My Kids Are Freaked Out about Money
A year after our foreclosure, my kids and I are still staying in a one-bedroom apartment — most of our stuff in storage. Although we are fortunate in many respects, and I hesitate to complain, since in general we in the United States still inhabit an affluent society, I am still bothered by many of the problems that I thought I would have solved — that in fact I did have solved — by this time in my life. I miss having a bed rather than a borrowed, hard futon; I miss having a vacuum; I miss having a soup ladle. But one of the things that bothers me most is how freaked out my children are about money.
The kids know that I’ve used up their entire college savings – a few thousand dollars donated by my mother. I also have used up all their regular savings — birthday money, Christmas money they’ve gotten from relatives, allowance — to pay for stuff like food and rent. Basic stuff kids shouldn’t have to worry about. They know that no money they keep with me is safe. It’s kind of funny because, back in the day, I was the one who shielded their small college funds from their dad and insisted they learn to save. Haha.
My daughter is fourteen, and as an American teenager she’s bombarded by ads for clothes, makeup, skincare products. She wants that stuff. I usually give her money to go out with friends so she doesn’t feel like a pariah. (I’m the pariah), but she’s got to be pretty careful about how much she spends. And she feels bad about her clothes.
My son goes away to school in New York, and when we visit him there we have to eat at restaurants. When confronted with a menu, my kids fret about cost, sometimes to the point of seizing up: they cannot make a decision. We usually get a sandwich at Subway when we’re in New York.
While my daughter can still find pleasure in shopping, it’s an unpleasant chore for my son and me. Presents, socks, clothes, supplies for camp — all of these purchases are fraught with anxiety. My son freezes whenever I need to spend money on him. He had to work up the courage to finally discuss this with me (when you have a kid that balks over a squirt gun purchase, it’s hard to tell what the problem is). He said he doesn’t mind spending his own money, if he’s managed to save some. He’s happier not spending money at all: when he grew out of his sneakers, and we discovered my old sneakers fit him, he was content to wear them.
One of the shocking revelations for me as a college student and young adult was living in apartments. Not so my daughter. I have been letting her sleep in the bedroom in our apartment, and one night when I was in that room I heard our downstairs neighbors having sex. I hope my daughter doesn’t hear this, I thought. When I finally got the nerve up to ask her about it, she blithely flipped her hand in dismissal, “Oh yeah, that. No big deal.” (This is a small complaint in light of some others’ circumstances. On the other hand, there goes innocence.)
My kids have seen their share of scary movies and taken them in stride. My son, especially, loves to watch movies with me, and we laugh off big-screen violence. But one film he could not handle was The Pursuit of Happyness. In this 2006 film, Will Smith plays a real-life San Francisco salesman, Chris Gardner, who loses his home and struggles to survive. Smith’s son Jaden Smith debuted as his film son, a five-year-old who goes through homelessness and hunger with him. The critics who called this film a feel-good movie certainly didn’t see it from our perspective. I got the DVD, and the scene where Gardner and his son sleep in a public bathroom and the scene where the boy loses his Captain America action figure because they have to get to the shelter before it closes were too painful for my kids to watch. We had to turn it off. If my son discovered me furtively trying to watch the rest (I had to get to the happy ending), he protested passionately and stormed out.
Could there a plus side for my kids in our situation? There has been already. I don’t have to remind them to do their homework — they feel a compulsion to succeed that’s linked to their very survival. I appreciate that I don’t have to worry about this, and my kids have “earned” their way into some very good schools and camps, like the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth nerd camps that they’re both attending now.
I comfort myself by considering the truly empathetic view my children take towards others who are struggling, and the maturity they have gained. They give to beggars; my daughter has used money gifted to her for birthdays and holidays to buy household items (we have a pretty good television, thanks to her). She was moved to tears when a writer acquaintance lost his housing; she insisted we let him crash on our floor for a while.
We of us who are struggling in this economy have a kinship with immigrants. There’s no complacency — we do what we can to help the next generation succeed. It’s all about the children. And our children tend to equate success with financial gain. My kids have been told not to pursue the arts; that they would have to study business or math and engineering in order to make a living. My degrees, in literature and writing, are of little “value.”
Last weekend my son came home from camp and I took him, in 100 degree heat, to see the new Captain America movie. I went to pay — whoa! Even though we were at a matinee it was $12 a ticket for us to see the 3D version of the movie. Of course we smuggled in treats and water — we rarely pay for movie-theater treats — but on this hottest of days the icees were too tempting: my son loves them and I wanted one too. I spent the $5 each for an icee: lime for him and cherry for me, and my son hissed, “you didn’t have to buy two!” But as we sat in the theater, watcing the most excellent movie we’ve seen in a while, sipping the sweet, tart, freezing, tingly, creamy ice, trying each other’s flavor, it was pure pleasure. Are these not the sensations of childhood? And I will do anything I can to fortify the humanness of my kids.
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