Care and Feeding

I Can’t Keep Up With the Super Wealthy Families in My Area. I’m Worried It’s Going to Destroy My Daughters Socially.

I can’t afford a second home or trips to Disney World.

A house in front of an illustrated background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by PaulMaguire/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a single mother with twin 9-year-old girls. We live in a fairly well-off suburb, but we’re on the lower end of the economic spectrum there. My kids know we aren’t the wealthiest people in our community, since their classmates talk about spending the summer at their second homes or flying to Disney World every year, and some of them even have expensive smartphones (in third grade!).

But it’s always been obvious, really, as their friends live in detached homes on tree-lined backroads, while we live in an apartment above my parents’ convenience store on the busy main street of our town.

Recently a lot of big, unexpected expenses (medical, car, etc.) have come up, and I find that I’m telling my kids “We can’t afford that” way more often than I used to. Things we took for granted, like getting takeout, are becoming a rarity, too. My daughters have of course noticed the downturn. When they were younger and asked why we don’t live in a “whole house” like their friends did, I would tell them how wonderful it was that Grandma and Grandpa were right below us, how lucky we were to be able to see them every day. But my daughters are getting older, and I don’t know how to explain how things are now for us. And it’s dawned on me that as their peers grow up and the wealth disparity becomes even more apparent—since I know we won’t be able to afford the trendy clothes or gadgets their friends’ parents can—my kids might be ostracized. We aren’t the only family in our town living in the mixed-use apartments, nor are we the only family in our economic situation, but families like ours are definitely the minority. How can I talk to my daughters about our situation? How can I help them feel special when all their friends can afford things that we can’t?

—We Really Can’t Afford That

Dear We Really Can’t,

I don’t think 9 is too young for a conversation about money: who has it, why they have it, where it comes from, what it means. To tell you the truth, I kind of wish you’d planted the seeds for this convo when they were younger—back when you were responding to their questions about why some people live in big whole houses and others don’t. Changing the subject to how lucky they were—though accurate—was an evasive response that didn’t address the thing they were trying to understand. Obviously, the way we talk to children about money—and capitalism, and social class as it exists in our society—is different from the way we talk to other adults, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk to them about it at all. Paul K. Piff, who teaches social ecology at UC Irvine, notes that when children are raised with an understanding of these matters, they grow up to be more appreciative and compassionate. When these kinds of conversations don’t occur, children may grow up to accept common biases against those who have less. (For more on this subject, see this article in Parents magazine.) As to how you can help them feel “special” when their friends have more, and fancier, stuff than they do: Think about what you mean by special. Teach them, not just by word, but by deed, that a person’s worth has nothing to do with how much stuff—or money—they have. Start now. It’s an enormously important lesson to learn. You may have to spend some time learning this yourself, too.


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