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I set up one of those school lunch accounts for my children. I did this at the beginning of the school year, and now every time they want to buy lunch or purchase a snack, they can just give their names at the register.

I was happy with the efficiency of this system and did not think much of it until I started receiving these “low balance” notices pretty regularly regarding my son’s account. This was during the semester, so I didn’t have a chance to deal with the situation. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I only deal with things that reach “crisis” level mid-semester. A low balance on a lunch account doesn’t rise to that level, so I authorized the service to keep refilling the card and moved on to student problems, administrative messes, and grading. 

Anyway, during the wonderful time between fall and spring semesters, or during pauses mid-semester, like Spring Break, when many other people seem to be on vacation, I use this time to catch up on doctor’s appointments for neglected health care or to revisit those problems that had not met the threshold of crisis and I’ve been ignoring.

Well, it turns out that my son has been buying all sorts of food with his new “credit account.” In addition to lunch (and sometimes he bought more than one lunch at a time -- why would a school let a child buy more than one lunch? Do they think he’s on some kind of lunch date?), he’s bought snacks (I can imagine him shouting , “A round of Sunchips for the table on me.”) and treats and drinks and so on.

I went to him accusingly, starting off by ranting that, even if we put aside the health implications here (the break isn’t that long; I have to stay on topic), this is a financial irresponsibility. He looked at me completely puzzled.

He replied that he thought he was doing exactly as he was supposed to do. He said that I got him a lunch membership, so he was just maximizing his use of it.

I explained that this wasn’t a “membership,” but an account, and each time he purchased something, money was withdrawn from that account. He asked, so it’s not like Netflix, where you can get as many movies as you want? No. He asked, what about Apple Music, where he can listen to as many songs as he wants? No. What about Amazon Prime, where he can watch as many shows as he wants, or Hulu? I’m like no and no. And then it hit me that he really didn’t understand what I meant because he lives in a Membership Economy, and I’m trying to explain a system that involves spending money for each item.

I’ve already noticed that my children have a different understanding of money than I do on a practical level. They hardly ever see me use cash, as I charge most purchases. Now, I hardly even need the physical credit card anymore because my phone has taken over that function. In fact, when I was trying to teach my daughter how to make change, it took me a while to actually find some coins. Her experience wasn’t happening organically like it did for me. I recognize that many people do not have adequate access to credit, but for those who do, how is the concept of money changing?

In The Opposite of Spoiled, Ron Lieber discusses the responsibility parents have to teach children about money, and he offers useful techniques to do so. I’m wondering, though, whether technology and media industries are working against parents in this area. As physical money (and now credit cards) disappear, and as more industries realize that memberships are their way of ensuring profitability and control, how will we teach children about ownership, expenses, and the cost of consumption? For my son, purchasing more items made economic sense under a membership model in which he thought he was participating, but not so under what was in fact a consumer model.

If the Maker Movement is about teaching people how to retrieve the lost art of building and creating, do we need a similar program for children to teach the concept of money and purchasing?

In the meantime, maybe next year I will return to the good old days of having my son bring in lunch money. Sure, it’s another thing for both of us to remember in the morning, but it may just teach him a concept for a lifetime.

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