The Value of Growing Up Poor
December 24, 2014 10:54 PM   Subscribe

My (hypothetical) offspring will know a level of privilege and wealth early on in their lives that... frankly, blows my mind. How do I make sure that my kids grow up to understand the nuances of poverty, affluence, and everything in between?

I grew up typical immigrant household-type poor-- "poor" in terms of financial assets and stability, but in a family that stressed education, curiosity, and hard work. I watched my parents navigate a new country and culture, and I can say that while I think that life could have been easier if they weren't busy struggling early on, the whole experience provided me with an invaluable education about class, education, money, and society.

As a child, I would often hear my parents tell me, "you have no idea how good you have it!" Well, now that I'm solidly on track to an upper-middle class income (and combined with my SO's income... we will be very solidly upper-middle class), I am starting to understand how my parents must have felt, seeing me grow up in far better circumstances than they did. It feels weird. I know this because I have older cousins who, like me, grew up in an immigrant household and got fancy-private-liberal-arts-educated and corresponding careers (not jobs-- careers). They are now raising my young second cousins in a bubble of wealth-- private school, tennis lessons, four-car garages, and so on. While I guess this is all that my family ever strove for (for future generations to have a "better life") and it's nice to have accomplished that and all, I also feel this general sense of, "So what? Now what?" My second cousins are good kids and are certainly not spoiled rotten, but sometimes I am blown away at how insulated they seem-- not unlike some of my fancy-private-liberal-arts college classmates.

One aspect of my question is: how do I teach my kids about privilege when they will probably grow up swimming in it?

It's not only about privilege, though. I often think about how struggle (not only financial-- my family was also grappling with cultural and language adjustments) and hunger elicits creativity, resilience, drive, grit, sacrifice, responsibility, empathy... and so what I'm trying to say is, I think that firsthand experience of certain socioeconomic circumstances instilled in me a lot of positive qualities and insight that I am not sure can be easily replicated when growing up in more cushioned circumstances. Are there, in fact, ways to cultivate these sensitivities in my children? And if not, how can I, at the very least, make sure that my kids don't turn out naive and entitled? Do we move to another country? Do we bring them to visit each of our (my SO is an immigrant as well) respective countries of origin? Do we live an artificially self-imposed, extremely modest, lifestyle? (I list all of these as examples of steps we could take that I personally do not think would work out very well.) We could encourage them to volunteer their time with the less fortunate, but I am not sure how effective that would be.

Any perspective would be much appreciated. Thank you!
posted by gemutlichkeit to Work & Money (35 answers total) 91 users marked this as a favorite
You don't have to live an "extremely modest" lifestyle to not grow up in a bubble. You could save some money living in a lower- or middle-middle-class neighborhood instead of an upper-middle-class one. That is where I grew up and I feel like it gave me a lot of visibility into how lots of different families lived. Also, restriction can spur creativity but don't romanticize it. It's also hard to be creative about school when you're distracted by being creative about getting food and shelter and money.

Other things: You can make your kids do their chores and earn their own money. You can choose to not give them everything they ask for and not keep them in the know about your finances.
posted by bleep at 11:14 PM on December 24, 2014 [11 favorites]

Make direct service a routine family activity. One of my dear friends is undeniably privileged. She and her brother grew up with traditions like volunteering at a soup kitchen every thanksgiving - no turkey dinner, just her and her family serving up food for the less fortunate. They did things like this all the time. I really think it made her world view wider and deeper at an early age and she is one of the kindest and most empathetic people I have ever met.
posted by pintapicasso at 11:27 PM on December 24, 2014 [25 favorites]

My parents did NOT buy the biggest house they could afford, did NOT buy the nicest car they could afford nor did they buy new TVs, etc very often. While my friends got cars when they were 17, I got a promise to have them pay the insurance and registration if I saved to get the car.

I think what I would do in your situation and what I did with my kids was to lead by example. I used to take my kids grocery shopping and have them compare prices and ingredients. I insisted my kids volunteer. Two of them are volunteer firefighters. My daughter is a weekly volunteer to serve food at the shelter. Like your family, I stressed education as a means to opportunity. One of my kids is a cadet and will be serving our country after graduating from college. I can assure you he can afford to pursue whatever he wants, yet he chose service to his community.

Money is not the issue. Easy access to money without being taught the value of money is. Teach values from a young age and with it give responsibility.
posted by 724A at 11:50 PM on December 24, 2014 [41 favorites]

Why would an extremely modest lifestyle be artificially imposed? It's imposed whatever way you do it. I find that the easiest way to save money is to simply split it off from the paycheck immediately when deposited, then forget it ever existed. You can do that, too.

