The New York Times
By: Ron Lieber
April 16, 2011
One of the best things about being around preschool-age children is that they are a blank slate awaiting your imprint. All of the big questions come up before first grade -- God and death, jail and fairies -- and most 4-year-olds will believe pretty much any answer you give them.
Until recently, however, few people made much effort to get children this age to think hard about money. Why go all pecuniary on a child who has barely mastered counting?
In the wake of the financial crisis, however, and the realization that individuals share at least some blame for the bubbles, a number of people and organizations have taken up the cause of helping the next generation of grown-ups form better habits at an earlier age.
The JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy recently expanded its target age group to include the pre-kindergarten set. A new book called ''Pretty Penny Sets Up Shop'' tells the story of a young girl who sets up a ''small mall'' in her grandmother's attic to pay for her grandmother's surprise party.
And then there's Sesame Street, which has a broader reach than any nonprofit group, publisher or even the Head Start program. This week, Sesame entered the fray, too, with a series of videos and other material aimed at teaching its audience about spending, saving and sharing.
There is no definitive proof that any of this will make a lasting impact. ''It would be 20 years before we would know the results,'' said Laura Levine, JumpStart's executive director, who served on Sesame Street's advisory panel.
But the beauty of watching young children absorb these lessons and answering their questions is that it can make you more aware of the financial examples you set. Every shopping trip and holiday gift can become a teaching moment about hard choices, patience and generosity.
So here are how the lessons break down:
SAVE The title of Sesame Street's package of videos also serves to sum up its component parts: ''For Me, For You, For Later.'' The literal representation of it are the three labels that come with the DVD in a kit that you can pick up free at any PNC Bank, which is Sesame Street's partner in the project. You can also download the labels and other print materials on the Web; I've linked to the Sesame and PNC sites from the online version of this column.
The three labels read ''Spending,'' ''Saving'' and ''Sharing.'' Children are supposed to affix them to three clear plastic jars where they can drop their coins and bills.
None of this is particularly new. In fact, a company called Snigglezoo Entertainment has been using puppets called the Money Mammals for years. They sing about the virtues of saving, sharing and spending, the very same terms that Sesame Street uses.
John Lanza, Snigglezoo's self-described chief mammal, said he was still processing the similarities and declined to comment further. Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop's senior vice president for outreach and educational practices, said it had been aware of Snigglezoo's (and many other) trademarks around the terms and noted that the words were in wide use. Nevertheless, she added that Sesame used the words in a unique way for its own specific purposes.
But only Sesame has Elmo, and millions of children are very likely to try to mimic his behavior. In the video, he's trying to save $5 to buy a ''stupendous'' ball from a street vendor. At one point, he turns down ice cream so he doesn't lose ground on reaching his ultimate goal.
This moment goes by in a flash, but it is a crucial one. It isn't easy for a child (Elmo is perpetually 3 1/2 years old) to give up something pleasurable in the moment in exchange for something bigger and better later on.
If you need evidence of this, pop some corn, grab the family, flip on YouTube and search for the (absolutely hysterical) marshmallow tests. Researchers put the confection in front of small children and tell them they can have one now if they'd like, though if they leave it on the table they can have two later on. Then, they leave the room and flip the switch on the camera to see what the children do.
Many devour the marshmallow before the tester even leaves the room, but that doesn't have to be a permanent condition.
''I think there is a lot about this process that is a learned skill,'' said Russell N. James III, who teaches in the financial planning division at Texas Tech University. ''It's like soccer or other physical skills, where you can coach them. And you want to give them opportunities where they can exercise those skills.''
That's where the piggy banks and the jars come in. And when Mr. James's 6-year-old daughter coveted the Nook e-reader that her older sister got for Christmas, he told her that if she did not touch the holiday money she had received from her grandparents for 30 days he would give her the rest of the money she needed for the Nook.
''A year would be too long,'' he said. ''Because you want them to practice a lot and do it several times under different circumstances.''
SPEND This is the easy part for children, at least at first glance. What's much harder, however, is determining what different things are worth.
Sesame Street takes a couple of stabs at this in the public service announcements that accompany its main video, where Beth Kobliner, author of ''Get a Financial Life'' (Fireside, 2009) and an occasional contributor to The New York Times, appears alongside Elmo. In one segment, Elmo has to decide between two apples and one mango for the same price.
In another, various children decide between larger sizes of six paints and smaller sizes of 12 for the same price or bigger packages of plain pencils and smaller packages of colored ones.
The ''Pretty Penny'' book has a slightly more sophisticated take on this. Penny must decide how much to sell her various items for in the mall, and she manages to do it without any help from grown-ups.
No preschooler I know could pull this off, but the book's author, Devon Kinch, said the actual prices were less important than the idea of relative value. ''The prices are just talking points for parents to jump in and talk about these ideas,'' she said. ''Some things can be fixed, and others are slightly damaged or new. It's a conversation-starter.''
SHARE Designating one jar or part of the piggy bank for ''sharing'' instead of ''giving,'' is a smart twist, as it builds on play date and preschool skills that many children are already learning.
Some parents may worry about teaching charity so soon, lest their offspring be frightened by exposure to deprivation and poverty before they are ready to place it all in context.
It's not such a leap to share money with those in your community, however, whether it's donating to the local zoo or passing it along to your house of worship. In one of the Sesame Street segments, a child buys food for cats that a local animal rescue service is caring for.
Sharing with friends in need is a fine idea, too, though Sesame's depiction of this is rather odd. Cookie Monster, who even in 2011 still has trouble with impulse control, ends up eating the dollar he was planning to spend on cookies. So Elmo hands over a dollar.
Cookie hardly seems like the most worthy recipient of a disciplined saver's largess, though the Sesame staff seem to think that young viewers will treat this as some kind of inside joke. ''He plays the role of a typical preschooler who may be having a really hard time with the question of why he can't have something right now,'' said Gary Knell, Sesame Workshop's president and chief executive. ''They sort of get the message that, 'Gee, I don't really want to be like him. But I can laugh at him.' ''
EARN The Sesame video package introduces the idea that there are lots of ways to make a little bit of money on the side if you're industrious. Elmo earns a few bucks by folding clothes and helping Luis fix a broken ice cream machine.
The ''Pretty Penny'' book ties all these themes together in a particularly linear package. With no money saved, Penny must earn the money she needs to spend on a special occasion to share with her grandmother. This was no accident, said Ms. Kinch, the author, who has struggled with debt in the past and carefully picked the topic for what will be a four-book series.
''They are constant themes in everyone's life: Do you have it? Do you need it? How do you get it and what do you do with it?'' she said. ''It impossible to teach one of the money themes without overlapping another one.''