"Mom, why do the kids at school call me poor?"

January 18 2012 | offbeatbride
Offbeat Home & Life runs these advice questions as an opportunity for our readers to share personal experiences and anecdotes. Readers are responsible for doing their own research before following any advice given here... or anywhere else on the web, for that matter.
Photo by Wildcat Dunny, used under Creative Commons license.
A few months ago my three children and I moved from a not-so-great suburb of Detroit to a more affluent part of the city. I was thrilled by the idea of them attending a school in at top-notched district that also seemed to have a close-knit and more liberal-leaning community. Up until a few days ago everything was going as smooth as a skein of fair trade silk. Now that the ripples of a new move and a new school have dissipated, that "new community smell" is starting to get a little rank.

The four of us have become accustomed to the standard of living I can provide for them on my single income. What I wasn't prepared for, and the boys ESPECIALLY weren't expecting, was the backlash from their new peers. Granted they are all in elementary school and children of those ages can be cruel without intending to be, but I'm lost as how to explain/respond to the question, "Mom, why do the kids at school call me poor?"

How does one go about explaining classism to children that up until this point had no idea that we were indeed part of the lower echelon of this new community? Breaking complex subject matter into child-sized pieces has always been something I have prided myself on. My fear is that by having to vocalize our situation I will be bursting the little bubble they have been living in. I knew it was bound to happen sometime, but I was not expecting it to come about like this.

Have any of you offbeat beauties had to deal with a similar situation, and how do you think it effected your child's outlook on themselves and their peers, if it effected it at all? — Stephanie

We've talked about abstractly explaining privilege to kids before, but most of that discussion was about privilege and race — which really aren't the factors here. Parents in similar positions: how have you explained this to your kids?

  1. I live right on the border of a not-so-affluent suburb of Detroit, and a very affluent one. Like, my apartment complex is literally 20 feet away from the border. We are on the "poor" side. When we were apartment hunting, you should have seen the looks we got from people on the "rich" side when we told them we were also looking on the "poor" side because rent is like $100 cheaper per month. I grew up with a single mom and we were always well within the poverty guidelines. She handled this issue by being straight up with. She just told that yes, we ARE poor. She explained the economy to us in a very simple way, and was open and honest about her (three) jobs, how much money she made at each one, and then went through our family budget with us. She explained that other people have different jobs, and make different amounts of money. Some people make much more money, and some families have two adults working and making money. She was so frank about it that I personally never felt ashamed or like I was missing out because we didn't have much money, I was more proud of my mom for being so smart!

    • I think being really frank about the answers you give kids helps no matter what you're addressing. If you have a frank, matter-of-fact tone and you choose your words and deliver them with purpose there's almost no way a kid could take away shame or anything but neutrality (leaning positive) on big topics like these.

      • I agree with this. Another key thing is to try to avoid instilling similar classist views in your kids as you try to explain things – I still work to calm my snark towards those who have more then I do. I'm bitter, and that bitterness was learned.
        I expect we'll be poor for the long term (is there really a middle class in the US any more?), and I'll have to work hard to make sure my daughter doesn't feel either shame or bitterness.

    • I really wish my parents were honest with me about stuff like this. I didn't know until I was an adult and my parents divorced how many times we were close to losing our house, or getting electricity turned off, or not eating. It made my childhood feel very anxious and sad because I did't know why my parents were so worried. It is my husband's and my policy to always frankly discuss our budget with our son as soon as he is able to understand so that he can be involved and able to make financial decisions for himself when he is older.

      • I was much the same growing up having no clue about family finances. Often my mom would be crying on the stairs for financial or relationship issues and would deny me any information when I tried comforting her. I think she felt protecting us was the answer, but not understanding was worse. That really echoed true when my mom just one day told us we had to pack up and move. There was no warning nor explaination just, "you're going to go live with your dad." I was pretty devastated and confused as a twelve year old. My father lived nearer another middle school, I had grown up in this place, things were comfortable and familiar despite being a low income shitty neighbourhood. It balanced out in the end for me because my dad drove me to my old school, and he was frank about money and problems when I asked. I feel that was a critical point in my life for understanding not just money but finances in general. I could finally understand why stuff was so hard it wasn't "because I said so" it was "I make x dollars an hour and bacon costs more than bread."

