I grew up in a family with few resources.
We lived in a one-car garage house on a pot-hole-lined street that hadn’t been repaved in decades. Our neighbors were mostly working-class people living paycheck to paycheck.
On more than one occasion our electricity and phones were shut off because my parents couldn’t pay the bills.
By age 8, I was the family’s designated screener when credit card companies would call seeking payment of past-due balances. “Sorry, she’s not home,” was my instructed refrain.
We didn’t have cable television because we couldn’t afford it.
I actually thought vegetables only came in frozen boxes until I was in college.
Lots of memories of our Datsun 210 breaking down on the side of the road, and Greyhound bus rides to visit family in other cities.
Arguments about money were commonplace.
I began working multiple jobs by age 12. Mowing lawns. Newspaper routes. Working at a video store selling Atari games. When I got to college, I had to work three jobs to pay for a state school.
Needless to say, I grew up broke.
If there’s any silver lining to growing up with so much financial struggle, I learned to fend for myself very early on. I developed street smarts. I learned to use my words and voice. I learned that complaining doesn’t help. I valued the few things I had.
I also gained invaluable intuition about people. To this day, I can still tell when someone’s lying before they finish their sentence.
But most importantly, I learned through my own struggles to never think that I’m better than anyone else. To instead empathize with and understand others’ challenges.
Fortunately, through hard work, tenacity, perseverance, some luck, a strong desire not to struggle like my parents, and probably a lot of blessing from above, I was able to overcome those financial obstacles and eventually experience financial stability, comfort and freedom.
Then I had kids. Two boys and a girl.
How would I raise these kids to learn the importance of empathy like I did — the hard way? To learn to take care of themselves. To care about others. To not think they are better than anyone. All while giving them everything I never had?
At a recent concert, Chris Rock joked that he loves his kids, but he doesn’t like them.
“They’re rich brats,” he laughed. “I hate them!”
He went on to lament how they were able to attend private schools, travel the world, drive nice cars, and how one of his daughters is in culinary school in Paris.
“I can’t stand rich people,” Rock continued. “And my kids are rich.”
Chris Rock grew up with few resources and lots of financial struggles. And although he’s rich now, in his words, he:
“identifies as broke.”
“I have nothing in common with my kids,” Rock continued.
Of course Rock was joking about hating his kids, but there’s some kernel of truth in most good jokes.
Like Rock, I also identify as broke. My unconscious mind is often guided by that kid who didn’t have much. I’m still guided by the child in me who at age 6 got paid a quarter to take various neighbors’ trash bags to the curb each week.
Here’s the thing. You can’t raise kids to learn all the hard lessons of struggle without the same struggle. There’s no greater professor than life, but none of us parents would ever want our kids to have to wonder when the electricity is going to be restored.
There are few parents among us who would want our kids to have to listen to incessant screaming about money. Or have to eat Kraft Mac-N-Cheese four nights in a row in college when they run out of money.
No parent I know would want to get stuck with their 5-year-old on the side of the road with a broken vehicle and no money to pay for a tow.
You might ask how, then, do we raise our kids to at least have important nuggets of the values tough life teaches without having the same tough life?
Here are five things you can do to instill life lessons, even when your kids get to travel to more cities in their first seven years of life than you did in your first 25.
1. Talk to your kids about these critical values. Discuss your childhood. Make sure they intellectually understand that they don’t have to struggle like you, but they should still do their best to understand that people struggle. Good people like you.
2. Always, always, always in front of your kids (and otherwise of course) visibly treat people who have less with the same dignity you know you get treated with simply because you have more. Your kids need to see the behavior you learned from your struggles. That means learning the names of the security guards at work and using them when you say hello each morning. It means buying a homeless person a meal and giving them a hug. It means always thanking the people who serve you at the coffee shop. It means tipping really well. It means bringing donuts to the staff at work.
3. Volunteer with your kids at organizations helping people who have less. Food banks. Shelters. Thanksgiving in July. Clothing drives. Holiday gift-giving programs. You name it. I recall taking my kids to make peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for homeless people and then passing them out a local shelter. My then-6-year-old daughter was visibly scared to approach the un-showered and disheveled people. At first, she would extend her arm as far she could with the PB&J to keep her distance. But as time went on, and she saw the smiles on the faces of the recipients, she was literally shoving her way to the front to return the smiles and enthusiastically engage others up close.
4. Donate to causes that help people who face challenges in society. No sense in having money if you aren’t going to give back. Often and a lot. And make sure your kids see your action in this regard.
5. Make sure the people you invite into your home don’t just include others in the same financial position. If your house includes a regular flow of people of different backgrounds and socioeconomic levels, it will teach your kids that you value all people.
While my kids won’t ever fully understand the lessons of struggle, they fortunately can still reap the benefits of mine.
The plan works
Without my prodding, my daughter wrote in a high school English paper about the profound impact feeding homeless people had on her as a young child. She wrote about the lessons she learned watching me buy food for homeless people on the street and giving them hugs, even though it initially frightened her.
It takes a lot of intentional effort, but we can and must raise kids who don’t have to eat liver and onions for dinner once a week to teach respect all people and to appreciate the gifts we have in life.
I still like liver and onions, though.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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