knowing their names, she is unusually assiduous about money. “Nothing comes for free. I think money should not be wasted. And you should use it for useful things such as my school fee,” she told me in a rare quiet moment. Her adult approach to money has surprised me in no small measure.


Money has monopolised our discourse lately. Its power to cleave, agitate and disrupt was on display for all practical purposes. As the frenzy abates, let’s take stock of how crucial money is to a child. When do they realise money? And what does the initial awareness mean to them? Children are rarely active agents, but they register the presence of money early — in a friend’s tall talk or at a dinner-time conversation. From toddlers struck by its tangibility, children quickly learn to inextricably link daily life to the possibilities money allow.

Six evenings a week, kids living in Sunder Nagar nursery basti in Nizamuddin gather in a small room in neighbour Sangeeta didi’s house. Here The Kutumb Foundation helps them enhance language skills and academic learning in creative ways. Money is an aspiration, but so is valuing it — an idea set deep in their minds by earnest mothers. “Small drops make an ocean,” sprightly nine-year-old Samreen is never short of profound thoughts. But this, she attributes to her mother who used the adage to explain the need to save. Samreen’s father is a tailor and the family large. She attends the school nearby. “My father works hard for the money. It is important to take care of it,” she says.

Maryam, who attends a well-known Delhi school, knows money is a necessity. However, three needs are priority — school fee, clothes and ration. Money, the eight-year-old tells me, is responsibility, and its loss veritable heartbreak. “My mother wept the whole night when she lost her Samsung phone worth ₹18,000. She had bought it on instalment. But we found it in the cupboard the next morning.” Maryam’s brother Farhan is small for his 13 years, but his story bank is fairly large. His most expensive possession is a laptop which his father bought on instalment for ₹32,000.

While money will buy them material comfort, the kids consider education the route to respect. All the kids I spoke to attend school and a couple of them are in Delhi’s top schools under the EWS category. As others fight to air their views, 10-year-old Deepika sits against the wall, dismayed at not getting a chance. When she gets one, she says, “I don’t think money can buy respect. A good-natured person will be respected, even if he has no money.”

Conversations in the basti, lessons in school and personal morality define their understanding of money. Eleven-year-old Tayyab once stepped on a wad of notes lying on the road. He recounts matter-of-factly that both his father and he distributed that ₹3,000 among those around and themselves. Arshi, a Std V student, quips, “If you see somebody’s money fall off, you should give it back to them. Otherwise, one should just keep it.” Farhan, the oldest among them, handles money on a day-to-day basis. When his teacher asked the class to get highlighters, the teenager diverted his canteen allowance of ₹20 to buy it. “ Khaane se kya hota hai?” (What difference will a meal make?) he asks.

Demonetisation is met with stony silence. But say notebandi and a clamour of opinions ensue. Banknotes out of circulation, and those in are on their fingertips. Maryam, the youngest, chimes in with a titbit. “The new ₹2,000 has a picture of Red Fort.” Before she finishes, older kids pounce on her, “Red Fort is on the new ₹500 note,” they chorus.

Notebandi is not lost on either 10-year-old Amit or his cousin Golu, both of whom sell pens at the South Extension traffic signal. Amit and his parents recently took five old ₹500 notes — all of which were given to the boy by a passer-by post demonetisation — to the bank. “We were told we have come in late,” says Amit. He and his 11 siblings live under the flyover along with their parents. So does the extended family .

At the Kutumb space in Kotla Mubarakpur, Amit, Golu and cousin Pradeep have just finished making birds with small plastic bottles. Handling money is nothing new to Amit, it’s among his earliest memory. Unlike his cousins, he attends the NDMC school nearby. He has learned to count his daily earnings too. Fifteen-year-old Pradeep, a school dropout working in the wedding industry, laughs at the way Amit counts. “He can only count till 100 at one go. If he has ₹500, he will count each bunch till 100 and then add it up. But Golu can count quickly.”