    • I love how your mother handled this. On the opposite spectrum, we grew up knowing we were poor. Between constantly moving, food shelves, and Christmas presents from strangers, we never even asked. I wish my parents would've handled this better though, it has made me the financially paranoid person I am today. I'd say I'm more responsible with money, but at the same time at times it has kept me up at night when the situation hasn't been as severe as I think it is. Being on my own now ("grown up" if you will), my mother always complains to me about their debt problems. It has never mattered what their income is, they've always lived outside their means. They've instilled this in my younger siblings, it's like whenever they have a buck they HAVE to spend it asap! We are expecting in March, and I will definitely teach the importance of budgeting with our daughter.

    • This is so good! I was in a similar situation when I was a kid. Growing up in family of 6 children with one single income made things tight. I remember one night my parents sitting all of us down and going over every penny we made as a family, and where every penny went. I feel like this openness helped me so much as an adult with budgeting, saving and general good money management habits! My husband grew up in a family where they never talked about finances, and has to learn a lot of lessons the hard way now that he's financially independent. Being open with your kids about money has long reaching benefits!

  2. I grew up really poor. Kids asked me ALL the time why I didn't have the things they did; like the cool light up shoes or my own CD player, etc. When I asked my mom why we didn't have those things, she didn't tell us that it's because we didn't have money, she said that it was because we valued other things. If we bought those cool shoes, for example, maybe then we couldn't afford to have my Dad's guitars, or doughnuts on Sunday, etc. She was a genius, because she always picked things that we 'had' that other kids didn't necessarily have, so we felt like we were WAY cooler for the things that we had and felt sorry for the 'rich' kids for not having doughnuts on Sunday and family jam sessions. When I grew up I realized that we were poor, but by that time it didn't matter as much.

    • " She was a genius, because she always picked things that we 'had' that other kids didn't necessarily have, so we felt like we were WAY cooler for the things that we had and felt sorry for the 'rich' kids for not having doughnuts on Sunday and family jam sessions."

      We often focused on those things, too! Those things that we loved so much more than money or things that money bought us.

      Camping, kitchen table craft time, the playhouse my grandpa built us (entirely from scavenged materials–re-purposed from my older cousin's old swing-set)…

    • This is how my mom always approached it. She always explained that if we bought this or that it meant we had to give up other things we did, like travelling (which I wasn't aware until I was much older didn't mean sleeping in the back of the car in Walmart parking lots in other cities for every family). Interestingly enough, after my mom convinced me of this, other kids at my school apparently grew under the illusion that my family was rich. Funny how that worked.

  3. I don't want this to sound cliche or condescending or in any way negative… I was poor growing up. I would not ever consider myself to have gotten very far above where I started, either. And when I was little, my mom and aunt and family listened to a lot of music. All of that family are singers. Not professionally, of course, but they all sing very well. And one of our favorites to sing and listen to has always been Dolly Parton. Whenever I think about how poor we were, I think of the shoes my mom made me, and the Halloween costumes, and the way my cousins and I loved to share clothes. And I think of the song, "Coat of Many Colors" by Dolly Parton. I have vivid, specific memories–plural–of us singing that song. Sometimes I was grumpy about it and rolled my eyes. Sometimes I cried while I sang it from the back seat of the car. But mostly I remember it being one of many anthems for my family in my childhood. Overall, I took comfort from it, and the way I see it, it's the lasting impression that matters.

  4. I hear ya! I live in the "ghetto" of a nicer neighborhood and my son goes to an awesome public school in the heart of our downtown. There are rich kids and poor kids that attend, but the great thing about it is everyone wears uniforms so there is less of the "rich/poor" talk. We are a family of three (about to be four!), and I've wrestled with the fact that we are on the poor side of the spectrum. I've felt guilty because I can't buy our son toys that he wants, or that I have to sew up that hole in his school uniform because there just isn't money for new clothes right now. But then I look at our perfectly adjusted, content child and I am thankful that he doesn't demand a Wii or cry when he can't buy the fancy toy he wants. There is something cool that happens to children who grow up with little-they turn into adults who don't value material things and that is such a wonderful concept to pass on to your kids, whether you mean to or not!

    • School uniforms rock. Middle school would have been SO much easier if it weren't so obvious that I had no fashion sense (or money).

      • Honestly, my mother grew up poor and she said that her classmates still picked on her for wearing a hand-me-down school uniform instead of a new one. Kids can be cruel about anything.

        • As a former poor kid who switched to catholic school I was aware that my uniform pants came from the Army Navy Surplus store and that other kids bought theirs at JC Penny. But that wasn't as bad as the previous year I spent in pubic middle school.

          I guess what I am saying is try to be honest and neutral and let your kids. Maybe not "Yes we are poor, but they are rich assholes." Go with a "We have less money than they do, and that is okay. That doesn't mean we are better or worse people than they are, just different."

