Buenos Aires, a city where the homeless are as abundant and as visible as the wealthy, and your dollar's value depends on where and how you exchange it, is the perfect classroom for inspring a gateway conversation about consumerism and its global impacts.
The dollar:pesos dilemma here is a particularly intriguing one for two 9-year-olds for whom money comes from the bank machine and has always had a set value.
We recently met a neighbour who is interested in our dollars. He's willing to pay more than our regular exchanger, but less than he'd pay for dollars on the blue market. We split the difference, you see. Good for him, good for us. The boys were intrigued by this elimination of the "middle man", and wanted to know more about how it all worked.
As I drew them a diagram and explained to them how those who sell pesos for dollars then take those dollars and sell them to other people looking for dollars, but sell them to those people at a higher rate, and that's how they make their money, their eyes grew wide with interest. They wanted to know if this "middle man" business was at work elsewhere in the economy...
Oh yes it is, boys! And not only that, but sometimes there are many, many middle-men. That's why an item that costs only pennies to produces ends up being sold to you, the consumer, for $10 or more at the store!
We also talked about how sometimes big companies like Walmart and Costco have the power to buy large quantities, putting smaller companies out of business.
A discussion of fair working conditions and health benefits arose (not everyone gets benefits like Mommy and Daddy, they learned. And sometimes, people are forced to work for less money than they need to pay for even the most basic things like food and shelter) -- the boys were interested to learn that the "good deal" on a pack of action figures at a store might come at a price higher than the sheer financial value.
They also wanted to learn more about kids like Craig Keilburger of Free the Children, and others like him, who were making a difference in the world. (It offered a nice connection, actually, to our Scripture passage this week, 1 Timothy 4:12, this talk of empowering children and young people.)
Oooooh, did we ever have a lengthy chat about social justice!!! And a student-directed one at that, oh bliss!
A recent example is the game "Skylander", which they had been hearing a lot about due to some cousins and several friends who play. In general, Alex and Simon don't play games with violence, even "cartoony" violence like Skylander. But after our recent conversation about the "middle man" and related topics, the boys are also beginning to notice examples of consumerism more independently, and question its value. (The Skylander giants game encourages "collecting" action figures to go with the game -- apart from the negative environmental impact of so much plastic, there is the question of how wealthy one must be to collect all the figures, not to mention the inadvertant support of child labour markets that playing along with these trends implies.)
It's a chance not every 9-year-old gets, and I, too, am appreciating the opportunity to look inside myself and reconsider some of the choices I make in the way I live my own life, as I consider the impact of those choices in a global world.