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My Children Will Never Know What It Feels Like When the Lights Go Out

Image Source: Lauren Hartmann
Image Source: Lauren Hartmann

My children will never know what it feels like to come home and find that the lights are out because their parents couldn’t pay the bill.

My children will never know what it feels like to only get the bare essentials for Christmas — to see your parents re-wrap your brother’s toy truck from two years ago that they hope he forgot about, just so he has something to open.

My children will never know how mortifying it is when their mom’s credit card is declined at the grocery store, and you have to leave that cart full of groceries behind.

My children will never know these things, and that’s a good thing. Or is it?

Recently I was reading an article about the working poor, and for the first time in my life, I had the concrete realization that this was my childhood. When I was growing up, we were not well-off financially. As a child I never would have considered us to be “poor,” but looking back, if we weren’t, we were probably pretty darn close.

I knew from an early age that money doesn’t just grow on trees, and I had a stronger grasp on reality because of it.
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We lived in a very small house in the country. It was nothing fancy. I sometimes remember hearing my parents talk — on more than one occasion — about how they were worried that they wouldn’t be able to pay the bills.

I remember not always knowing if the lights would turn on when we came home because sometimes my parents had to choose which bills were most important on the priority list, and electricity didn’t always make the cut.

I recall thrift store sweaters and jimmy-rigged repairs on our ancient station wagon.

I remember receiving food from Gleaners Food Bank so we would have enough to eat and subsisting on canned beef stew and day-old bread for weeks at a time.

I remember a particular occasion when my mom finally had the money to take us for a proper grocery shopping trip after we had been living on “just the basics” for weeks. She told my younger brother and I that we could pick out a treat, and our response was to choose a banana and an apple respectively. Of all the candy and junk food in the store, we chose fruit, because that was more of a “luxury” at the time.

While there were certainly families out there more poor than us, we definitely didn’t have a lot. While my childhood was a happy one overall (a happy childhood truly doesn’t require much money), I definitely recall an acute sense of anxiety surrounding money.

Whenever class field trips or special events arose, I worried about asking my parents for the money because I knew it would chip away at the monthly budget. I remember turning down invitations to birthday parties on occasion without even telling my parents, for the simple reason that I knew we couldn’t afford to purchase a gift.

While it did feel stressful at times, I also feel like my upbringing and circumstances went a long way toward shaping my appreciation for the value of money. I knew from an early age that money doesn’t just grow on trees, and I had a stronger grasp on reality because of it.

Flash forward to now. I have a 4-year-old daughter and an 18-month-old son, and we are very much middle class. Definitely not upper middle class, but securely in the middle. Barring unforeseen circumstances, my children will likely never experience the financial hardships I saw as a child. My husband and I are college educated, thanks to the sacrifices of our parents, and as such, have been able to start our lives out with a much more secure footing.

I worry that because my children will likely not experience financial stress, it might be more difficult to teach them the value of money.
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So, while it is a good thing to know that we are providing a comfortable and safe life for our family, it also makes me a little bit sad in a strange way.

I worry that because my children will likely not experience the worry of financial stress, it might be more difficult to teach them the value of money, and it may be harder for them to see just how blessed they are. I worry that perhaps our best intentions for giving our children all the advantages will cause them to miss out on some important life lessons and a healthy dose of compassion for others, based on the fact that they can’t relate to any of it.

Despite the comfortable life our family is able to lead, I still want my children to have an understanding of the value of money and have a strong work ethic, so I am beginning now by having discussions surrounding this.

We talk about money and how mommy and daddy do jobs that we get paid for, which is how we have a house to live in and food to eat. And even at the tender age of 4, my daughter is starting to get it. We are also learning about “needs” versus “wants”. In the mind of a child, every toy and treat is a “need,” but we discuss how these things are extras and that we may not always have the money for these extras.

We also have conversations about how not everyone in the world has as comfortable a life as we do — in fact, a great many people do not. For instance, we sponsor a little girl in Rwanda and we talk about her a lot. I tell my kids what a privilege it is for her to go to school so she can learn and have food to eat  — things we take for granted. We talk about how other people in the world don’t have the things that we have and that it’s important to have a grateful heart and to share when we can. Every few months we go through the house and collect toys for a local foster care organization (“the kids who don’t have any toys,” in my daughter’s words).

Of course these are just small steps, but my children are still just small people.

Even though I can’t force my children to grow up to be kind and compassionate individuals, I am hopeful that these seeds I am planting for the future are beginning to take root, and that over the years they will grow into something truly beautiful.

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