Book Review: The Opposite of Spoiled

Raise your hands, parents, if you love talking to your kids about money.

Anyone? Anyone?

If, like me, you agree that it’s important to have open and frank discussions with your children, especially about money, and you intend to, any moment now, just as soon as you figure out how to start, you will latch on with relief to Ron Lieber’s The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money.

Lieber, the “Your Money” columnist for The New York Times, is adamant that we have to shy away from the idea that talking about money with our children will turn them into money-grubbing spoiled brats.

According to Lieber, spoiled children “have few chores or other responsibilities, there aren’t many rules that govern their behavior or schedules, parents and others lavish them with time and assistance, and they have a lot of material possessions” (10-11). In contrast, Lieber sets out the values that he feels define children who are the opposite of spoiled: “curiosity, patience, thrift, modesty, generosity, perseverance, and perspective” (12). These values, which “don’t belong to any one religion, region, or race” (12), can all be taught using money. His book shows parents how, and gives them confidence to answer their children’s questions (even the most penetrating, awkward, and uncomfortable ones) without lying.

Lieber makes a compelling argument that the world our children will face as adults will require them to be financially literate. With social media and online shopping, everything is available to buy at the click of a button, and everyone can know what everyone else already has. Tuition costs for university and house prices in many parts of Canada and the United States continue to rise. Job security is decreasing, the defined benefits pension is an endangered species, and unpaid internships or contract positions with no benefits are proliferating.

Our children, Lieber argues, will find it much more difficult to make the financial mistakes we made in our twenties and still recover.

We need to help them learn now.

Lieber’s book is full of practical advice and tips for navigating your way through the many potential money traps of parenting:

  • How to answer any question about money (especially the awkward and embarrassing ones)
  • When to start an allowance, how much to give, and whether to tie it to household chores
  • How to help your children distinguish between a ‘want’ and a ‘need’ and how to gradually give your children more control over their choices (and their finances)
  • How to ensure value for money (lasting pleasure, taking advantage of sales, coupons, second-hand shopping)
  • Counter programming: how to teach your children to be savvy consumers and advertising-aware
  • Status envy: when your children want everything their friends have and you can’t (or won’t) buy it for them
  • Big ticket/big conflict items (brand name clothing, smart phones, cars)
  • Extra-curricular expenses
  • Birthday parties
  • Even the tooth fairy (I was horrified by the going rate in some communities)

I particularly liked his chapter on allowances and chores, probably because this is something I’ve been thinking about as E. draws closer to his fourth birthday (although I decided in the end to hold off for one more year). Lieber recommends the “three jar” method, where your child has a jar for saving for the future, a jar for spending on impulse, and a jar for giving to others. Every week, your child deposits a certain amount of the allowance into each jar. The allowance is not tied to the child’s standard household chores (although the child may choose to earn more money by taking on greater responsibility). Chores are just part of contributing to the household. The allowance is there for the child to learn how to handle money in a low-stakes environment. It is a tool, just like a pencil is a tool to help a child learn how to write. Better to learn about the dangers of impulse purchases with a cheap, plastic toy that breaks in two weeks at age six than with a burgeoning credit card debt at twenty.

The book is packed with useful wisdom, all presented in Lieber’s engaging and accessible prose, but what I appreciated the most is Lieber’s emphasis on raising generous, compassionate children. Chapter Six, “How to Talk About Giving”, was my favorite, and I intend to follow Lieber’s advice and encourage E. (as he gets older) to help us decide which charities should receive annual donations from our family.

Lieber does not shy away from questions of income inequality. Although most of us living in North American society are affluent far beyond the majority of the world’s population, income disparity is in every neighborhood. Children are not blind to its existence, and Lieber argues that we cannot lie to our children about money, or avoid answering difficult questions which reveal our children know full well that we make much more – or much less – than our neighbors.

Some parents can afford to grant their children every wish. For the truly rich, and for those of us who are financially stable with some discretionary income, Lieber offers sound advice on how to make sure our financial security does not spoil our children. We have the chance to give our children more than we had, but we recognize that there has to be a limit. Lieber helps us to find it.

This struck home for me. E. is a white male, growing up in a good neighborhood in a safe city, in a stable home with two highly educated parents. He is a child of incredible privilege, and he will grow up with more resources available to him than I did. A child of two countries, he has had a passport since he was an infant. The trip he makes every couple of years to visit Granny is one that is a lifetime destination for some, and an impossible dream for many. For him it will just be a normal family holiday.

There is a fine line between helping E. understand his position of privilege and develop compassion for those less fortunate and making him feel guilty about his life.

Thanks to Lieber’s book, I feel I can walk the line with more confidence.

Featured image Sharon Drummond via Flickr.


Angela spent her early thirties trying to keep her head above water while raising her son and finishing her doctorate. With the PhD in hand and her son about to head off to school, she now has to figure out what comes next. She lives in a southern part of the Great White North with her husband, her son, and two Antipodean cats.

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  1. There’s a good interview with Ron Lieber on the Mommy and Daddy are Fighting podcast here:

    We use a very similar approach to his suggestion for allowance. The biggest difference is that we have four jars – we split between long-term savings and short-term savings. The long-term savings goes into a savings account in the bank (we deposit every few months), and the short-term savings means they have to want the same thing for 2 weeks to be able to use the money. It’s amazing how often something that they REALLY REALLY want doesn’t survive the two-week test.

    Also, there’s a nice podcast from Sesame Street that uses Elmo to teach about the three jar method: It helped use explain the idea to our kids.

  2. I admit that I only read the online article about his suggestions, but some struck me as incredibly privileged, while others were really good.
    I agree that we have to talk about money. We make very sure that our chidren know how lucky they are. We try to teach them how to use money wisely. The really unfair thing is that you need to have money in order to find out how to save money. Just during these last holidays (my wonderfully spoiled brats get TWO holidays a year) the little one spent all her allowance on the first occasion and then looked longingly at all the other things she could not have.
    But what struck me as really silly advice was the idea of giving them all the budget for things like school material at once and see them fail and not to give in. How does he imagine that to happen?
    1) You need to be pretty well off to start with, being able to hand over several yearly budgets at once.
    2) What do you do when they failed as he predicted? Let your kid fail classes becuase they don’t have the supplies they need? Let them freeze because they spent the money that was supposed to go towards a winter coat on sneakers they didn’t need?

    1. Lance- thanks for the Elmo tip! I will check it out.

      Giliell- I agree. A lot of his book appears to be aimed at families who are comfortably well off. He does make the point that we’re all affluent compared to much of the rest of the world, but that doesn’t change the fact (as he acknowledges) that this doesn’t always mean much if you’re struggling to make ends meet.

      As for the school/annual budgets- it seems unrealistic to me. We don’t receive our annual salary in one big lump sum (can you imagine the financial chaos if we did?) so why should we do that to our children? But I do think gradually increasing the amount of control a child has is a good thing. It would be easy enough to set certain ground rules (i.e. here is this much money for clothing for the next few months, and you have to keep at least this much set aside for a winter jacket).

      It’s a tough balance.

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