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At the end of August, just before school started, I did what every parent dreads. I took DD shopping. Now, DD was four years old and going back to school in this case meant going to her third year of preschool. Five mornings a week, this year. When I was her age, preschool was the back yard and the meadow beyond that. Times have changed. Now, when you’re four, you actually care about backpack and lunchbox styles. I cared about whether I could avoid coming home until dinner time.

But I digress. DD and I were in Target, by golly, not the meadow.

So we’d been through the school supplies area and picked out a new backpack for DD. My ex didn’t think she needed one. Me, I was tired of carrying the darned thing because one of the straps was broken. I wanted one DD could carry herself. We ended up with the Disney Princess one – the one that came with a tutu and tiara. Of course.

As we walked through the rest of the store, we passed the toy area. And there, right at the front of the aisles, was The Most Beautiful Dress DD Had EVER Seen. I know, because she told me so. And she had to have it. No, really, Mama. She HAD to have it. It was a Cinderella dress, you see. With beautiful sparkly carriages on the skirt. And it was just like the one Cinderella wore to the ball. She HAD to have it. (And I know the look. There are different levels of want. This one was the strongest I’ve seen in her in a long, long time.)

I looked at her, looked at the dress, looked at her again, and nodded. I had, thank goodness, a half-formed plan for just this kind of event. “Well, sweetie,” I said, “that’s a very pretty dress. And still, we already picked out a princess backpack for you today, and some other clothes, and I don’t want to spend the money on that dress.”

The look of disappointment was pretty strong. Not temper-tantrum strong, but there were incipient tears. Still, she held off, ‘cause she knew from my tone that I wasn’t done.

“I’m wondering, sweetie, whether you might want to use your own money to buy that dress, since I don’t want to buy it.”

She got a calculating, joyful look in her eyes. “YES!!!” she said. “I’ll buy it myself!!” She wanted to buy it right then, and was again disappointed when I reminded her that she didn’t have any money with her. She asked me to float her a loan (though that’s not how she phrased it), and I declined, saying that I knew she didn’t have enough money saved up at home yet. We made our way to the checkout line still discussing the situation. She couldn’t remember how much money she had.

So we went home and counted up her money. She started out with $1.96, which was a lonnnnnng way from the $19.99 plus tax she needed for the dress. She got pretty down at that point. I think she thought she could never do it.

So we talked about it and came up with “DD’s Money Game.” I got out a pretty recipe card and we talked about the various ways that she could earn money already. We wrote each of them on the card:

Pick up rocks in the yard $0.01 each
Wash windows and mirrors $0.05 each

Then we talked about the other things that I would like her to do. After a while, we came up with this list:

Read Dick and Jane story $0.05
Read a new book to Mama $1.00
Write the whole alphabet $0.50
Count all the way to 100 $1.00
Write all the numbers to 20 $0.50
Sleep in your bed all night $1.00

And various other things. Then there was the tough job of actually earning the money. For nearly two months, DD focused on earning money. Couldn’t sleep in her bed all night (she prefers to climb in with me at 2am) enough to earn all the money – that only netted her about $4.00. She eventually wrote the alphabet and all the numbers from 1 to 20, but those were one-shot deals. She got her dollar for them sometime in late September.

She read me several Dick and Jane stories, netting her something like $0.55 over that time.

And there was one day when my fiancé and I really wanted to clean our cars. Not wash the outsides, but vacuum and clean the insides of the windows, stuff like that. My little Civic doesn’t take long, but his minivan? The one that hadn’t been vacuumed in a year? That took time.

DD vacuumed both cars (with help, of course), washed every window she could get to (again with help), and wiped down every surface she could get to. Net for two hours of hard work? $3.35. I felt like a cheapskate that day.

So how did DD really earn the money? By reading to me. She’s been able to read bits and pieces of things for some time, but had always preferred that I read to her. This was incentive from several different directions, though, and I let her read any book she wanted to, so long as it wasn’t a repeat.

The first books she read me were the Baby Einstein “Babies” and “Dogs” books that she loved when she was six months old. I’m pretty sure she has them memorized. “This is a a baby. Babies have happy smiles…”

But she read them to me, and she earned her two dollars for them. She read me “Splash!” which is also for very young children. She read me “Colors with Oswald.” She read “Today I Will Fly!” I recommend the last to everyone who has small children. The author is Mo Willems, of pigeon and Knuffle Bunny fame. In the end, she read me $14.00 worth of books, if I recall correctly.

