Income disparities need not be dealbreaker for kids
When their friends have the latest PlayStation Console, sports car, or designer jeans, it can be difficult for kids from families with fewer resources to accept that they can’t access the same luxuries. In a community where income disparities can be dramatic, how do we help our kids to navigate financial differences?
“We really struggle financially, and it’s a constant source of pressure to have to deal with the disparities between my kids and their friends,” says an anonymous mother of three. She has two boys at a Jewish high school, and one girl at the primary school.
“There are so many different ways it affects them,” she says, “from not being able to buy from the tuckshop to not being able to go on school or sports tours. We often have to deal with the ‘Why can’t I have these shoes or that jacket or a new phone case?’ stories.”
She and her husband also find themselves having to limit their children’s social arrangements because they cannot afford to pay for every movie, dinner, and outing. “Over the years, our kids have become more understanding, accepting, and supportive when we say no, but there are occasions where they still feel unhappy about the situation,” she says.
The family has learned to navigate challenges as they arise and ensure that they maintain open communication about finances, where the children are also empowered to voice their concerns. “I really don’t believe my kids lack anything, but it’s still hard to have to explain regularly why they can’t have everything they want or feel they need,” says the mom.
She teaches her kids to be grateful for what they do have, and stresses the importance of giving back, an important way of helping them to develop a broader perspective. “As parents, we also lead by example and put people ahead of things.”
Though there have been challenges along the way, the mom says her children have benefited from learning the value of hard work. “My children are grounded and show respect to everyone. They have a heightened sense of empathy and compassion.” For families on both ends of the financial spectrum, it ultimately comes down to instilling such values.
A Johannesburg-based single mom, who also wishes to remain anonymous, says that even though she considers her family to be in the upper-middle-class bracket, there are still financial discrepancies between her kids and some of their friends.
“We have always instilled values in our children, so when my matric daughter’s friends were gifted with BMWs and Audis for their 18th birthdays, she didn’t feel any envy,” she says. “She was also fortunate in that she received a car, albeit second-hand and handed down from a family member.”
She credits her daughter’s mature attitude to the way she’s been raised, especially when it comes to finances. “My children and I have a deal: they receive monthly pocket money, and they can earn extra by doing chores. If they want to save towards a branded or expensive item, I will match whatever they have saved. For this reason, my daughter isn’t envious of her friends, as she feels a sense of achievement in being able to buy these luxury items partly on her own.”
That’s not to say that issues don’t sometimes arise, especially when it comes to not being able to afford group holidays with her friends. “Our budget is simply different. My daughter has learned that it’s perfectly acceptable to want nice things and lovely holidays, but these are never taken for granted as she has learned how to save and work towards affording such things.”
With many of our children attending private Jewish schools that offer financial assistance to those who qualify, they inevitably confront such monetary differences. “As an inclusive community school, we have always recognised the importance of being mindful of these differences and strive to create an inclusive environment that supports all pupils and their families,” says Sydney Samakosky, Herzlia High School’s deputy principal: student affairs and wellness, and systemic head of counselling at the SEED Department, which supports emotional and educational development.
Parental attitudes, children’s personalities, and environmental influences all affect the emotions that kids may experience in the face of a continuum of wealth disparities, he says. In some kids, such challenges may foster resilience and determination to overcome obstacles, while others may feel excluded and isolated when they cannot afford social activities or events. These feelings may also damage their self-esteem. Yet for others, it helps to generate a greater understanding of the struggles faced by others.
Parents can help their kids to build a positive mindset by encouraging them to focus on what they do have and what makes them unique, which matters far more than material possessions. The school and community also play a role, Samakosky says. “Teaching social and emotional competencies such as empathy and kindness as part of the curriculum and role modelling such behaviours encourages our kids to engage in these behaviours through programmes that promote gemilut chasidim [acts of loving kindness].”
Lisa Klotz, a senior social worker at King David High School Linksfield, says that helping kids cope with financial discrepancies comes with instilling a sense of contentment, self-confidence, and gratitude to ensure their emotional well-being and equip them with better coping mechanisms for all of life’s challenges. “There are always people who will be brighter, more talented, or in this case, richer, so it’s important to develop a strong sense of self in all spheres of life,” she says.
Klotz stresses the importance of open and honest communication with your kids. “Acknowledge that everyone’s financial circumstances are different, and that it doesn’t devalue them or their family in any way.” She also advocates teaching children, regardless of their financial background, that the true value of friendship and a person’s worth lies in genuine connections rather than material possessions. “Encourage compassionate behaviour and foster a sense of community by engaging in activities that give back to society.”
Greenside Shul’s Rabbi Mendel Rabinowitz says it’s up to parents to instil limits in their children’s quest to keep up with peers. When it comes to Batmitzvahs and Barmitzvahs, where families have even been known to dip into their bonds to fund lavish functions, the meaning of the day is often lost.
“As far as the functions are concerned, there’s always been a disparity between rich and poor,” he says. “That manifests itself in nearly every facet of life. It’s important that families don’t major in the minor. Today, unfortunately, kids don’t invite all of their friends to shul, but rather to the function that night. There’s no problem with having a function, but the focus should be on the shul service, a family’s community involvement, and making the day something more spiritual.”