Limit the amount of gifts you give and get. One of my fellow MeFites has a baby son and decided his Christmas presents would be "one thing you want, one thing you need, one piece of clothes, something to read" or something of that sort.

I am facing my own first challenges in keeping my kid exposed to people from different backgrounds. I send her to a local KinderCare in a low income neighborhood because it happened to be the one that had openings and was cheap. Now I'm thinking we should send her to this other local place, but I feel bad that she wold likely spend her childhood in a less diverse environment. Everything has its pros and cons.
posted by Madamina at 12:01 AM on December 25, 2014 [8 favorites]

Take them on a tour of your growing-up roots, and give them a sense of their family history by talking to them. You don't have to live in a shoebox and drive junky cars to teach your kids about the important things in life. Just be a good example.

I'm a twenty five year old without kids, so take my thoughts with some salt.
posted by oceanjesse at 12:13 AM on December 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

When your children are teenagers, insist that they have summer jobs to earn money for whatever it is that they covet, and consider requiring them to work part time while they are at university (should they pursue this path).

You will get a ton of push back, if you go this route. Other parents and teachers will tell you how this will interfere with your child's education or professional development. I disagree. I learned a lot about human nature, class, privilege, hard work, sacrifice, empathy, how to talk to a wide variety of people, putting out fires, teamwork, and so much more by waiting tables through undergrad. There is no way I would have gotten this sort of education simply by signing up for the kinds of internships that seem to fill the summers of my undergraduate students. (Nowadays, internships are required for certain career paths, but I think they should be interspersed with some paid employment in customer service.)
posted by girl flaneur at 2:13 AM on December 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

(don't have kids: this is what I feel like worked in my growing up).

I agree about having kids work. It wasn't until I was doing a $5 an hour job that it hit me that a $10 train trip into the city was equivalent to more than two hours of work (after taxes). Once the feeling becoming visceral, it becomes hard to shake.

Also, leading by example is huge. Further, talk about the value of money. Why you are buying a moderate tv instead of the most expensive one. Why you might clip coupons, or shop sales, even if you don't need to. Why certain things are treats, even if they are affordable. Why saving is virtuous.

I am personally ambivalent about the volunteering thing. To have enough resources to be able to give your time is an incredible privilege, sure. And should be treated with respect. But I saw many people who used it as a balm for justifying why they deserved wealth and privilege. It is still something to this day which I am unsure of.
posted by troytroy at 3:10 AM on December 25, 2014 [12 favorites]

I had composed a longer response but it comes down to continue exposing your kids to values, learning to say no to demands for things, but most importantly you need to choose a place to live where highly-educated families place emphasis on excellent public schools.

I've raised my kids in an upscale town with an outstanding public school system that is filled with MIT and Harvard professors and other educated people with money. It's a wealthy town filled with families who value education and work. Kids here get used Subarus when they turn 17, but they all have jobs. Some kids fulfill their community service requirement by going on expensive volunteer-vacations in Costa Rica, but most help locally and do things like the Special Olympics, food banks or Hollaback as part of their lives.

A big part of ensuring kids have grit and good values is to raise them in a place where those values are important. The kids in my town are well aware of their privilege but they also know the importance of hard work and most importantly, COMMUNITY. Had they been raised in McMansions where the norm was private school, they may have turned out differently.
posted by kinetic at 3:17 AM on December 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Ron Lieber, who writes the New York Times personal-finance column (and is a friend of mine and a mensch) has a book coming out on this topic in February called The Opposite of Spoiled.
posted by nicwolff at 3:41 AM on December 25, 2014 [9 favorites]

It's challenging, because as kids are developing, the assumption is that they are getting to know the world, that the opinions they have MATTER, their schooling is all "what do you know? What do YOU think? How smart are YOU?" And "produce the answer we're looking for!"

They're literally trying to work out the operating rules of the world so they can feel like life is predictable and that they can handle it. You don't want to pull the rug out.

These skills they're developing...learning to have a voice..having confidence in one's opinions (as long as they're the opinions we're looking for), ...hell, having an opinion...those skills are the opposite skills one needs in order to have cultural humility.

To have cultural humility, one must take a not-knowing stance, one must be suspicious of the knowledge gained from personal experience, one must admit that s/he doesn't know everything. But being an adult lording over a kid everything s/he doesn't know is just bullying. Parents who try to prove to kids that they don't know everything are terrible parents.

This is the reason your parents had to wait until you were an adult for you to have an appreciation for what they went through.

