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'Needy' Children


Have I written before about my two daughters and clothes? I remember writing about my own stupid behaviour when it comes to clothes shopping, but I don't recall talking much about the girls ...

Getting suitable clothing for Himi and Fumi has never been much of a problem. We made many friends soon after coming to this country, and as a lot of them had girls somewhat older than ours, we frequently received bags of 'hand-me-down' clothing. I had been somewhat surprised to find such a system operating here in Japan, as I had previously been led to believe that "Japanese people usually hate to use second-hand things. They would much rather buy new ones ..." But social patterns have obviously been changing, much to our relief. In our early days in Japan, money was very tight, and these bags of clothes were a godsend!

The clothing was always in good condition, and as Himi and Fumi were too young to be embarrassed at wearing such hand-me-downs, the greater part of their 'wardrobe' was made up of such clothing. Of course, our family contributed to the system as well, passing on clothing that we had used for a while, and adding things that we had purchased or made.

This was all very well as long as the kids were very young, but once they started school, the picture changed. From that time on, the people who we were most familiar with were families with kids just the same age as our own ... classmates. As the children were the same age and generally the same size, there was no meaning in passing clothing around from family to family.

Over and above this practical reason though, there was of course another reason for the decline in our use of hand-me-downs. As my daughters got older, they started to be aware of the fact that this clothing was 'used', and they became less willing to wear it. Although I didn't think their idea was very sensible, I was not so stupid as to try and force them to wear these clothes. I bowed to the inevitable and started to buy more clothes for them.

But could there be any situation more fraught with the potential for trouble than ours ... a three-person family - a father and two teenage daughters? We get along together pretty well day-by-day, and I want to keep it that way. But can peace and harmony long survive such conversations as this one?

"Dad, can I have some money? I need a new 'such-and-such'." "But you have a closet full of 'such-and-suches'." "Oh, they are all too old/the wrong colour/the wrong style/no good ..."

I'm sure you know the kind of conversation I mean. The word 'need' can have quite different interpretations, depending on who you are ... Now I'm not such an 'old fogey' as to try and apply my interpretation of that word all the time. To do that would invite constant hostility and bitterness. But neither am I willing to always accept theirs ... To do that would lead to grossly spoiled children, not to mention personal bankrupcy! There is obviously a line somewhere in the middle ... but where?

It seems to me that a big part of this problem arises from the inconsistency in the way in which family income is received and distributed. My contribution to family affairs (one of my contributions) is the production of income, which as a result all 'falls' into my hands. Unfortunately for the girls, none of their contributions to family life (going to school, doing homework, helping a bit with the housework, just generally growing up ... etc.) produce any income. This leaves me in the somewhat uncomfortable position of holding all the 'power' in the household. Now although I willingly accept that by virtue of my age and position as 'head' of the household, I must carry the most responsibility, I have no desire at all to 'control' the other members, or hold 'power' over them. But because I have all the money, and they have none, that's what tends to happen. "Dad, can I have a new such-and-such?" "Yes you can ... No you can't ..."

It strikes me now, as I sit here trying to find words to express my feelings on this, that family life is actually perhaps best handled in a kind of 'communistic' fashion. What's their creed? "From each according to his ability. To each according to his need." May the gods strike me down for repeating such a revolting idea ... revolting when applied to society at large. But try applying this to a family ... Doesn't it perhaps make sense?

I make woodblock prints and write essays ... and get money in return. the girls do those things I listed above, and in return get food, clothing, shelter, etc. "From each according to his ability. To each according to his need." But there's that word 'need' again. Who is to decide what it means? Himi and Fumi ... or me?

I've been getting more and more concerned about this, and have been casting around for a solution to the seemingly irreconcilable differences in our definitions of 'need'. But this spring I found a solution (at least I think I've found one!). With the turn of the school year at the end of March, I sat them down, and without telling them what I had in mind, asked them to estimate how much money they would need for clothing for the coming year. Spring ... summer ... fall ... winter ... I asked them to look through their closet, check what they had, and then produce an itemized list of the clothing and accessories they thought they would 'need' over the coming twelve months.

A few days later they presented me with their lists. Blouses, socks, dresses, jeans, etc. etc., all neatly divided up by seasons, and taking into account their current 'stock' of clothing, and the probable change in their height over the year. The lists were a bit longer than I had expected, but in actual fact, were not unreasonable. We negotiated back and forth a bit, and I then presented them each with an envelope containing 50,000 yen, which I thought should do the job for the coming year, erring on the generous side, I thought. I attached a few conditions:

  • Store this money separately from your other pocket money.
  • Don't go shopping without planning first exactly what you are going to buy.
  • Keep the receipts, so we can look back at the end of the twelve months and see what had happened to all the money.
  • Any money left over after the year is yours to keep and do with whatever you wish.
  • If this money runs out, no more will be forthcoming. No more.
  • Whether or not this experiment will be repeated in future years will depend on how well you organize your purchases during this trial year.

Other than that, I left them completely alone. They now decide what to buy, when to buy it, and where to buy it. I have nothing to do with such decisions at all. I was a little afraid that they would go berserk with all that money, and blow it away in the first few weeks, but was pleased to see that they have behaved extremely rationally (so far!). It was weeks before they did their first shopping, and even then, they only spent a very small amount.

At this point, it looks like the experiment might well be a success. I certainly hope so, as it seems to me to be pretty good 'self-reliance' training. They are learning how to plan purchases over a long time scale, how to look for good bargains (they want to have as much money left over as possible ...), and best of all, just how to define that slippery word 'need'.

Will it really work out like that? I'll let you know next spring!


Postscript (added a few years later)

So how did it work out? Very well indeed - the year passed by smoothly, and they did a wonderful job of planning their purchases and organizing their clothes closets. And yes, they did have some money left over at the end of the year.

One thing that did surprise me was their decision to carefully husband some of the money and purchase a fairly expensive outfit (they each did this). I had been somewhat apprehensive that with their general inexperience in clothes buying, they would go for the cheapest stuff they could find, to make their money stretch as far as possible. They didn't do this - I guess they weren't quite as naive as I had thought, and didn't fall into that trap. Those two outfits - the ones they took a great deal of time selecting, lasted for years, and were eventually passed on to friends only once they were no longer wearable because they were too small. This part of the 'lesson' was just as important as the financial planning, I think.

So did we repeat the process in the following year? I'm sorry to have to say that we weren't able to - that next spring our family went through another convulsion, with the decision to have the two of them leave Japan and move over to Canada to stay with their mother.

That's a long (and how!) story, and should be told properly in another place, but here it will have to suffice to mention that their mother sees the upbringing of children in quite a different way than I do, and it was not possible to continue the 'experiment' ... I was (and am) greatly saddened by that, because the next step was going to involve not just managing their clothes budget for the year, but in sensibly controlling their money supply with credit cards, etc. Far better to learn how to do that while still young enough to have a smooth relationship with their father, than defer it until they were out on their own in their early twenties ... ripe prey for finance companies, etc.

But anyway, the experiment did indeed work very well, and I would readily suggest you consider trying such a thing if you have children of an appropriate age and temperament!