with Robert Coles
Just the other day, my grandson was with me in my home, and
he was noticing things. He said, "You have two of these."
Then he noticed a third. He was counting TV sets; but he wasn't
just counting, he was taking note of his world. He was observing,
in his own ways, a kind of affluence. It gave me pause. He
was reminding me that there's a lot in this house and maybe
I don't need quite that much. The fact is, with all those
TV sets, I use only one of them. He wasn't giving me a moral
lesson; he was just noticing that there's a lot in this house.
This is a major way that children learn
about class and what wealth provides-what money, in fact,
changes for them. They notice small things, and draw conclusions.
In my profession (of child psychiatrists, pediatricians,
those trained to work medically with children), we don't
generally look at the awareness children have about money
and class. But at an early age, children sort themselves
out as belonging to this or that aspect of race, neighborhood,
et cetera, and this sorting is very much connected to money.
Their conclusions are generally based on what their parents
can offer them and what dangers still remain in their lives.
What Does Money Change?
Children of wealth tell me the obvious: that money is important
and it helps them along. Those who don't have money feel
vulnerable, threatened, and in jeopardy. Some of them handle
that by imagining ways to work and make money. Others feel
sad and pessimistic about the future. For many children,
the presence of money can energize their interests, inclinations,
and activity; it can give them strong support, conviction,
and self-confidence, whereas the absence of money can be
regarded as a measure of doubt about both the future and
But children also tell me the dangers of
money. It's dangerous, they say, "because it can spoil you,"
or it can give you so much that you're not motivated to
find direction on your own. I heard that from a six-year-old
girl. Candidly, she told me that she appreciated the wonderful
world of privilege, but worried it would make her too content
with herself. She said, "If you have just about anything
you want, you won't be able to get something for yourself."
"What's that?" I asked her.
"That's for you to find out," she said. "If you have a lot,
you're just not on edge. Sometimes you have to miss something,
or not have something, in order to want to really go out
and do something for yourself and make it your own."
Helping Children Deal
with the Effects of Wealth
If you're privileged, you're often given leeway that you
don't deserve; some people get deference and others don't.
Children pick that up. Maybe we ought to worry about that
for our children. We don't want them to be so privileged
that they're immune from the kind of self-criticism we all
need so that we don't get so self-important.
I've seen parents in wealthy homes who understand
the privileges and possibilities of wealth-the gift of it-and
the children have been taught to think of its possibilities,
in terms of generosity. They're also taught its negative
potentials and that they have to keep from being conceited,
selfpreoccupied, and morally callous. Some children are
reared with a sense of membership in a community. Their
parents are very strong on a kind of moral ethic that insists
upon responsibility and obligation to others.
If we think not just about socioeconomic
circumstances, but also the moral opportunities our circumstances
offer us, we can use our financial situation to benefit
our community and nation, as well as ourselves. The phrase
"more than money" can be a cliché, but when I think
of more than money I think of thoughtfulness, compassion,
unstinting love within a family and toward others and community,
and those are priceless.
More Than Money
is an invitation
to think of money as an enabling aspect of life-so that
one gets it and is glad to have it, while at the same time
one wonders about other matters, and maybe even takes the
money to help one find more and be more. Be more. In that
sense, the money is a wonderful assistance to moral, psychological,
and even spiritual growth and development, for both children
-From a conversation with Pamela Gerloff
Child psychiatrist Dr. Robert Coles has
spent much of his long career studying the lives of children
of differing backgrounds. His large body of published works
Children of Privilege,
in his five volume
Children of Crisis
The Moral Intelligence
He holds research and teaching appointments
at Harvard University in the areas of psychiatry, medicine,
and social ethics.
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