My husband grew up poor in the projects in East Harlem. He now sends his daughter to private school. We're not wealthy, she's lucky to get $35 to go to the mall, while her friend-who-has-a-live-in-maid gets $300 to go on a whim. We're always demystifying wealth and privilege. The biggest thing the wealthy parents seem to want for their kids (because let's face it, their futures are secure and comfortable) is for their kids to be excessively confident and to feel entitled to have anything they want, to believe that their gut instincts are always correct, to EXPECT to be superior to other people. It's a birthright.

We just don't believe that. We consciously point out the problems with that. We point it out in the smallest ways all the time.

For example, in traffic "did you see that? That Lexus just almost hit that pedestrian! They honestly believe that they are the only person in the world who's important!" "Ugh! That car is trying to make a left out of that parking lot, across 3 LANES of traffic, because it's just SO IMPORTANT to in convenience EVERYONE ELSE during RUSH HOUR, when she could just turn right and go around the block. And it's dangerous what she's doing!! But she really believes, in this moment, that she's the only person who matters."

We don't only point it out about rich people, but we make sure we do. When we shop in the hoity-toity grocery store, it's not hard to witness people "believing they're the only people in the world" - we point it out. The parking lot is downright dangerous because it's filled with people not looking out for other people. (We also cop to it when we're the assholes. This is important.)

We have a mantra that makes life easier: Everybody's an idiot and nobody gives a shit. Including me.

It might sound terrible on the face of it, but people are constantly not doing their jobs, not attending to what needs to be done. People get upended because they're so surprised when it happens! "The person at the DMV didn't do what she said she'd do! I'm so angry!" Yeah - it's a crap job. And everybody's an idiot and doesn't do what they say they'll do. Sometimes I'm the person who didn't care enough to follow through on something - I'm someone else's idiot.

Literally everybody's an idiot who doesn't give a shit. If you have something that's important to you - nobody is going to make it happen if you're not working on making it happen. If you care about it, you have to make it happen. And don't be surprised that Becky dropped the ball on her end. Becky's an idiot. She didn't give a shit. She couldn't care on your behalf you have to care.

If someone does follow through? You get them a present; you thank them. I know it was his job - but he didn't have to care. He could've not followed through! He's the best!

When you're willing to apply this same mantra to wealthy people, you're doing something radical. Nobody says that shit about the Golden Boys. They're idiots. They don't give a shit.

We also talk to and are engaged with the kid. The first time she went to a more-well-off friend's house, she came back and said "It was weird. Her parents don't really talk to her." another friend's house: "her parents talk to her like she's a little kid!"

We also don't care about her grades, we're not "driving" her to succeed like her friends' parents. She went through a period of being a little miffed that we didn't "force" her to take piano lessons and practice everyday. It wouldn't have worked! She's strong-willed and self-directed and she would've veered off into alcohol and drugs and defiance if we'd tried to force her to do anything. She has no doubt that she is personally to credit for her current very good grades, and she's teaching herself to play guitar now. (We will get her whatever supplies she needs to pursue a hobby, within our budget - and it doesn't matter if she drops the hobby after two weeks or whatever. There's plenty of time for "commitment" and "dedication" in adulthood - she doesn't owe us stick-to-it-tiveness just because we laid out some money. ALL the money parents lay out for their kids is a gift! Jesus, it's the kid who is important!")

I'm rambling. There's a whole epistomology and a bunch of daily, tiny decisions behind what we're doing. We're also always pointing out the ways in which the world is not a meritocracy. Because it isn't.
posted by vitabellosi at 5:14 AM on December 25, 2014 [43 favorites]

I feel like I also experienced what you went through, but I'm much younger than you are and in my first year of business school. I'm also wondering the same question but I'm not sure that I share your opinion even though yours sounds more reasonable to me.
My parents struggled a lot as first-generation immigrants, we were dirt poor and I can still remember my father biking 5km to another store just to buy flour that was 20 cents cheaper. They worked very hard, got degrees and had the chance to find internships that eventually led to full-time jobs.
But the only thing that really mattered to them was my education. They almost begged a junior high school to take me, and made me work very hard so that I could get into the best high-school in the region, then the best prep-school and finally the n1 business school. During all this time, I was free of any money issues, my parents would send me money whenever I needed, they still tell me that I shouldn't take a part-time job right now but continue to study for a dual-degree with the best engineering school to safeguard my career.

One thing my friends would tell me is that I haven't learned the value of money and the skill of managing money, but I think that having the best education and then a high-paying job removes this need as it would allow me to spend without counting money, provided I don't spend lavishly either.

