I’m starting to think that there are only two extremes: children who know poverty intimately and hope for better, and children who think that the universe exists just to hand them what they need. Guess which kind of kids we seem to have?
I often feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. My kids, despite our best efforts, seem to think that they only have to ask to get what they want. It’s not like we’re showering them with stuff, or that we give in to those supermarket battles over little toys and trinkets in the checkout aisle. They are spoiled with attention – not stuff.
Most of their clothes come from second-hand consignment sales. They generally wear one pair of shoes to death and then we buy another. The entirety of their toys are either holiday gifts or consignment sale finds. Christmas and birthday gifts have a limit – a low limit, of $50 per child. Less if I can get away with it. We shop at Aldi for groceries – the discount grocery chain from Germany, who stock no-name brands you’ve never heard off and occasionally have an authentic, traditional German treat for the holidays.
They know all this. They know that when they ask for – another – marble track that we will say no. Not because we can’t afford it, but because the Engineer already has at least 4 sets. They demand a toy in the toy store, and we glare them down into putting it back – because we don’t tolerate pushy, demanding behavior at our house. We don’t reward greed, we try to give back to others, and we routinely define the difference between “need” and “want,” often to the amusement of the other shoppers around us. Short of dragging them to volunteer at homeless shelters, we’re doing everything right. (And don’t think we haven’t considered that too!)
It’s not working. Sure, they’re young, and the youngest two just don’t get it. But the Engineer should. He is generous as long as it doesn’t cost him much, and he loves sharing our money. He thinks he has enough money in his piggy bank to buy the contents of the toy store, and he has no clue how much our bills truly cost. Not because I haven’t tried, but because he has no money sense yet. I hate this entitlement attitude.
I grew up poor. Mr. Genius grew up poor. We’ve both experienced poverty at a moderate level, and we’re familiar with eating beans and rice, tightening our belts, and going without. I don’t want my kids to have to endure that, but I’m starting to think it’s the only way to truly learn compassion and appreciation.
We’re supporting our local foster care system this Christmas by buying 3 teenagers a small gift card to a specific restaurant. The coordinator apologized when she sent the email, perhaps thinking that I would be disappointed and ask to fund a more “fun” Christmas gift. I told her it’s a completely understandable gift – the teens don’t experience it often, they love it, and no one can take that away from them. It makes sense to me.
When I told the Engineer what we were getting the kids for Christmas, he was underwhelmed. “Why can’t they just go out to eat?” he asked, thinking that they might want something more fun for Christmas. I knew he would say: I was prepared.
I explained that they didn’t have the money to just go when they wanted to. And then I told him a story – two stories, actually, one from my childhood, and one from Mr. Genius’ childhood.
When I was his age, my mom and siblings and I went out to eat at McDonald’s. I don’t remember the occasion – I was about the Engineer’s age. We were excited – we never got to go! We were impatient to get to the play area and see what kind of fun things were there, and I remember holding onto the counter’s edge and bouncing up and down. We – and the cashier – were impatient because my mom was slowly counting out coins, trying to meet the total cost with what she had. She had saved up enough to bring us here, but it was mostly in coins.
It’s a vivid memory for me, and one that she probably doesn’t remember at all. I do. I remember the cashier being bratty about it. I remember the other customers waiting. I remember my mom’s slightly stooped body, hiding a sense of shame behind a brave, resolute mask. I don’t even remember what she said or did, but I picked up on that sense of shame, and my younger self accepted it but didn’t understand it. We weren’t always that poor, but when things were tight the kids understood not to ask for more than we could manage.
For Mr. Genius, the story was a little bare of details because he didn’t share much. All I know is that one Christmas when he was around the Engineer’s age, the only thing he got was a key chain. A cheap key chain not designed for kids. That was it. That’s just how it was – there was no money.
The Engineer absorbed the stories thoughtfully. He stared out the window. I asked him how he would feel if all he got for Christmas was a key chain? He told me he would be mad. Upset.
I explained that the kids we’re helping aren’t mad – they’re excited! They’re getting something for Christmas! The kids from Pine Ridge – the stockings we’re doing may be all they get. It’s important. It’s a big deal! It’s way better than getting nothing at all.
When we got home, I had all three kids go to their Halloween bags and pick out 5 pieces of candy to share with the kids at Pine Ridge. (unopened, individually wrapped, of course!) That hit home. This was their candy – their bag – and they knew they weren’t getting it back. I shared too. I brought out the hoarded M&Ms I had saved that they couldn’t have – and I put 5 in the gift bag too. We shared.
We’ll keep sharing until hopefully some compassion sinks in. Hopefully the entitlement will abate. And when they’re old enough, I’ll take them to see the refugee camps. The cardboard towns. The derelict houses and trailers, with people struggling to survive. Churches call that a mission trip – and I think it’s just as impactful to the traveler as the people they intend to help. Realizing just how much you have is an eye-opening experience. A thought-provoking experience that upsets all of your priorities in a good way.
Compassion is the antidote to materialism. And I’ll keep on teaching it until the lesson sinks in.