The Opposite of Spoiled - A Review

When I found the 2015 book, The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids who are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money, on the shelves of my local public library, I expected a book pitched to the average, middle class U.S. citizen. The city I live in is in middle America. Certainly there are some people with some money in town, but the majority of the population is a long way away from the economic stratosphere. I was surprised, therefore, to find this book pitched to the top layer of the coastal suburban middle class on the local library's shelves. When I read it, therefore, I got a vision into the economic world of another class of people rather than much for helpful advice.

The author, Ron Lieber, is a personal finance columnist for The New York Times. That probably should have tipped me off, but I read the political commentary in NYT and the paper is supposed to be pitched to a national audience, so I picked the book up.

I didn’t gain a lot of good advice on how to help my kids be grounded, generous, and smart about money. I would have to multiply my salary by a whole number greater than two to be able to implement most of the money saving and responsibility teaching tips in my life. What I did gain, however, is a better understanding of how the rich in the United States live and the troubles that too much money can bring.

Lieber’s primary audience are the very well-compensated suburban professionals who view giving their child hundreds of dollars a month for an allowance as normal. Lieber is writing to help his readers teach their kids to be sensible while they go out to eat for lunch with their friends and live a life of socialization and recreational activity that much of America only sees on television.

The intent of the volume is very good. Lieber wants parents to raise financially savvy, realistic children. The trouble is that to those in the lower-middle and lower class, the world he describes is an impossibility. Frankly, this is the sort of volume that must have been purchased because of its title alone or as an automatic subscription, because it just doesn’t belong on the shelves of the public library of Shawnee, Oklahoma.

There is still something for the average reader to gain from Lieber, despite the fact he has significantly overshot most of our income brackets.

One key takeaway is the power of advertisement to inspire covetousness. He notes that once presented with a Madison Avenue-style vision of a particular toy, experiments show that children will choose to play with the toy-possessing kids that are anti-social jerks over nice kids that don’t have the toy. In other words, advertising works and it gets children (and probably adults) to forsake their best interests to get the advertised goods. Part of our responsibility as parents, then, is to develop a resistance to advertising in our children to keep them from getting sucked into materialism.

Another strong argument in The Opposite of Spoiled is that people like to work and earn money, but that our society continues to take away opportunities for that. One way that we have done this is by creating laws that prevent kids from working. This has been done with good intent—no one wants kids working in dangerous vocations. However, the same laws that keep kids out of mines also keep them from doing deliveries for the local store, sweeping floors, or doing other menial, but value adding labor during their spare time. (Note to any haters: No one is talking about a 12-year-old quitting school to work at JiffyMart. However, an after school job would be a completely different issue.) Lieber notes that kids look for ways to earn money, like picking up pop cans and asking for paid labor around the house. This is a good thing and Lieber rightly encourages it.

A third strength of this volume is that Lieber encourages talking about finances with kids. We are too secretive as parents about how we spend, save, and give. Lieber encourages bringing kids into the conversation about which charities to give to. Of course, Lieber’s framework for what generosity is is very low (he calls one family charitable for giving about 3% of their sizeable income). However, the process of talking through giving has been good for my own family and is a good practice that others might benefit from.

In short, there is some good advice in this book. However, Lieber has pitched it for an audience that lives so far in the stratosphere that most of the people in my circle will be unlikely to benefit from reading it.

Note: I checked this one out from the library, so there is no need for me to make any claims in this space.