What I took from this (and I'd like you to change my view), is that education and career matter the most. Health and personal development will be equally important for my children (the latter is probably what I lacked most). But the one thing I don't want them to worry about is money, I'll give them the money they need if they are on the right track to success.
posted by lite at 5:19 AM on December 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

My parents were born during the Depression and WWII, and were poor as hell. Both worked hard and became educated and enjoyed a much higher standard of living than their folks. My Dad worked as a social worker and we went to work with him. We saw folks personally who were struggling with addiction, poverty, etc. We also went to register voters in the Barrio, hung out with a union organizer for the UFW. We were in Sacramento when Cesar Chavez marching in from Delano. I was pushed in a stroller at the Mother's March for Peace. We attended church at Glide Memorial, not just for the fun Sunday Services, but because of the social outreach.

If you live your values, and work to help others, it can't help but rub off. My folks worked diligently to not live in a lily-white/Jewish enclave, but instead sought out neighborhoods and schools that were full of all different kinds of people. We were encouraged to volunteer our time and talents to causes we believe in.

So long as YOU remain engaged with causes you believe in and talk about your beliefs, your kids will do the same.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:29 AM on December 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

Teach your children the sources of the moral philosophy that your parents followed. Live below your means, but also teach your children to be good stewards of wealth and education.
posted by michaelh at 5:29 AM on December 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are plenty of poor kids who are entitled and naive. This has a lot to do with the way you yourself act -- are you materialistic and insulated? Do you or your SO look down on less well-off people? If not, I don't think you have anything to worry about.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:40 AM on December 25, 2014 [7 favorites]

I think that having the best education and then a high-paying job would allow me to spend without counting money, provided I don't spend lavishly either. and career matter the most. Health and personal development will be equally important for my children (the latter is probably what I lacked most). But the one thing I don't want them to worry about is money, I'll give them the money they need if they are on the right track to success.
I would add this counterpoint: is the point of acquiring wealth and security just to leave other concerns and people behind, and to be free of worry for your own and your family's sake? Or is it instead to be able to really help others, to build a more secure and rich world for everyone?

Also, if others in the world (even beyond your local community, as we've seen lately) aren't also comfortable, secure, and able to be as healthy as you are -- if their children aren't as protected as yours are, and if their heartfelt beliefs aren't as respected as yours are -- then your children will always have something to worry about. Even the acts of suppressing those less fortunate will corrupt those who do the suppressing, who can then never be part of a truly open society.
posted by amtho at 6:17 AM on December 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

It's easy for me to say, but I wouldn't worry about this and I wouldn't move to another country to teach my kid a lesson, unless you actually desire to move to another country.

There are plenty of entitled, naive, oblivious kids who are fall into the rich and poor categories. Just because a person is poor does not mean she has a parent who has gratitude.

Teach your children to be good people. You can still be a good person with piano lessons and nice vacations. It's great to grow up in better circumstances and doesn't have to feel weird unless you want it to. It's a romantic notion to think hungry people are more creative or driven or whatever. Truly hungry and poor people usually have no time for leisure or creative pursuits. Be grateful that you have time and money and don't feel guilty about it.
posted by Fairchild at 6:33 AM on December 25, 2014 [15 favorites]

I am raising two kids and while we are more holding onto middle class as tightly as we can I have to say...this is one of those things that I think largely sorts itself out if you pay attention. You don't need a grand scheme. I suspect you are projecting your anxiety onto future generations a bit here.

Each of my kids seems to have come hard wired for both generosity and selfishness. (And hard work and laziness.) Being in the moment with them and teaching right then is the best. Sometimes it's saying no, sometimes it's teaching them to see need and step in. Sometimes it's saying yes to something privileged...a child who is bored in public school might benefit from working harder at private.

I think if you live in line with your values and are present with your kids, it will be fine. They will, as people, also have a say in their paths.

There are regular things we do - when we go to the grocery store each child gets $X to shop for the food bank, which teaches them budgeting and nutrition and giving. We talk about poverty and work ethics and things.

But the real learning still comes when they put themselves out to help a friend, or help us do yard work etc.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:35 AM on December 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think that having the best education and then a high-paying job would allow me to spend without counting money, provided I don't spend lavishly either.

You are aware that the first thing doesn't guarantee the second thing, right?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:03 AM on December 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

I've known a couple people who've had this done to them, and we'll be following suit with our kid. This is a narrow slice, but it's illustrative of how we're going to operate (as formerly poor folks who will probably be closer to middle class than not by the time kid knows what money is)

They let ther kids know, from an early age that they won't be able to help them pay for college. College is 100% on their shoulders. They help with loan paperwork and scholarship applications, but never promise a dime towards helping them.