Golu (7) doesn’t attend school. And he gets wild when his mother conducts a thorough search every evening. “He can’t hide any money from her,” says Pradeep. And Golu likes to keep some. “I want to buy a cycle,” he says. A bicycle was among the many goodies Amit and siblings got themselves when an “angrez” (foreigner) gave each of them ₹2,000. “Mummy bought for us three cycles, clothes and food,” says Amit. His father, a sweeper at a sports establishment, has opened a bank account for him. Besides, he is also saving money. Though still small, he plans to collect enough to buy a mobile phone. “A touch- wala phone,” interjects Pradeep.

A generous “angrez” is not a frequent occurrence in Amit’s life. But he still manages to make a couple of hundreds every day. Each of the three kids knows exactly how much their fathers earn. The boys consider their tough life on Delhi’s streets inevitable for a better life in their village. None of them want to use their money for a more comfortable accommodation here. Instead, their families have built mud houses in Bihar with their earnings. Dealing with money at a young age has given them a practical perspective of it. Hence, education does not get top billing. Pradeep wants to work in a hotel some day. “I will get food, a place to sleep and also money for it.”


Anasuya S distinctly remembers when her son Shay, then five, stumped her with a simple query. “Mommy, what is mehanga (expensive)?” Surely, the question had a context. A friend’s parents had purchased a BMW and had bragged about it. Shay attends a top-end school in Delhi NCR, and though the school makes a conscious effort to prevent displays of wealth in the premises, conversations among friends cannot be censored. Her son’s initial impressions about money were imbibed from peers. “Children first tend to understand what is expensive and what is not. When a sense of affluence and entitlement works into your subconscious, it becomes a slippery slope. And peer pressure is acute,” says Anasuya, a PhD scholar.

After a holiday in Bhimtal, when her son returned and requested for a holiday in London, Anasuya again had some explaining to do. “He wasn’t even aware of the concept of a foreign holiday. But he learned about it from friends who had holidayed in London and Dubai while we went to Bhimtal.” She dodged the query when she tasked Shay with spotting London on the globe.

However, when he turned six, Anasuya and her husband sat Shay down to break down the relative concept of what constitutes “expensive” for their family. A Hamleys toy, for instance, could not be a frequent indulgence. The dynamics of household expenses and the need to cap unnecessary expenditure became part of conversation.

“What do you think about money?” Anasuya recently asked her seven-year-old. He responded slowly — CCD. The only instance when Shay handles cash on his own is on Mondays, when the school lets them buy goodies for a maximum of ₹100 from the Café Coffee Day on campus. Money is exchanged for coupons. After the boy spent ₹100 on two successive Mondays, the parents talked to him about being judicious. “Since then, he has used coupons worth ₹100 to buy snacks over three weeks,” says Anasuya. But she still gets that occasional query — “When can we buy an expensive toy, mummy?”

Medhavi Parmar, a businesswoman and mother of a six-year-old, breaks it down to how the parents choose to be. She considers it imperative for parents to hold their ground. Her son attends a top school in Delhi NCR and she gets queried on high-end cars and posh homes. “I have tried to show I’m okay driving a small car and not staying in the swankiest apartment in town.” Her son has attended birthday parties at five-star hotels and returned with gifts more expensive than the presents they send out. But she has chosen to throw low-profile parties and hopes her son too will learn to be comfortable in his skin. “I don’t know how money will influence his adolescence. But at the moment, we’re okay.”

Not all parents manage to hold their own. Roma Kumar, clinical psychologist at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, has met a few. Eight- and nine-year-olds have grudged parents their “inability to work harder and save more” for fancier holidays and cars. Children are often brought in with behavioural or academic problems, but conversations also reveal money to be an issue. A seven-year-old she recently met had ordered speakers worth ₹18,000 on his parent’s card from Amazon. “The parents realised something was wrong. But at times, they get embarrassed and work to grant the child’s wish. They often do not negotiate or be firm,” says Kumar.

Vinita Bhargava, an associate professor in human development and child studies at Delhi’s Lady Irwin College, talks about Jean Piaget and Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky, two psychologists who have put their minds to how children understand concepts. In normal circumstances, it is not till a child is 12 or 13 that they begin to understand money at an operational level. “Till then adults and their conversations aid children, though they might be familiar with money as a tool of exchange,” says Bhargava.

And if my daughter with her rudimentary money gyan thinks I shouldn’t “waste” it, I can take a fair guess as to who her adult guiding light is.

Published on May 12, 2017

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