Why do some kids get an iphone 10 while others get a no-frills hand me down ? We teach our children that they can do or have anything but sometimes the parental purse says otherwise. Katy Gosset looks at how to help kids navigate financial disparities.
Lorraine’s* son, Josh* is like most teenage boys: keen to fit in, right down to his footwear.
“[He] wouldn’t want to be wearing something that was the wrong type of shoe. It wouldn’t have to be Nike but if they were all wearing short socks he’d want to be wearing short socks”, she said.
Some of the wealth he sees around him has also got him wondering about his own family circumstances.
“He asked if we were poor because we weren’t going overseas like most of his friends were.”
She had to explain that, while the family could pay its bills, trips abroad would be an occasional treat.
And when it came to gaming assets, both her sons could get jealous, Lorraine said.
“They say some friend they’ve got [has] X box and they’ve got Play Station and why can’t they have that?”
Clinical psychologist, Catherine Gallagher says this desire to keep up with the ‘in crowd’ or even compete with them is a natural part of development.
“There’s actually an evolutionary drive and it’s completely developmentally normal to compete. We compete to fit in.”
And humans have been at it for a long time.
“Going back to cavemen days you were far less likely to be eaten or starve if you were included.”
She said those who were excluded from the group were much more vulnerable.
“So there’s a reason why being in the ‘us’ has some advantages.”
She believed Darwin’s survival of the fittest also played a role.
“If I have more than you, then my safety is almost more assured because I have power, I have some control, I have some extra stuff for me.”
Over time, Ms Gallagher believed life had become even more individual and the communal ‘us and them’ had morphed into ‘you and me’ or ‘me versus you’.
‘So you can see how 'Keeping up with the Joneses', in fact competing with and beating the Joneses has become more important, especially as some resources have become more scarce.”
But modern society had put this natural tendency to compare ourselves with others ‘into overdrive’, Ms Gallagher said and many of our comparisons came from false images posted online.
“So we’re bombarded with images to compete with that aren’t even possible and you can imagine what grief it can create.”
These messages coupled with a busy life where many products and services were available instantaneously combined to form the Problem of Immediate Gratification or PIG, which many people experience.
“We don’t have to sacrifice something to get something else. We can just get both and we can get it now.”
In other words, not the easiest environment for raising children in.
“You go down the pink aisle or you go down the Lego aisle and if you’re feeling a bit vulnerable and there’s a sale on. There’s a whole lot of factors and you think, ‘Gosh, if I can avoid a tantrum.’”
Even if parents suggested putting the purchase away for a birthday or when the child had saved some money, the underlying message was the same, she said.
“The kid goes, ‘If I want it, I’ll get it.’”
Ms Gallagher advised parents to have a plan about what could or could not be purchased prior to even arriving at a shop.
“So, in the calm light of day, set the boundaries and expectations before you enter a high-risk situation.”
Once in a shop, if the barrage of requests began, a good strategy was to grant the purchase in principle but postpone actually buying it for a week.
"The child then gets a chance to regulate, calm down, get away from the ‘I want it’ and go ‘Actually do I really want it?'”
Of course, for some families it’s not even a matter of choice.
Tracy* has four daughters but money has always been tight.
"We don’t keep up with the Joneses at all. Ever since the kids were little, we’ve not really been able to afford a whole lot.”
And her children get that.
"They know we're poor. I've mentioned it often enough."
But after a good belly laugh, Tracy corrects herself. "We're not poor really, no."
After all they've had plenty of help.
"We’ve actually been quite lucky where people have dropped off boxes of clothes and things like that. My kids have actually fought over the clothes they want, even though they’re second hand."
“It was like 'I like that', 'No I like that.'"
Tracy and her husband have been unapologetic about the situation
“We just keep telling them they look really good and they’ve never, ever worried about what everyone else was wearing which is quite lucky because four girls, you know it’s fashion!”
Catherine Gallagher said many families didn’t have much money and some children might naturally feel down as a result of comparing their circumstances with those of their peers.
“That feeling down isn’t a bad thing because, actually, how do we learn resilience?
“How do I actually work harder to get that?”
Children also needed to cope with teasing or hassling from other more affluent classmates.
‘If we always run interference and go, ‘Actually because they might get teased I’ll get them this', how do they ever learn to deal with being teased?”
Ms Gallagher advised helping children develop a series of strategies and comebacks to suit those situations.
“Let’s teach our children to handle that and go, ‘Get stuffed, I couldn’t afford it’ or ‘I’m actually saving up for something even cooler.'”
Parents might have to first examine their own feelings about a perceived lack of wealth.
“It’s normal for kids to be inquisitive and if I’m defensive about it or I’ve got an issue about the fact my car is pretty crappy and I really want a bigger one, then, actually maybe that’s my issue,” Ms Gallagher said.
She believed the media sometimes gave the harmful message that value equated to ‘stuff’ and that was not the case.
If parents made their own peace with their financial circumstances, children would also find it easier, she said.
It was important to discuss family priorities and values with children.
“You can start giving your kids messages around ‘Hey we might not have a lot of stuff but the stuff we do have is really important and we worked really hard for it and I’m really proud that we were able to save and get that.’”
Other families might prioritise holidays and time together.
“That has value and sometimes we forget that.”
Tips for talking to kids about wealth (or lack thereof)
- If children want something at a shop, try to put them off for a week. This will allow children to consider whether they really want the item.
- Prepare for this kind of scenario before going into a ‘high risk’ situation such as a toy aisle. Think ahead about what you might say if requests are made.
- Be comfortable with your own level of wealth or (or lack thereof). If parents are accepting of their own financial circumstances kids will find it easier.
- Decide on your family priorities and values and explain them to your kids.
E.g.: while the family might not have a lot, the things it did have were valuable or meaningful and time had been spent saving for them.
Or: having stuff might not be a family priority but instead spending time together was a more important focus.
- Help children develop strategies and comebacks to use in situations when they might be teased by other children about not having a particular item.
*Not their real names.