After the kid graduates, a full year after their out of school (or otherwise long enough to feel the reality of paying back some hefty loans), they take over the loan payments or pay down a huge chunk of the debt.

The parents of an ex girlfriend of mine did this, and they were pretty well off. She always points to that first year out of school as the time where she learned about capital M 'Money' and still shaped how she saves and lives. She's a programmer and makes bank, but lives modestly.

She also admits that if her parents had just written checks for her tuition, she probably just would have ended up with an English degree or something, and not really given a thought towards "how am I going to live after college." Since it was part of the family dialogue, she put thought really early on into what she realistically needed/wanted to do for a career.

A few families I know have done similar things, and it really helps hammer home just how lucky the kids are, and makes them appariciate the help that much more.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:57 AM on December 25, 2014 [7 favorites]

Your parents worked hard to make life easier for their kids. Don't forget that part -- and make sure your kids know that too.

Also, whether it's the Bible or Bill Gates, remember "From Those To Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Expected."

Your kids have a lot. That means you have high expectations that they will give back in some capacity -- whether through their volunteering, philanthropy, etc. Model generosity to others.

The crazy thing is that there will be things they want, that other kids have, that you think are outrageous (a brand new expensive car at age 16, perhaps). This will happen no matter how much you have. Try to avoid the "You kids don't know how good you have it," etc.

Don't let them be sheltered. Bring them to different places in town on a regular basis where all kinds of people live, and make sure they know to treat everyone with respect.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:32 PM on December 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

You could participate in things like the SNAP challenge, or Buy Nothing New month.

Speaking for myself, I think the most significant ways that I've learned to be slightly less naive in this area are 1) volunteering 2) having friends and acquaintances who are poorer or richer than I am 3) reading - fiction and non-fiction 4) I go to a UU church which is very active on social justice issues. There's a lot of conversation - and action - on poverty and racism
posted by bunderful at 5:04 PM on December 25, 2014

I grew up in a privileged town for most of my early education and I think a part of it is allowing children to be curious about the outside world. This is a interesting question but I think it's a bit complicated for me to distill into one answer but I'll try my best.

Although, it's fine to encourage children to seek out p/t jobs and limit their spending allowance but this doesn't always change how they consider their relationship to money and their life choices. For example, when I was a kid I didn't have a allowance and my parents strictly managed holiday money for me but later on I felt disconnect to it's value as I was not allowed to decide what was worth x amount or not.

Also, I don't think it'd be a good idea to artificially create a lifestyle to encourage certain factors for children as it'd be awkward once they reach say young adult and realize how the world is different from what they assumed before. It's a good idea to visit and travel to other countries because sometimes I find that American lifestyles are very insular over time.

BTW: A fair warning for how growing up under difficult or challenging childhoods doesn't necessarily indicate a positive effect on the child's future and having money isn't always mean being overprivileged adults. Instead it varies depending how the child interacts with the world around them and how they learn from it on their own.
posted by chrono_rabbit at 7:26 PM on December 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you want to see how a bunch of approaches worked out for the extremely rich, you might get some value from the documentary Born Rich, created by Jamie Johnson of the Johnson & Johnson fortune.

The parents of some of his (extremely wealthy) friends also didn't want their children to grow up without a sense of responsibility. Parents' styles and children's personalities interacted in interesting and unpredictable ways. Some of the more sensitive children seemed to end up almost paralyzed by guilt and ambivalence around their wealth, which is probably an outcome you want to avoid if you want your children to do good in the world.
posted by clawsoon at 8:52 PM on December 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can sort of be a role model for modest living even if you make a lot of money. I grew up lower middle class, but knew kids whose parents had a lot of money and a sort of luxurious lifestyle personally but made a point of giving small allowances and limiting spending towards their children, which I think is confusing or sends mixed messages. You can still drive a Toyota and live in a normal sized house and choose to save your money or donate your money or whatever you want to do with the excess. Or you can decide to live a financial life that is reflective of your income and buy expensive things. But I think it does make sense to lead by example. If you want your children to value modesty, live modestly and give them modest things. Or live extravagantly and give them extravagant things. If you go with option B they probably won't have a genuine appreciate for the actual value of a dollar, but it's more honest than rattling on about how they will be expected to pay their own way when there is an obvious safety net and obvious means. Be open about your financial choices and why you made them. And don't go the yearly self congratulatory soup kitchen trip to look at how the other half lives route/poverty tourism. Soup kitchens are great but not created for the purpose of measuring and observing difference.
posted by mermily at 9:35 PM on December 25, 2014

You will be doing the world a favor if you teach your children that as hard as you and your SO worked, as hard as your parents worked, and as much as you guys did "all the right things", there is the extremely significant factor of luck in your financial and professional success.

