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Money Lessons for Kids: The U.S. Mint

A trip to Philadelphia ends with a family learning three personal-finance maxims.

My plan was dastardly, in a parental way: I wanted to teach my three children all about personal finance and economics by trekking them through the Philadelphia Mint.

"We don't want to go," my three children said, in an odd state of agreement. "Can we just swim in the hotel?"

Nice try. But get in the car.

My aim was not to impart a dry lesson in economic history, nor to wow the tykes with the count per day of coins that roll off the Mint's assembly lines (32 million).

I wanted to teach a lesson in the naturally surreal nature of economics, one of the three lessons that will raise a child to like and possibly excel in finance.

By complete accident, I managed to teach all three.

First, the plan for a tour of the Mint. In Lesson Number One for Children on why to be interested in finance and eventually successful: Realize that economics is not dry but, in fact, almost always surreal, which makes it exciting, notably attractive to the young and curious.

It's not a Super Mario Card, but we're talking economics here. Everything is proportional. Best of all, once you realize how surreal it is, you can start anticipating some of the strangeness, some of the breaks from routine that can make you rich.

(The Mint, by the way, was also the nation's first bank -- but with all the write-offs and bailouts these days, I didn't want to commemorate that for the young and impressionable.)

Tapping into the surreal aspects of finance produces an interested child. No surrealism, no interest. Not that there are passbooks savings accounts anymore, but when parents introduced preteens to the wonderful world of finance a generation ago, they would do it by opening them a passbook savings account, which usually came complete with a tennis racket that would instantly break.

Perhaps the broken racket was a fitting metaphor for things to come, from the savings and loans crisis to today's subprime slime. But, for the kid of that day, it was quite a snooze. No twist, no turn.

Then, we ran smack into Lesson Number Two. We got a call from the boarder of our dog (my mom) that the furry contortionist had escaped.

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Lesson Two, as anyone from a conservative financial planner to an aggressive derivative trader can tell you, is that you operate in a counterintuitive field. Anticipate the unexpected.

In finance as in life, circumstances never loiter. Be prepared for a lurch.

We had to adjust, returning home immediately with the intent of finding the dog in the woods before the dog found the highway.

Which brings us to the search, Lesson Number Three (always go against the grain).

There was a small crowd of neighbors and friends searching for the dog when we arrived. As with any crowd, it was misshapen. Most were in the south side of the woods, where the dog was seen last.

I told the kids that like any good contrarian, we had to go where others weren't. The dog, skittish by nature, had probably been scared by the band of searchers and retreated. In finance, as in life, those skeptical about where the crowd stands are those who come out on top.

Sure enough, within fifteen minutes we found the hungry, skittish, bramble-coated dog.

It was quite a day. Dog saved. The three important lessons of finance learned. Passbook rest in peace. These kids are poised for success.

"Can we still swim in the hotel?" they said.

Marek Fuchs was a stockbroker for Shearson Lehman Brothers and a money manager before becoming a New York Times columnist and contributor. For his "Business Press Maven" column on about how business and finance are covered by the media, Fuchs was named best business journalist critic in the nation by the Talking Biz Web site at The University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;

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