Throughout that time, we counted her money regularly. Each time, we laid out the dollar bills, then counted the coins into stacks worth a dollar each. She would count all the dollars (or dollar stacks) and I would count the remaining coins. She didn’t really understand how to count money, but I could see slow improvement over time. Quarters are worth more than dimes is easy. Dimes are worth more than nickels and pennies, though, is hard. Particularly when it’s a Very Shiny Pretty Beautiful penny. That ought to be worth more, Mama, it really should.

At the end of October, we counted her money, and wow. There it was. She had gone from $18.56 to $23.61 in a single day of lots of reading and good sleep – and she finally, FINALLY had enough money to buy her dress.

I had not done anything to make the shopping part of the process any easier. And here it was, the week before Halloween. So I warned DD. We might not be able to find the dress at Target. We’ll look. And we’ll look at another Target if we can’t find it. If we can’t find it there, we’ll have to look on the Internet and then wait for it to come.

But she was ready. She put all her money in her purse and she carried it herself. The largest bill she had was a $5. The rest was singles, many quarters, many dimes, some nickels, and more pennies than I wanted to think about.

At the first Target, we struck out. We walked through the entire toy department and the entire costume area. We found Cinderella dresses, sure. But not THE Cinderella dress. “Mama, this one doesn’t have the carriages on it! It’s not the right one!”

So we stopped and had some lunch even though DD didn’t want to. And then we went on to the next Target. We walked through the toy department first, and again found several of the wrong Cinderella dresses. We walked through the costume department. Lots of pretty things, but nothing right. But wait, there’s another aisle of costumes, and more little girl things in this aisle. No, not that one. No, not that. This one?

“MAMA!!!! THAT’S IT!!!!!”

I think the whole store heard her, and I know everyone in the aisle turned to look at this shrieking, laughing, jumping, clapping child who, moments before, had been stifling yawns because it was past her naptime by then.

She carried the dress, and her purse, to the checkout counter by herself. And she laid down the dress and she watched the checker scan it. And then she opened her purse. I helped her count out the dollars. And then the coins. Some of them went on the floor, of course, but not so many that it was a hassle for anyone except me.

The checker, bless her heart, just had the biggest grin on her face you could ever imagine. The people in line behind us either changed to other lanes or stayed to watch. By the end, DD was handing the checker individual pennies until she got to $20.68. The checker was trying very hard not to laugh out loud at that point. But she counted all that money into her drawer, put the dress in the bag, handed it and the receipt to DD, and said to her, “That was some mighty fine shopping you did.”

DD replied with, “I earned the money myself!!!”

You should’ve seen that checker smile then. “Good for you, girl. You earned that money. You enjoy that dress.”

I carried DD, and the dress, and the purse, and my own purchases, out to the car. DD was, finally, starting to fade. On the way, she got a really big hug from me. “Good job, sweetie. I’m glad we found your dress.” On the way home, DD called her other mom. “Mommy, mommy!! I got the dress!! I got my Cinderella dress!!! We had to go to TWO Targets, but this one had it! I got my dress!!!” There was much approbation from the other end of the phone. DD had to put the dress on as soon as we got home, even though it was nap time. She didn’t sleep in it… but she wanted to. Luckily, we agreed that princesses don’t sleep in their ball gowns.

The next day was picture day at school. DD knew what she wanted to wear, and there was no deterring her. She wore it, and her tiara, and her ruby slippers. But… there was a snafu with the picture-taking. So DD wore the whole thing home again, and then put it all on the next morning. She was determined to have her picture taken in the dress that she’d purchased herself.

Each person who complimented her on the dress in those two days (and there were many) got the same thing from her. “It’s my Cinderella dress!! I earned the money myself!” She got a lot of approval from that, more than I’d expected. It was great reinforcement for her.

These days, DD still likes that dress better than all the other dresses that she has, whether “play” dresses or “real” dresses. At her 5th birthday party two weekends ago, she knew what she wanted to wear:

These days, DD is saving up to buy her own Hannah Montana CD. It’s not my favorite thing for her to buy, but she really wants it. She wants to count her money again tomorrow, and I’m pretty sure there’s enough money there to buy it. And she also wants to make another trip to the bank to put some of her money in her savings account. I’m glad she hasn’t forgotten that part.
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