When I was growing up, I knew from an early age that money was tight in our family. How did I know this? Because every decision about expenditure was made carefully, from whether or not we could afford the toys I wanted, to what clothes we wore, through to our shared hobby as a family of trawling garage sales for furniture and other items.
After moving to Canberra from Albury in the late 1990s, my parents started a business and soon we were making a profit. Over the next few years, we went from a stable but modest income to comfortably middle-class, to very comfortable.
But I didn’t actually know that this transition occurred until I was an adult because my parents never let on to their children that we had more money. They still shrewdly assessed every request for expenditure and were careful to impress upon us the value of money and the need to be sensible about how we spent it. We were all told to get jobs as soon as we could and contribute to our own wants and needs with our incomes.
I was aware that some things were now accessible to us that weren’t before – like family trips overseas and bigger birthday presents, but I didn’t really understand it until I was much older and became aware that, should I need it, my parents were able to provide a significant safety net.
Recently, a friend confessed to me that her 11-year-old daughter had started making uncomfortable statements about wealth and status. She asked her mum how much their house cost. “Sabrina’s house cost over a MILLION dollars,” the little girl said, eager to know how her own home stacked up.
She also asked what their car was worth, and if they were ‘rich’.
Clearly, these conversations were happening at the schoolyard, and my friend didn’t know how to proceed. She didn’t want her daughter to become entitled or take things for granted once she knew that they had an above-average income. But it felt unethical to lie to her child.
When I told my own mother about this, she was adamant that not telling us how much money we had was the key to making sure all four of her children had good work ethics, knew not to overspend, and lived within our means.
I’ll admit that I don’t have children, but like many childless people, I have lofty ambitions of how I would raise my future offspring. I want to raise kids who are aware of inequality and disadvantage, and who actively acknowledge and check their privilege as it compares to others.
I watch the children of (very) wealthy friends grow up and am conscious that they have access to absolutely anything they want.
One friend’s son will only wear clothes that are by the designer Ben Sherman. He’s 13. Another’s child had a birthday party recently that looked about as opulent as the average person’s wedding. She’s 10.
They’re lovely children, but I do wonder if they will be lacking a level of empathy or social awareness as a result of being raised with such privilege.
On the other hand, pretending you don’t have money won’t stop your children from having a smooth and enabled coming of age necessarily, and maybe it’s impossible to truly grasp social inequality without having experiences its impacts.
I understand that raising empathetic, emotionally intelligent children is about more than just sheltering them from their own privilege, but I do wonder how you impress upon a child the fact that their own lives are not anything like how the majority of Australians live.
Canberra is more affluent on average than the rest of Australia. That doesn’t mean disadvantage doesn’t exist here, but if you grow up in a certain suburb, attend certain schools, and mingle with your own networks, you might be able to avoid confronting that reality for a good chunk of your life.
Would it be better to shield our children from being aware of their class and privilege, or is it more important to be honest and frank with them about where their experiences might differ from others?
How do parents approach raising kids who aren’t entitled as a result of having every need met with ease?