I remember begging my parents for a Nintendo after playing it at a friend’s house, but like most of the other things I wanted, my parents couldn’t afford it. For most of my childhood, just getting everyone’s basic needs met meant living past their means.
When I became a parent, I knew I wanted better for my kids. I decided early on that I would buy them some of the things they wanted; I would give them the childhood I never had.
But buying them the things they wanted when I could afford it seemed to garner some negative responses from other parents. They questioned how I was sure I wasn’t going to cause my children to have entitlement issues.
The fear of raising entitled kids is something a lot of middle class parents worry about — especially if we ourselves were raised in a low-income household. We don’t want to watch our children grow into little monsters who don’t appreciate or know the value of a dollar or hard work. We want to make sure they understand that things won’t be handed to them as adults and that they’ll have to learn to earn their way just like the rest of us.
So when Mila Kunis said during a radio interview that she and husband Ashton Kutcher were planning to teach their kids that “Mommy and Daddy may have a dollar, but you’re poor,” many parents applauded them for making their kids work for things like the rest of us — despite having the means to buy them a whole toy store if they wanted to. It seems logical that raising kids as if they’re poor will prevent entitlement issues.
But the problem is that growing up poor usually means being poor as an adult.
I’m actually lucky that I can give my kids some of the things I never had because, according to this handy graph by CNN, my chances of making it into the middle class were extremely low. In fact, only about a quarter of children raised in low-income families do.
But despite my successful escape from complete poverty, I don’t have a formula for climbing the socioeconomic ladder. Like many of my peers, my path to economic stability was paved with luck and privilege. The truth is, I fell in love with someone who had already made it out.
All this talk about luck might have you thinking that I just sat around waiting for good things to come my way. But I, just like most of my peers, learned that hard work was necessary for survival. I was told that getting a college education would help lift me up and out of poverty as an adult. I was told I could be anything I wanted if I worked hard enough.
And so that’s what I did. I got a minimum wage job and went to school. But it wasn’t enough. Ten years of struggle, and I still don’t have my degree.
The idea that teaching children the value of hard work will propel them out of poverty is based on the myth that poverty is the result of laziness and that anyone can make it if only they work hard enough. But the truth is that poverty is often the result of disadvantages rather than individuals simply not trying hard enough to pay the bills and put food on the table. Oftentimes those disadvantages are handed down from one generation to the next.
In fact, many studies have been done to try to figure out why it’s so hard for children raised in low-income households to move up in this country. The data points to multiple barriers blocking the path to the middle class for poor children. The neighborhood they grew up in, the schools they went to and discrimination are only a few of the things that have been named as factors leading to intergenerational immobility.
But despite all this research, we still don’t have a blueprint for how to increase economic mobility for poor children.
It’s possible all the gadgets, toys and nice clothes many parents think are creating entitled monsters are actually a part of the advantage middle class children receive that enables them to become successful adults.
Many toys parents deem unnecessary actually provide benefits to children. Video games have been proven to have numerous benefits for children. Smartphones, tablets and computers can help children develop techno-literacy, which they will no doubt need in their adult life. Games, apps and software can spark an interest in computer science and programming, which might lead to successful careers in the future. And even low-tech toys like dolls and cars can help children learn to solve problems creatively and develop social skills, necessary skills for any occupation.
Toy, games and electronics are far more than just extras to dish out as rewards for hard work — they are tools for learning. I’m not willing to keep these from my kids until they empty the dishwasher any more than I would food or water.
The truth is, my kids are entitled to these things. All kids are. They deserve to see the future as bright and full of opportunity. They should be able to explore their interests and discover their dreams. They shouldn’t have to work for that. And I’m not going to make them.