In my experience working with tons of volunteers, charity and volunteering often tend to come from a place of self righteousness and provide a source or confirmation bias for people who are already convinced they are more deserving and just "better" than everyone else.

But there is a small subset of people who volunteer because they recognize that people in need are mostly people who had very shitty luck. People who had the bad luck of not being loved, of growing up in terrible situations, of dealing with parental abandonment, drug-addiction, lack of role models, or mental illness.

If your children grow up knowing how important luck is in this world and have even a minimal capacity for critical thinking, humility and the openness to learn from others will come naturally to them as they get to know people around them.
posted by Tarumba at 6:09 AM on December 26, 2014 [5 favorites]

Public school.

I probably was like your kids—my dad grew up very poor but got a good job. I had a comfortable life growing up—not upper-middle class, but pretty close. My parents were very careful not to spoil me—I always had chores, worked for my allowance, and while I always got what I needed, I frequently didn't get what I wanted (and that was a good thing).

I credit going to a public school in a small, rural community that had a good amount of poor kids (or kids who were barely middle class) for giving me more empathy for what it means to not have money, a stronger work ethic, and the sense that life owes me nothing. There is big difference from being a cultural tourist (volunteering, visiting poor neighborhoods, etc.) to actually spending every day with kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds—playing sports with them, befriending them, going to their houses to play, etc.

Was the school top tier? No. In fact, it has a rather not-so-great reputation as compared to some of the wealthier surrounding communities' schools. My parents considered sending me to a private school but decided not to (which I am very grateful for).

Did I get to take 8 different AP classes? Nope. But I still got an academic scholarship at a prestigious fancy-pants liberal arts school. I think school quality is overrated. As long as the school provides a safe, supportive atmosphere, and you do the same at home, your kid will be academically fine.

Also: I transferred out of the liberal arts college to a public college because I could not handle the sheltered kids there, even the ones that had summer jobs and volunteered and etc. Their sense of entitlement—this quiet assumption that life would always provide them what they deserved—just grated on me my entire time there.
posted by Tall Telephone Pea at 11:44 AM on December 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Don't solve all your problems with money -> do the dirty work to solve problems. If they are unhappy, work through it instead of buying a present to pacify them.

Don't bail your kids out every time they screw up. If they get fired from a summer job, they don't get money from you, they need to go find another job. If their car gets wrecked, they need to pay for a new one.

Travel. See different places and how people live.
posted by WeekendJen at 12:19 PM on December 26, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you for all of your input!

Reading over these responses, it hit me that even if I had the money, I would have no desire to live an extravagant lifestyle. Even if I were a multi-millionaire, I would probably live in a two-bedroom apartment or house and drive a Toyota; I'd probably use my money to support my parents and then spend a bit on on books and art supplies, maybe an occasional concert ticket or frivolous cat calendar. Personal preference.

But I realized too, that my question was not exactly about lifestyle or being aware of one's privilege or wealth: it's not so much about those things as it is about what I should do with the overwhelming feeling of financial security and associated sequelae.

I am not so sure that an understanding of "financial instability" or understanding of what it is like "to not have very much" is something that I can instill by merely choosing to not give my kids everything they want, or by giving my kids a strict allowance, or by encouraging them to volunteer or work a job, because, as posters above have mentioned, the safety net would still be there. As a responsible and non-abusive future parent, I am not going to deny my kids basic things like healthcare and food and heat just because I think it is character-building. (But it is, or it can be. People are capable of rising to the challenge, provided that there is one in the first place.)

Another thought: knowing that there are "others less fortunate" is not something that is class- or income-specific-- there is always going to be somebody less fortunate than you are no matter what your status is. I watched the documentary "Born Rich", as one of the above posters brought up ... and it is clear that those kids are all very well aware that there are people less fortunate. My point is: being aware that there are "others less fortunate" is a matter of being raised by parents who themselves have humility regardless of financial status. That is not my primary concern. I have no doubt that I can set an example for my future offspring with respect to responsible handling of my finances, volunteering, working hard, and being grateful for how lucky I have been.

My concern is much more about how to raise sensitive, driven, creative children when they have been comfortable for all of their lives.

