Gurdjieff International Review

Children and Money

By Lillian Firestone

The following excerpt is from the author’s forthcoming book, Beginning to See: Children and the 4th Way. It describes work with children as part of the Gurdjieff Foundation’s program in New York.

Money is the blood of society, Mr. Gurdjieff told us, and one of life’s driving forces. Neutral in itself, neither good nor evil, the power of money permeates our social and personal relationships, openly and in myriad guises, and this makes it an essential subject in our study of ourselves. The aim is to expose the subterranean layers of belief, of imagination, dreams and fantasy that give money its power over us.

The Children’s Team, as it was called, was usually comprised of about eight adults who worked with twenty-five or so children on crafts and other projects along lines indicated by Mr. Gurdjieff. Money provided opportunities for self-study for adults and children alike. The team hoped to offer a modest corrective to the idea that children should be shielded from money as something beyond their grasp. By creating special conditions that enabled children to study their relationships to money, we hoped they would discover how they could control this potent force, how to be free enough to use it without undue fear or awe of its inherent power.

When the subject of money came up, the children were honest. They were fascinated by it and admitted it. Money was real and, despite what adults said, they knew it had a powerful hold on everyone. They had only to ask their parents for some to experience first-hand that this was stuff that mattered. They were always eager to work on our fund-raising activities—they wanted access to one of those big forces that shaped adult life, and they were perfectly willing to work as hard as necessary to earn it. It seemed to add another level of interest to what they were otherwise quite content to do just for the love of the craft itself. Earning money was a way of gauging their efforts in the world, and this challenged them.

We kept to the tradition of raising money though the sale of craft objects we had made ourselves, though occasionally we added “white elephant” tables with donated items such as dishes, toys, appliances, and various odds and ends. There, our young salespeople could make first-hand observations. People varied. Some wanted bargains. Others just wanted attention or the friendliness of the young cashiers, and they’d buy almost anything just to keep the contact going.

The children were always allowed to buy things, but at one sale we proposed a task: buy only what remains unsold at the end of the day. This condition was accepted by the children but soon ignored. They engaged in a brisk clandestine trade of bargains from their various tables, for the boxed games priced at one dollar, the working toys, the more interesting junk. They reported later that a kind of fever had gripped them, particularly the younger ones, and they simply could not allow someone else to buy and take away the toys they coveted. They were able to glimpse what controlled them in that moment—and how a little bit of stuff could become their master. They discovered greed.

Rather than rejecting what is considered “bad,” Mr. Gurdjieff’s methods include using the contradictions of our many traits to understand ourselves more deeply and to acknowledge our inner reality as it is. This could lead to a contact with our deeply buried conscience and perhaps an eventual freedom from some of the myriad features of our inner slavery.

The banal recurring events of everyday life were the ideal means for such a study.

Madame de Salzmann related: one day, when her young son Michel wanted money to buy some special treat, Mr. Gurdjieff happened to hear the request and said, “Michel, you can keep anything I give you as long as you can add it up.” Michel was eager for the challenge. “Put out your hand,” Mr. Gurdjieff said, and he began slowly laying money in the boy’s open palm. First, there were small coins, one franc, two francs. Michel added them up and happily sang out the total. Then Mr. Gurdjieff increased the pace. He added five, ten, twenty franc notes while Michel struggled to keep the addition going. As long as he kept his attention, Michel knew he could continue to count. But as the pace of cascading money quickened, fear of losing it began distracting him. Faster and faster the notes came until his eyes almost bulged with the effort. When he finally lost count, the game ended with what he had been able to tally. He also kept for a lifetime the impression of that struggle within him of greed and fear—and of something else that was able to observe the battle.

Imposing specific behaviors on a child can usually produce desired results through repeated conditioning, but this creates an adult with automatic morality, not an individual conscience. When Mr. Gurdjieff sailed to Paris on an ocean liner in 1933 with some of his students, eight-year-old Michel made his way to the shipboard casino. Trying his luck at roulette with twenty-five cents, he suddenly found his change doubling and redoubling as an amused semi-circle of adults cheered him on. By the time his mother found him, he had amassed $280, a substantial sum in those days. Madame de Salzmann did not want to be unfair by simply taking the money away from him, yet she felt that allowing him to keep it would leave him with the na´ve impression that something could be had without effort and that it is not always necessary to pay for what one receives. She asked for Mr. Gurdjieff’s advice. He thought it over and sent for Michel.

Mr. Gurdjieff truthfully explained the group’s precarious finances to the boy and noted that as soon as they landed, he had to meet pressing bills. Michel asked how much was needed and Mr. Gurdjieff named a figure. It was exactly the sum Michel had won. After a few moments of reflection, Michel reported that he had that much money himself and would be very proud to lend it to Mr. Gurdjieff. His unexpected windfall enabled him to help the group in an adult way, to be a man. It made him feel big, while any moralizing about the evils of gambling would have made him feel guilty and small. He had been given the opportunity to choose.

“Everything must come from the child,” Madame de Salzmann urged, a most important principle which meant that children must always be offered a choice. Seemingly risky in the short run, proposing choices accomplished a great deal on a deeper level. In practice, however, giving children choice demanded much more from the adults. We needed to understand why it was important and then remember to offer it and live with the results.

Our long summer camping trips offered perfect conditions for the children to study their relationships to money and for the adults to practice abiding with the consequences. Every few days, one child was designated our treasurer and given all the trip funds to administer. The treasurer had to safeguard all monies and dole them out for supplies. As a point of honor, the adults also handed their personal money to the treasurer. We had to ask his or her permission to draw on our accounts to make personal purchases—if we could make a convincing case for the need. This balanced the disparity between child and adult and reminded us how much we grown-ups relished control.

