Friday, October 4, 2013

How To Make a Quick Twenty Bucks (According to My Kids)

Last Saturday, my oldest son's soccer team had their first big win.  Six to nothing.  My 9-year old was happy because he scored one goal during the first half, and then played goalie the second half without letting a single ball fly past him.  Usually, I don’t get very excited about soccer games, but this one was pretty extraordinary.

“That was an incredible game,” I remarked to my son after all the handshakes and high fives were exchanged.  “Your defense was great.  And your teammate Gabe was a scoring maniac today.”

“Gabe was awesome,” he replied, beaming with pride for his winning team.  “He gets twenty bucks every time he scores a goal.”
I paused in mid-stride.  “What did you just say?”
“Gabe's grandma gives him twenty dollars for every goal he scores,” he replied matter of factly.  
“That can’t be right,” I remarked.  “Twenty bucks?  He’s probably joking.”
“No, he’s serious,” he shook his head in complete earnestness.  “That’s why Gabe tries so hard.”
A moment of tacit understanding passed between us before he launched into a summary of the game highlights.  I knew there would be no follow-up conversation from him to strike the same financial deal in our family.  For better or worse, my oldest son isn’t particularly motivated by rewards, especially money.  This is a good quality in the sense that he’s not especially materialistic; but it’s also problematic because he isn't readily incentivized to complete chores or improve his grades.  

Nevertheless, the price of a soccer goal wasn't all that surprising since my 7-year old had served up a similarly newsworthy tidbit a few weeks ago.  At the time, he'd just yanked out another wiggly tooth.  Upon proudly presenting the baby incisor to me, he asked why the Tooth Fairy never visited our house.  By his count, he’d already lost (rather unceremoniously in his opinion) five whole teeth before realizing that other kids were getting paid for something he’d inadvertently given away for free.
“So, can you ask the Tooth Fairy to come tonight?” he suggested eagerly.  “How much do you think she’ll bring me?”
“Let me think about this," I replied slowly.  "I seem to recall it was about a quarter per tooth in my day.  So, given the rate of inflation over thirty years--”  
“There’s a girl in my class who gets twenty bucks for every tooth!” he exclaimed before I could finish my calculations.  I had to give the kid credit for instinctively understanding two cardinal rules of negotiation: First, control the negotiation by going first; and second, always aim high with your opening offer.
“Twenty bucks?” I cried.  “That’s the going rate for a tooth these days… Really?”
“You know there’s no Tooth Fairy,” my 9-year old interjected.  “And if you get any money at all, I wouldn’t complain.  I've never gotten a single penny for my teeth.”  
After recovering from the sticker shock, I felt compelled to apologize for never having staged a tooth exchange in the middle of the night for either of them.  The list of childhood traditions we hadn't celebrated had grown by one.  I had discounted Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny from the start, but I'd always liked the idea of a quirky lady who flies around the world on a shopping spree.  Reeling from the guilt, I pictured my second son lying on a therapist’s couch years later.  I imagined him revisiting, in painstaking detail, a bereft childhood in which the Tooth Fairy never left a crisp Andrew Jackson under his pillow and the generic knockoff Elf on the Shelf sat on the shelf all December because someone kept forgetting to move him.  
Unfortunately, despite an initial surge of inspiration brought on by guilt, I completely forgot about our conversation later that night.  While my newly toothless 7-year old slept in his bed with dormant anticipation, his 5-year old brother woke up after midnight complaining of a stomach ache.  A few minutes later, the little guy regurgitated his dinner on the floor of the bathroom.  An hour after I cleaned up the mess, he delivered the remnants of his lunch as a bonus.
Needless to say, the next morning I awoke to an indignant scream: “The Tooth Fairy forgot me!”
I rushed in and found the poor kid holding his tooth in one hand with an expression of utter bewilderment and destitution.  I fumbled through a lame explanation and assured him the Tooth Fairy would not fail him tonight.  While I considered how to remedy the situation, my imaginary grown son kept rambling to his future therapist in my head.
The next morning, he received a five dollar bill and the following handwritten note:
Please forgive me for not making it to your pillow yesterday.  I meant to buy your tooth last night, but on my way in, I bumped into the Vomit Cleaning Fairy.  She looked very busy, so I decided to wait one day to visit you.  I see you've left me a nice tooth, and I am pleased to give you five dollars for it.  Enjoy!   
                                                                     Yours Truly, the Tooth Fairy
The child was ecstatic.  He ran around the house screaming and parading his newfound fortune for all to admire.  To him, this was as hard-earned as any day’s wage.  He had bravely extracted a tooth with his own bare hands and thereafter negotiated a payout that set a precedent for all his brothers to benefit.  When he finished his celebratory rounds, I saw him carefully and proudly deposit a crumpled Abraham Lincoln into his plastic bank.  
Which brings me back to last Saturday.  For a moment that day, I considered whether twenty bucks might actually represent a fair market price for a soccer goal, especially considering the buyer was a loving grandmother.  I compared the relative worth of a point-scoring kick versus a baby tooth.  (The former required skill to produce, while the latter was limited in supply and endowed with sentimental value.)  In the end, I realized it didn’t matter.  Twenty dollars, which initially struck me as inflated, simply represented one of many expressions of a parent or grandparent’s love.  And love can never be commodified.  
I also realized I was proud of my boys.  One son had always been content to score goals for free, while the other had happily accepted five dollars from an opening offer of twenty. What's more, even with over a dozen teeth lost between them, neither had truly minded that the Tooth Fairy had been delinquent all these years. To me, that alone was priceless.

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