AS A PARENT, I’ve tried to be very honest and open with my kids. My five-year-old son is a lot like me when I was a child—sensitive and intuitive—and he asks a lot of questions in the effort to understand. Because I share his curiosity, I know it’s important to give him answers that are appropriate for his age but also substantial and honest. One of the areas where this has become the most difficult, I’ve found, is with regard to money and class.
Back in the ‘80s, amid all the hype around Live Aid, I remember my grandmother scolding me when I didn’t eat my food. “There are starving children in Africa!” she said as I stared begrudgingly at an unfinished bagel. I didn’t know what to do with that information. If we cared about children in Africa, why didn’t we send my uneaten food over to them? I envisioned an airplane with a large door opening and all the bagels of America drizzling through the sky like rain.
Now, of course, I know what she was trying to tell me. That I should be grateful for the food on my plate because other kids didn’t have any. Lately, I grapple with ways to communicate this same concern to my son (and eventually my three-year-old daughter) in a way he will understand.
All kids are innocent about money and class status until they aren’t. For me, it was high school when I started to really notice the different levels of income within my community. It had mostly to do with clothes. What kids in my public high school wore suggested how wealthy they were, and even though I knew it was silly—parents’ wealth shouldn’t suggest some inherent superiority in their children—the wealthier students were far more popular. I longed for Bass beige shoes with pink soles, for long knit sweaters from Express, so I could prove I was as valuable as the wealthier kids. When I was lucky enough to have a shirt from one of the more popular stores, I considered pulling up the label so that my classmates could see where I shopped and by extension, recognize my worth. When I visited friends who lived outside of my suburban development, class distinctions became even more apparent. Some people had a double garage and several bathrooms, houses set on acres of land. The one story house my mother and stepfather bought when I was seven, on the other hand, with its one bathroom and no den, didn’t seem so special. In fact, it felt viciously small.
Once I got a scholarship to college, a lot of the anxiety I’d felt about class status fell away. In a new, diverse community, I felt valued for who I was, not what clothes I wore. After all, each student had been individually accepted to the school, which meant there was an underlying assumption that every one of us had something to offer. Not only that, but the point of college was academic performance, and I was a pretty good student. A college education, where I could focus on my strengths and take on leadership roles that suited me, changed my whole perspective on what really mattered.
After I graduated, I was grateful to get a job teaching English at a girls’ private high school, but as the months wore on, I found myself a bit jealous of my students, who hailed from upper-middle-class, if not rich families. (I learned that it’s not polite to call yourself rich, even when you are.) The girls I taught seemed blissfully naïve about the wealth and privilege they had compared to the rest of society, unconcerned that others were struggling, convinced that success in life had to do solely with their parents’ hard work and entitlement rather than any social factors.
As happens to most people, when I look back on that time and remember my meager salary, I wonder how I afforded clothes, supplies, any small luxuries at all. My boyfriend-turned-husband and I made less than half the amount we do today, but we were fairly content and passionate about our burgeoning careers, hopeful that we’d achieve all we set out to do. I feel the same way when I think back on the first year of my son’s life, when I worked only part-time and bit my nails until I got my intermittent paychecks as a college instructor. Now, however, my family is in a much better financial position, and I’m beginning to recognize that such a large financial shift in just a few years requires a mental, emotional, and spiritual shift as well.
I come from a blue-collar background, from generations of men and women whose hands got dirty and backs grew sore after each day’s work. Not only that, but because I was born to a single mother who had been forced to become self-reliant (as her mother and grandmother before) due to economic necessity, financial struggle became part of my identity. I’m proud of the things I’ve learned, the consciousness I’ve developed, and the gratitude that comes from remembering the dreams of my family. Even though I sometimes take my good fortune for granted, my past has helped me appreciate what I have. I don’t want my children to be as blissfully naïve and indifferent toward others’ struggles as those high school girls seemed in my first years out of college.
Social consciousness is part of the reason my husband and I decided to invest in a Friends education for our children. While some people choose private schools for a sense of prestige, or the idea that their kids will get ahead, we’ve chosen a Friends school because of its moral grounding; its focus on equality, peace, and giving; its emphasis on individuality and discovery as part of the learning process. In these first few months, however, as my son has acclimated to kindergarten, I’ve found myself wincing inwardly when I hear him use the word “private” in efforts to figure out the difference between his school bus and the others, or when I name the school for a neighbor or friend. They’ll know the school is expensive, and I expect to get a fake nod and a size-up. I’m not ashamed of a Friends education (quite the opposite) or how we’ve decided it is a major financial priority—not a bigger house or fancier cars—but I do feel a little like a turncoat. If my children grow up in a very different environment from mine, will it mean I have forgotten who I am and where I come from? There were plenty of times I felt jealousy or disdain for the people I considered privileged in society. Have I now become one of them?
Deep down, I know that condemning wealthier people just because of their wealth is as bad as condemning the poor for being poor. Moving into a different financial bracket doesn’t mean a person has automatically become superficial or arrogant, anymore than getting laid off means the worker is lazy or untalented. People don’t talk about the judgments they hold toward those they consider to be of a different status, but those judgments still exist. People’s jobs and titles—whether they work with their hands or at a computer—aren’t tied to their inherent worth. While these tiers unfortunately exist within our political and economic system, they don’t have to exist in my heart. Now, when I think of those high school girls I taught all those years ago, I know that having nice cars to drive and big houses to go home to didn’t mean they weren’t struggling with parental expectations, perfectionism, divorce, anxiety, eating disorders, or heartache.
This is why teaching gratitude, both to myself and my children, has become so important to me. Each night at dinner, we have a moment of silence and take turns sharing what we’re grateful for. Unsurprisingly, very little of our gratitude comes from material items. When we donate items like clothes and toys, I have my son pick out the things that he doesn’t play with anymore and would like to give away to children who will make good use of them. When my kids are old enough to volunteer, we’ll do that, too. I recognize that unless I make simplicity and generosity two of the cornerstones of my family’s value system, those amorphous “less fortunate” children I speak about will just hover in the air like my imaginary airplane over Africa. But as a family, we’re working on it. When my husband and I make choices at Christmas to limit the number of gifts we receive and instead emphasize giving, we’re working on it. When I see my five-year-old pull out his piggy bank and share with us the coins inside, I know we’re working on it.
There is no end result for the things I wish to teach my children and myself, no finish line of progress and perfection. There is, instead, a stubborn persistence toward understanding our individual paths. The level of privilege a person has—money, contacts, assets, race or gender—can make his or her path at times difficult or easy, depending on the circumstances. I remind myself that regardless of status, of time period, of where we live, we all face many of the same struggles. Deep inside ourselves, we have the desire to love and be good, a yearning for wholeness and guidance. Members of the rich, the poor, or the middle class all experience pain and loss, but there are also glimmering moments of beauty. That, perhaps, is the most important lesson of all.