When my boy was very young – maybe four or five years old – we had just completed our grocery shopping when he noticed a man in a green coat feeding dollar bills into a machine that then shot out shiny tickets. He asked me what the man was doing and what the machines were for and I thought, Aha! Now this is a teachable moment if I have ever seen one! I licked my lips, certain that this would be, without a doubt, the lesson on gambling that my son would never forget.
I explained to my littlun that the man in the green coat was buying scrach-off tickets. That each ticket had a different price, and that the man had a chance of winning a little money (as in the same amount as the cost of the ticket), a lot of money (in this case, up to $500 smackers) or he could lose everything.
For those of you who remember the ‘80s television sit-com, Family Ties, you may recall Alex P. Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox. “Alex,” was a high school student who had a passion for economics and wealth. A proponent of supply-side economics, Alex’s heroes were Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. His favorite television show was Wall $treet Week and he was an avid reader of the The Wall Street Journal. My son has always had a little Alex P. Keaton in him. Maybe more than a little. For his birthday this year, he wants Apple stock. But I digress.
Anyway, at age 5, my child was positively enthralled by the machine, the lights, the magical production of a shiny ticket which he now understood could win him big bucks. His eyes were wide.
“So he could win $500?” my child asked, pointing at the man in the green coat.
“He could,” I reiterated, “but the odds are against him. Most people lose.”
My child was in a zombie-like state, drifting over to the man and the machine.
I tugged on his arm. “Would you like to go over and ask the man some questions?”
I did not have to ask twice because my child was now running towards the man in the green coat.
After introducing my son and myself, I asked the man in the green coat if my child could ask him a few questions, and he was more than agreeable.
My son had a million questions.
Boy: How many tickets did you buy today?
Boy: How much is each ticket?
Boy: How many times a week do you play?
Man: Every day.
Boy: Every day?!
Man: Every day.
Boy (incredulous): You spend $20 every day on scratch-off tickets?
Boy: Do you ever win?
Man: Sometimes. Not usually.
Boy: What’s the most you’ve ever won?
Man: Just a few dollars. Maybe $20. Usually I lose. But like they say, “You can’t win if you don’t play.”
Boy: Who says that?
Man: It used to be on a commercial for the New York State Lottery.
Boy: What’s ‘lottery’?
Man: It’s another gambling game where you place a bet on numbers.
Boy: Do you play that?
Man: Sure do. Once a week.
Boy: Wow! You must be rich! How much money do you spend in a week on all these numbers games?
Here, I apologized profusely to the man in the green coat as boy was probing relentlessly about his finances and what he did for a living so he could afford to spend $20 a day on “these numbers games.” The older man graciously dismissed my apology with a wave of his hand.
Man: I suppose one day when you are bigger, you’ll be able to figure out how much money I spend in a week, even a year, on these tickets.
Boy (nodding): You gonna scratch now?
Man: Yup. You wanna watch?
Boy didn’t need to answer. He stood on his tippy-toes at the service desk, watching the man in the green coat burn through his scratch-off tickets with his “lucky” quarter in hand.
I was thinking to myself, if you usually lose, wouldn’t that be an “unlucky” quarter? Maybe you should pick a new coin.
In a short time, the man in the green coat was down to his last ticket, which he kissed dramatically. I am pretty sure he did this for my son’s benefit.
But whatever. I didn’t care. I was so happy. I had my car lecture ready to go in my head. It went something like this: You see, son, the man in the green coat spends $20 a day on scratch-off games, which is $140 per week. That’s about $560 per month, not counting whatever he pays for lottery tickets. That’s a lot of money, I would say. I was prepared to point out that our grocery bill that very day had come to $146, so that man’s habit was just under a week’s worth of groceries for our family of three. I was prepared to discuss car payments and mortgage payments and savings accounts, the money market, the stock market, 401K plans, stocks and bonds.
And then it happened.
The man in the green coat shouted, “Hey-o! She’s a winner!”
He leaned over and showed my son the three matching numbers lined up in a row.
“Five hundred dollars!” he said, “Kid, you are my lucky charm!” he declared with a wink, “What time can you be here tomorrow?” Then he wandered off to stand in the line, I assumed, to collect his winnings.
My son looked at me and said, “I thought you said people almost never win!”
My beautiful lesson was destroyed. What was a mom to do? I shrugged my shoulders and swallowed my perfectly prepared lecture. “I guess you have to be willing to take a little risk if you want to do something where the odds are against you.”
My soon-to-be 11-year old has no recollection of this event whatsoever, but he did recently use his own $5 to purchase a raffle ticket that a friend was selling. I don’t mind him supporting his buddy’s youth hockey team, but I kind of hope he doesn’t win.
If he does, he might start asking for a trip to Vegas for his 11th birthday.
Have you ever had a teachable moment go horribly awry?