More Than Money
Issue #10

Learning From Each Other

Table of Contents

“Listening to Envy (and Other Children's Issues)”

I love More than Money because it says that money issues are not simple. As both a parent and a therapist, it's clear to me that money issues with children are not simple, and I have some thoughts about how to help young people develop a healthy understanding of wealth.

First, parents in wealthy families need to address with their children the subtle and powerful effects of envy. Everything from sneakers to medical care comes in different quantities and qualities as a function of wealth; children at fairly young ages notice these differences and report envious comments from less wealthy peers. Sometimes wealthy children also envy aspects of their friends' lives (even those from much "poorer" families), and talking about this can help them understand how their friends might envy their wealth.

Pushed under the rug, envy can ruin friendships between children, make children only get close to others like them, and/or damage the self-esteem of both parties as they over-personalize problems that are at least partly societal. Discussed openly, envy loses its charge, and become grist for the mill, part of growing up. Like trying to warn children about not taking candy from strangers, there is a fine line between frightening them too much and leaving them unprepared for the dangers in the world. However, being naive about the effects of envy from those with less wealth can be just as dangerous as being naive about the danger of getting in a car with a stranger.

Here is a sample dialogue with 8-year old Jody:

Jody: Dad, Alison wants to know why we get to go to Bermuda and her family doesn't.

Dad: Why do you think that is?

Jody: Because we have more money than they do?

Dad: That's right. Do you have some feelings about that?

Jody: Yes. Can't I just give Alison's family some money?

Dad: You could, but that wouldn't change the fact that we have more than they do. We have more money than lots of people do. Your mom and I often give money to charities that help people who have no food or houses to live in. Knowing how best to share our money is a hard decision, one that your mother and I think about a lot. Since you're asking about this, you're getting old enough to start talking about it with us.

Jody: But Alison teased me about Bermuda and sounded so mad!

Dad: It sounds to me like she is jealous. She may wish she could go and may feel mad her family can't afford it. A lot is unfair about how money is shared in this world, and I'd like to make the world a fairer place. How do you think we could do that?...

Children's questions are the natural guideline for how much to share one's thoughts and feelings about these complicated matters. The ethical and moral issues which surround wealth are very real and obvious to the developing child. If he or she is told directly or indirectly that such issues are not to be discussed or taken seriously, it can cause a very large part of the psychic life of the child to be driven underground. Just as no responsible parent would dismiss as trivial questions about sex or spirituality, so it is with questions about the dilemmas of wealth.

As children get older and begin to grasp the idea of wealth, they often evolve into questioning how the larger picture of the disparity of wealth is to be handled. I know myself that it can be tempting to dodge these questions because they bring up my own confusion and helplessness, my own residual uncertainty about my values and the choices that flow from them.

I remind myself that my job as parent is not always to have neat and clean answers, but to encourage my children's questioning. For this, we as parents have to be immersed in the dilemmas, not just accepting the rules of the culture but continuing to examine our own rules--what's right in our hearts.

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