Dear Carolyn: My husband and I both come from very underprivileged backgrounds. Thanks to hard work and some incredible mentors, we were the first in our families to graduate from high school. We attended the same Ivy League university, and now have graduate degrees and amazing jobs in our fields.
While we were students, we worked 30-plus hours a week at food-service jobs just to scrape by. The few hours a week we had outside of work and classes to study or sleep felt like a godsend. It’s not pleasant to admit it, but we both felt really resentful of so many of our classmates, whose checks for tuition and living expenses seemed to fall from the sky.
Our problem is this: While we’d both love to start a family, we’re terrified to do so. We’re now in a position where we could afford to send our children to private schools, to pay for college, to go on vacations, to do all the things we didn’t get to do when we were kids. And while it sounds like a dream to be able to give our children the world on a platter, we’re terrified our kids would turn out to be the same kind of entitled brats we so resented when we were students. I can’t imagine being able to truly appreciate the life we have now without those long nights waiting tables or washing dishes at a diner to compare it to.
Would it be fair to raise kids the same way we were raised, even if it means they might have few privileges compared to their peers?
Your hardship was genuine. Any ingrate-preventive hardship system you construct for your kids will be artificial, and kids are born with lasers in their eyeballs that make quick work of facades.
How would you have felt those late nights over a pile of dishes had you known your parents were home resting their heads on fluffy pillows of cash?
There are ways besides material deprivation to raise kids who aren’t jerks. You can teach them to handle money when they’re young through a small allowance and freedom to waste it, so they know how it feels to have nothing left when they want to buy something else. You can make it clear early on that you’ll buy them the basics and they can save their allowance/get jobs to buy luxuries, upgrades and to replace things carelessly lost or broken. You can treat them from a young age as contributors to the household, from putting their clothes in the hamper to eventually washing them themselves. You can get into the habit of praising hard work and resourcefulness, even when they fail, instead of just praising success. You can encourage them to give to others on gift-giving occasions instead of just conditioning them to receive.
You can expose them to lives unlike your own — and not just with a homeless-shelter stop every other Thanksgiving — so they see themselves through others’ eyes.
Don’t make your kids suffer; just make sense. Talk to your husband about what kind of parents your circumstances allow you to be, good and bad, then shoot for the good. (It’ll work wonders on your anti-privilege bias.) Any parent can talk values; authenticity is what makes them stick.