A few years ago I gave my son a million-dollar bill. I bought it from the back of a comic book sometime in the 80’s, and I thought he would get a kick out of it. To my surprise, he got way too much of a kick out of it: he believed it was a real, actual $1,000,000.
And because I’m a bad dad, I went along with it. “They made these up until about 1900, and then they stopped,” I said, “which is why you probably won’t see any others around.”
It was fun to keep up the lie—he even taught himself math to calculate the spending power of his new wealth. “Dad, I can buy 20 nice cars or 10 SUPER nice cars,” he’d say, and I would nod, unsure how to curb his Leno-like desires.
It’s been 3 years and he still thinks he’s got about $999,970 more than the rest of his second grade pals. Sometimes he mentions it to other kids, and not in the nicest way. More in a “one day I’m going to own you” way. None of his fantasies include charity.
So here’s my problem: how do I tell him the truth without breaking his heart or demonstrating that his dad is a total dick? (He’ll learn that eventually, but I still want a few more years.)
Obviously, I can’t just tell him the truth. Not my style. Another no-no: have the bill disappear one night. He would be crushed.
A better idea: find a sympathetic bank teller who would be willing act as an accomplice. I’d take the boy and his bill to the bank to open his very own account. The teller would let my son know that the bill’s not actually valid anymore, but it is still worth $100. Then we’d use the money to open a savings account for him.
That plan is OK but has a big flaw: it extends the lie. At some point in college he’ll spend hours telling a cute girl that yes, he did have a real million dollar bill and yes, a bank accepted it. Then she’ll think he’s a doofus. I don’t want to be responsible for him not getting laid.
My comedian pal Juan figured it out:
I’ll receive a BILLION dollar bill as a gift. I’m really excited about it, and show it off to everybody. Meanwhile, our neighbor leans over to my son and, just to him, says, “Ha! Billion dollar bill. Obviously it’s fake. They never made billion dollar bills, or even million dollar bills.” My son, let in on the joke but thinking I’m the fool, will play along as if he’s always known that million dollar bills aren’t real. He’ll learn the truth, and won’t see me as a liar but just as a big dummy. Which, of course, I am.