One of the greatest challenges for the treasurer was to keep a daily total of all expenses. Rounded numbers were not accepted—all receipts had to match to the penny. If the young treasurer was having too hard a time, he or she was given an older assistant. If the treasurer was having too easy a time, we might also provide an assistant, as this “help” often produced a crisis which offered many insights. There are many images of the treasurer sitting on some fallen log, surrounded by ribbons of supermarket receipts, adding and re-adding columns of figures. Control of the purse was too great a power to relinquish willingly, so the children struggled and produced a daily balance down to the last penny, sometimes only late at night. Carson, then age 13, remembers being treasurer.

I found an empty cardboard shoe box for all the trip cash. My friends, former treasurers, argued with my choice. “Don’t use a box, its too big,” they urged. “Use a wallet, get a bag with a zipper, get something you can fit in your pocket, strap a pouch around your waist.” The suggestions went on but I refused to be persuaded. I liked the shoe box. There was plenty of room for the money and also the receipts, a small notebook, pencils and the change I needed as part of my job.

We made a rare stop at a motel. In the morning, our departure for some exciting day trip was announced and the rooms emptied almost instantaneously as everyone scrambled for their places in the cars. Several hours later I remembered the shoe box. Iádidn’t have it. I thought I had left it on the bed.

Since all the trip money was in the box, my car drove back to the motel in a hurry. When the rest of the caravan returned later, I was quite desperate. I had turned my room upside down and now got all the others to help me tear their rooms apart in the hope that I might carelessly have put the box of money somewhere else. The hotel staff was queried tactfully, but no one had found the box. That night, at our big general meeting, I had to give my account of leaving the shoe box and my unsuccessful attempt to find it. There was a lot of drama. How was the money to be replaced? Could the trip go on? Many opinions were given. At last Paul spoke. He had been the last to leave the hotel and had checked all the children’s doors to see if they were locked. Finding my door still open, he went in and took the abandoned shoe box under his protection. He now produced it, contents intact.

Everyone was happy. The trip could go on. “But what about the treasurer?” asked Peggy Flinsch [one of the adults]. “Do you want the treasurer to continue, or is it time to choose someone else? You must decided together and then tell us.” She got up and left the room, trailed by the other adults, and me. It didn’t take long, although it seemed like an eternity. I guess the kids felt I had suffered enough. They let me keep the job.

I loved those trips. And being treasurer, losing the money—I’ll never forget that. Every mistake was precious, provided I faced it.

Our exercises with money allowed for the gradual development of the children’s own judgment, supported their ability to stand on their own feet and taught them to have the courage of their convictions. If encouraged in childhood, the impulse of acting from one’s own belief and facing the consequences can lead to a truly independent and inwardly free adult. We observed this effect many times through the years.

In New York one year, late in August before school started, the teenagers were invited to spend a weekend with Peggy. One of them remembers:

Our destination was announced that morning as Montauk, a modest beach resort on the eastern tip of Long Island. We were seven, four boys, three girls, Peggy at the wheel for the three-hour drive, all of us watching the dense buildings of the city give way to one-story houses, then glimpses of sea inlets, stretches of sand, shrubs, shore, and finally the ocean itself. It was the off season and a motel managed by one of Peggy’s friends was virtually empty. We would stay there.

After sandwiches and an impromptu meeting, Peggy suggested that we try an experiment in self-sufficiency. “What if everybody gave all their money to the treasurer, and then, each one alone, found a way to provide the means to eat tonight?” she asked. This suggestion was greeted with silence as we thought over what that could mean. “And if we don’t come up with anything, we’ll just do without supper,” Peggy added.

We all agreed. We gave our money to the treasurer and filed out the door.

I must have been fourteen years old. I had absolutely no idea of what to do or where to go. But I knew the country a little. Iáhad seen roses growing along the highway so I headed for the beach to pick rosehips, berries that could be made into a lot of things—or at least boiled for tea. I was pleased to have thought of that and I filled my jacket with berries. But rosehip tea is sour without a sweetener. I began to think that maybe this was not what Peggy had in mind. In a way, it was too easy. Maybe what was needed was for me to go into town and earn some money for food.

When I got back to the motel, only my friend Biddy was still there. I was afraid to go into town, which was miles away and there was no bus. But the alternative was to sit in the motel and do nothing. I didn’t want to fail at the task. I have never felt such an inner struggle. Then Biddy said she would go with me.

When we got to town we parted. I noticed a “help wanted” sign in a hotel and walked in. I was hired on the spot as a maid. Iámade beds and washed bathrooms, working really hard, trying to do it well. When the shift ended, I had to figure out how to get paid immediately and I didn’t want to lie. So I said that I did not have a cent, which was definitely true, and asked the hotel manager if he could pay me now so I could get dinner. He kindly gave me my wages in cash.

We gathered back at the motel, pooled what we had earned, bought groceries and had a huge dinner. After that weekend I knew deep down that I could count on myself to face any challenge. Iánever again felt like a helpless, dependent kid.

In our work together the children verified the validity of Mr. Gurdjieff’s principles: they were often able to make difficult choices with discernment far beyond their years. When they made mistakes, as they inevitably did, the principle of facing the consequences of their actions fueled a powerful inner growth, the foundation of courage, conscience and will.

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Copyright © 2005 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2005 Issue, Vol. IX (1)
Revision: December 1, 2005