When I said that hunger breeds creativity, I was not referring to artistic creativity. I certainly agree that people need time and mental space to realize their creative proclivities, etc., and this usually happens only when people are not starving and have a roof over their heads. But what I meant was that hunger breeds life and street-smart creativity-- perhaps as an extension of humility, but also partly in the sense of "[to] achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time"-- I feel that people need that fire under their feet (if not in terms of time, then in terms of stability, resources, and so on) to get them thinking in more directions and dimensions.

Part of what I enjoyed so much about growing up in the immigrant community I did was seeing how diverse my family friends and relatives' approach to success was. Couldn't afford dumbbells, let alone a gym membership, and didn't have time to work out? I have a family friend who tied bags of rice onto his legs and walked up and down flights of stairs to stay fit while studying for his licensing exams. Wanted to learn calligraphy but did not have rice paper? Newspaper works as a substitute. Wanted to learn tennis but couldn't afford a tennis court membership, let alone a tennis coach? My family friends used an intensely disciplined, do-it-yourself approach; their son ended up nationally ranked and nearly went pro. I'm not trying to romanticize the whole thing-- I am simply talking about my experiences-- but I am saying that there is real value to having "not quite enough" time or resources. It is valuable to feel that failure is not an option: you assume strength, and find your way. I didn't see that intangible characteristic all that much in some of my fancy-college peers, even though many of them were unquestionably creative and brilliant and hardworking.

I recently read "The White Tiger" and a phrase from the book comes to mind: entrepreneurs are made from "half-baked clay." I couldn't agree more. Comfort and creativity are not mutually exclusive, but this "half-baked" quality is part of the reason that people like the Cambodian donut shop owners have been successful; why some of my family friends became very wealthy as contractors or via working in flower shops and figuring out the tricks of the trade to eventually start up their own flower shops. This "half-baked"-ness is why they've been able to eventually earn upper-middle-class incomes by teaching themselves niche computer and engineering skills and so on.

This is not unlike the way that the devastation of war gives rise to countless medical and technological advancements, or how children who are raised in abusive homes sometimes go on to become some of the most empathetic, insightful psychotherapists and psychiatrists (because they learned very early on to anticipate the needs of others and navigate a certain, complex interpersonal dynamic). After all, how can one be "half-baked" when you don't know chaos, loss, or hunger? Even within my own family, I can see that there is a difference in terms of drive and grit and relationship with money between even my two siblings, who were raised in somewhat different financial circumstances (my family's financial situation improved over time). Perhaps this is due to intrinsic personality differences, but I am pretty sure that environment had something to do with it as well.

I don't really have an answer at the moment. I concede that I might be worried about nothing.


One final thing that crossed my mind was that perhaps this is simply a "natural" progression of generations-- I think of the words of John Adams: "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."
posted by gemutlichkeit at 1:05 PM on December 26, 2014 [6 favorites]

One final thing that crossed my mind was that perhaps this is simply a "natural" progression of generations...

There's a less optimistic saying about the natural progression of generations that you may be familiar with: "Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations". It sounds like that's what you're trying to avoid.
posted by clawsoon at 3:12 PM on December 26, 2014

This is kind of a personal joke, but I feel like it should almost be a law that everybody is conscripted in to retail or food service to teach them how hard others work and that they should always treat others, and those who are providing them with service with the utmost respect.
posted by Che boludo! at 3:46 PM on December 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yes to retail work!

Most of the rich people I know have raised pretty good, well-meaning, caring kids but they are entitled in a way they don't even realize.

The one family I know who avoided this... I don't know how they did it, but they treated their MONEY as though it were the family business. They were really well off for generations, so I don't know if it applies, but they taught their kids that they were in charge of making sure this money went to the best use possible. Think: inherited a vast forest. You are in charge of keeping it healthy, making it pay for itself, and keeping it useful for people to use to build houses AND camp in. It's a balancing act!

The fact of having money gives you and your kids power that other people don't have, and that shouldn't be squandered. People who have influence will talk to you when they won't talk to other people. You don't even have to spend your money to get this. Simply having it is enough. So think about what you want those people of influence to hear from you? Shape the dialogue early.

Basically, if you do it right, it has a lot of power AND a lot of responsibility.

Their kids are doing all sorts of goofy things. They don't seem spoiled at all, and they're very aware of the power that they hold and they're very careful to use it sparingly. (I doubt their colleagues even know they're rich.) Every dollar is a choice, and every door it opens is influence.

That said, they weren't deprived. They have a cute little house in an area where anything besides an apartment is remarkable. They go on vacations to places most people couldn't afford. They all have great, well-cared for teeth. The point isn't to feel guilty because you have money, the point is to feel responsible for it and for its effect on the world.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:13 AM on December 27, 2014

Oh- and a big way they did this was to seek out other well-to-do people who have the same mindset. It is NOT the default, especially if they're going to school with other kids who are well off (and the ones that aren't are bigotted against well-to-do kids, just fyi. "Oh, poor little rich kid!" Like it's the kid's fault they're in a well-to-do family.)

