When my kid said we should eat more McDonalds so we won’t be poor, I revisited the theory of relativity
We were sitting at a great American food court at a great American outlet mall after a day at the Great America amusement park, when my son said something that tarnished the afterglow of a fine parenting adventure. “If we win this million dollars, then we won’t be poor!” McDonald’s Monopoly Game is back, evidently, and he wanted to make sure that McDs could be good for you. Incidentally, my daughter was having Taco Bell and I ended up with something worse than either of them.
I dropped my fork, laughed, “We’re not poor, Son.”
In the ensuing silence, which was the white noise of him reading off all the other prizes he is young enough to think he can win, I wondered why he thought that. I needn’t look far: beside us were two back to school clothes bags from the clearance aisle of an outlet store. We were sharing a Jarrito.
I needn’t look far in time, either. Earlier, I smuggled kid contraband into their rain jackets at the amusement park: apples, pretzels, gummis—shit that was gone after the second ride. I made them trade in their $8 in piggy bank change for bills to play games—I matched it, at least. Their reward for my parsimony was an outlet mall food court.
I could justify and explain all of that to him, I could go so far as saying where are you eating, what’s in this bag, where did we just come from, how did we get there, do you know how a season pass works, you want poor I’ll show you poor, pal! But I’ve never said “pal” in my life. More importantly, for a seven-year old who once said he’d rather live a simple life than earn his two-dollar allowance, there was a reason he had his perception and it wasn’t wrong.
We’re not poor but we’re tight. Our house is small, our cars are old, our responses laced with some version of temporary financial straits ie “we don’t have the money right now,” as if any of us think we will have the money any time soon. The American Dream, forever on the horizon. Still, we both work, we have two cars, we own a house—one-fifth of it anyway. I could probably build an addition with all their Lego. We have iPhones. He got a fucking iPad for Christmas.
We’re not poor but for him, and most of humanity, it’s relative. We live in a middle class suburb that has been upwardly striving for decades, where landscaping trucks are common, luxury SUVs aren’t uncommon and North Face is a badge of upper middle classmanship from salon-coiffed head on down to toddlers’ toes. I’m not trying to be derisive, if I could I might—I like North Face until I check the price tag. That’s what the boy sees. And he hears our mad scrambles to make payments, weigh most decisions on a cost scale, and hunt and peck for car seat coins. To him, our situation has a similar feeling of insatiability as poor. He can’t discern need from want, and I hope that knowledge is never imposed on him. He doesn’t sense our neighbors’ struggles and sacrifices; he knows most tangibly what he cannot have.
There’s a fine life lesson I could reinforce about the value of chores as work and earning and saving. But he’s pulled back that veil on his own. What he lacks in sophistication of language he makes up for in perspicacity: it’s a struggle to be comfortable. Welcome to the middle class, big man.