Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

First came the great bull market, with a promise of enrichment so tantalizing that by the end of the ’90s, over 50 percent of American households had money in the stock market. The masses learned that in the long run, investing in stocks was the surest way to wealth. It was inevitable that investment fever would spill over to those for whom the long run was longest: children. Call it the calf market. And catering to it is a slew of child-oriented financial-advice books written for parents who hope their children will launch IPOs and for the kids themselves.

For those who find parents encouraging their kids to be acquisitive unseemly, be reassured by Robert T. Kiyosaki, author of Rich Dad, Smart Kid, the latest addition to his best-selling Rich Dad, Poor Dad oeuvre. He says teaching children how to “get rich” is not about anything so vulgar as money. As we know from the Citibank campaign, even banks have contempt for money these days.

No, in these spiritual times, one schools the young in the art of shrewd investing to build character, not bank accounts. Money is an “idea,” Kiyosaki’s rich dad teaches him. He warns young Robert that a person can be financially rich and yet remain spiritually poor. He insists one can only get truly rich by giving. It’s all about self-esteem and unlocking the genius, Kiyosaki assures us, within every child—if only a loving caregiver would explain cash flow to him.

Growing Money: A Complete Investment Guide for Kids, on the other hand, shows a refreshing lack of interest in nurturing the little ones’ spiritual well-being. Written by Gail Karlitz and “created” by Debbie Honig for kids 9 to 12 who want to make money, it is a primer on the rules of the investing game. You know the book is aimed at kids from the cartoons and the big print. Yet any adult who has trouble grasping why the yield and the price of bonds move in opposite directions could benefit from this book.

After all, as Neil Postman argues in his 1982 book, The Disappearance of Childhood, there are no adults or children, only different levels of access to information. Postman’s thesis holds that our modern notion of childhood—as years of helpless dependency—was a by-product of the printing press. Print made literacy indispensable, and that necessitated schooling. An adult was someone who had access to and control over information; children were relegated to the classroom, learning what their elders deemed proper.

But erase the barriers that keep information from children and the distinction between adults and kids crumbles. Postman’s post-Guttenberg culprit in the disappearance of childhood was television; which brought us the 14-year-old model puckering up for a provocative lipstick ad. Now these girl-women have been joined by pimply adolescents hunting stock tips on the Net.

TV diminishes the difference between age groups, but digital technology obliterates it. Once the tools of stock trading are available to everyone, it becomes a game fit for kids of all ages. So the next time you start feeling smug about the gains in your stock portfolio, remember: This is something a 12-year-old can do.

The law, however, has yet to catch up with this reality. Minors still cannot buy stocks. If you want to invest, Karlitz tells the babes on Wall Street, your parents have to do the buying and selling for you. And woe betide the mom or dad who stands in their way.

The message of books such as Rich Dad, Smart Kid is that parents can feed, clothe and house their offspring and raise them to be reasonably emotionally healthy. But if the kids don’t grow up with the tools to become rich, they’ve done something wrong. With the advent of kiddie investors, a new bar of excellence has been set for already burdened parents eager to give the offspring a “head start.”

In addition, the financial gurus’ advice for parents sounds like an anti-drug ad: Talk to your children about it. Draw them to your side to watch as you pay your bills. Use your children’s enthusiasm for a brand as an opportunity to awaken them to investment possibilities. Share your Visa bill with your kids. Include them in discussions of family finances so they can understand the joys and sorrows of consumer credit. When you set an allowance “policy,” Kiyosaki says, what attitude are you encouraging in your kids? Are they employees or entrepreneurs?

The right answer is the latter. The parents whose poor kids grow up to be doctors, middle managers or—God forbid—journalists, should hang their heads in shame. Somewhere along the way, they’ve failed.