One challenge of being well-off is that you aren't allowed to talk about the challenges of it except in circles of other people in the same boat. In regular society, you aren't allowed to complain at all. (Conversely, if you're in a circle that does nothing except complaining about how they can't get good help these days, you might want to hang out less with that one, too.)

There are some great groups out there who talk about how to handle wealth responsibly. I don't know if you're in the "wealth" group yet, but if it's really looking like your kids could inherit anything substantial, I suggest training them to deal well with it. I don't like Buffet's idea of not leaving anything to his kids, and I hope he's not being 100% literal there, but he knows his kids better than I do, so maybe he knows they won't be good stewards.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:23 AM on December 27, 2014

The fact of having money gives you and your kids power that other people don't have, and that shouldn't be squandered.

To add to my earlier comment, it also shouldn't be something you're embarrassed of. I run into that all the time, too, especially among people who have been active in social justice their whole lives and then inherit. You can't tell the world about it, because people will think you're a prat, but to reiterate- it's a tool. It doesn't need to inform your personal values unless you let it.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:26 AM on December 27, 2014

You're concerned with character. You'll have some opportunities to put your kids into situations where they will be thrown upon their own inner resources regardless of money. I would suggest some kind of a summer camp experience, as long as it's a camp that's not full of equally privileged kids. Take a look at Quaker camps and other, similar, values-driven programs with kids from a diversity of income backgrounds. Camp experiences help develop empathy with peers, social abilities, and independence. They help kids develop a sense of their own (earned) competence, set goals and accomplish personal challenges, and live well with others - they help kids learn that they are one among many, and certain behaviors will allow them to develop positive ways of being in a community with others. They will be able to participate in creative experiences and endeavors where they don't solve problems with money - they use available resources and improvise. I can't say enough about this as a good experience.

You don't mention anything about religion, but I might just throw in that membership in a church or other religious community, as long as it is in concord with your own values, is something to consider. Churches are places where people do mix in various income ranges, and those with strong charitable and social action programs constantly emphasize being of service. I like that having a church community means I spend at least a few hours a week surrounded by people who want the same kinds of things out of life that I do - compassion, mutual support, service, values that aren't about constant consumption. If religion is not your thing, perhaps there are other community groups or enterprises you believe in and could work to support as a family, together. Arts, sports, the local fair/festival, whatever it may be. Working hard together with others to make something bigger happen is a great way to convey the lessons you hope to teach.
posted by Miko at 4:40 PM on December 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

After reading your follow up reply I think you might be overthinking this question a bit (yes, I know Mefi and all). Growing up w/o the financial insecurity was at times plain depressing and tiring for everyone involved. I could see my fellow peers attend fancy tutoring programs for SATs, outside hobbies/sports, and apply to 10+ private colleges without blinking a eye for costs.

Meanwhile I'm just trying to grin and bear it as my former friend casually talked about the 50k/yr private college on her list and spent the previous summer touring similar colleges in that price bracket.

There is no imaginary virtue in being poor or lacking resources instead it's a serious negative consequence. Children who grew up w/less didn't necessarily "rise to the occasion" because it had long term benefits because the only other alternative is to fail = death. Less fortunate people will do amazing things to survive but not because of it. It's not so much creativity but desperation to escape a bad situation.

I might be misunderstanding the comment but a safety net to me sounds like a positive? Speaking as someone who virtually has none I'd love to someday study other subjects that are less profitable but not now or anytime soon.

Sorry, but a lot of this sounds awfully similar to the Horatio Alger myth aka rags to riches which isn't based on reality. Being not able to afford food just ... means you starve instead of working on the next Great American Novel. I've not read the books linked but it sounds too much of a just-so story.

As another poster had mentioned there's a huge component of luck involved despite all the hard work that people can't control. It's possible to be the bestest artist/author and die unpublished because none of the major companies are interested in your work and vice versa. The very idea how people can pursue outside interests apart from just surviving is very privileged in itself.

Side note: I don't know all the answers but I spent considerable time reading biographies, following various artists/authors, forums, and even self-help books on the idea how does one become successful. I still don't have a exact answer but only a working concept right now.

For the natural progression I don't think it'd exist but some parents have said caring less about how their kids grew up helped them out because they didn't have to deal w/overly rigid schedules.
posted by chrono_rabbit at 8:13 AM on December 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

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