      • I spent 1 semester in 7th grade at a Junior High full of "rich" kids. My family was never well off as my mom was a stay at home parent and my dad was the sole provider for our family of 4 kids. I had a friend at the time who was more wealthy than I was, and she would periodically go through her closet and give me some of her stuff she didn't want anymore. I, of course, being no fool always said "heck yes!" But then I got flack at school for it because somehow they knew that I was wearing her old stuff, and also I got picked on for wearing the same jeans more than once in a week (I think I only had like 3 or 4 pairs at the time, so multiple wearings were a necessity). To this day, I still have issues with my clothes. I'm obsessed with making sure that I and my kids have enough to get us at least through a full week before doing laundry so we never have to get accused of being poor or of wearing things more than once.

        Jr High was an experience in torture that shouldn't be wished on anyone.

        • Ha, I wear the same pair of jeans for two weeks at a time, even now. πŸ™‚ But yeah, I think Jr. High is basically the worst for almost everyone.

        • I spent some time in Russian in a wealthy part of St. Petersburg and most kids wore the same 1 or maybe two outfits to school everyday and changed at home into other clothes. These were not uniforms, just the one or two outfits of nice school clothes.

    • "There is something cool that happens to children who grow up with little-they turn into adults who don't value material things…"

      Unfortunately, that's not always what we learn. Kids who grow up poor also learn to be VERY materialistic–to not throw away anything that might be useful; to accept anything free because even if we don't want it, it's free; to eat all the food we're given because it's all there is and who knows when there might be more, or because food is expensive and there's no point in wasting it; that any "extra" penny should be spent on something nice for yourself because you never get to do that–even if you don't need it, or it's irresponsible because bills still won't get paid, or you found $30 so you can justify buying the $50 jersey you wanted but not the $20 for some fresh produce.

      That's what being poor teaches you. That money is fleeting but the stuff you get to keep.

      • I think you just described me to the tee (in some ways). I grew up poor and when it comes to food I cannot throw it away. I eat all my food and then my daughter's even if I am full. I can remember going without and good food should not go to waste. Im sure I sound like an overweight pig (I am actully not lol).

        I love all things free regardless if I need them, and have a hard time giving good stuff away even if I do need it unless someone else really needs it (I am not above giving something to someone who really genuinely needs it).

        I guess my biggest flaw in parenting is that I want to give my child everything I never add and everything I always wanted. It has began to backfire now that she four because she has that since of entitlement. Now, I try to explain to her that sometimes we just do not have the money to go out to eat or to buy a toy and Daddy works really hard to bring home money to feed us and keep us warm.

    • I echo what others have said. I was picked on for not being able to afford the uniform clothes and it was clear I was wearing knock offs and/or my brothers hand me down polos. Things would have been much more simpler if I could wear the clothes I already owned when my dad lost his job and had to put me in public (uniform) school instead of private school.

  5. I live a stones throw from Detroit in the poorer part of my city and I have explained to my daughter that honestly we just don't have the money for some things. She understands. Thankfully I have not had to deal with kids at school saying things because they all live like we do. My daughter just has to deal with a friend in her class moving because her family couldn't afford to pay for their house. Which is what we are going through also. I feel it's just better to be honest, and am kind of thankful to have other people in the same situation.

  6. The upside to this situation is they have NO idea they are poor. My oldest son wanted to give his allowance to "poor kids" this christmas, having no idea that the money would in reality be kicked back to him. I explain in terms they understand why we can't have something they want, and there are few times when that is an issue as they don't ask for much. I think that keeping a tv out of the house helps as they aren't exposed to all the commercials telling them what they SHOULD want. I hope they come to appreciate what we do as a family and can look back at this as adults and understand where I was coming from. Thank you for all the positive comments, they've all been really helpful!

    • I did that one year as a kid. We were poor and I had no idea, I wanted to take a kids name from the giving tree they had at our community bank and buy or make the "poor kids" a gift. My mom told me honestly "Your name might be on that tree too." I'll never forget realizing that if the life we lived was "poor" I would always be ok because I thought we did an amazing job of getting everything we needed and had some amazing extras. I've been able to have some amazing adventures, awesome jobs, and make some leaps of faith in my life because I am not afraid of being poor. It made it easier for me as well when we couldn't afford trips and fashionable clothes in high school, I was part of a team instead of feeling left out. As a kid who had this discussion all grown up now, honesty is the best way. We kids who grew up poor have a special strength because of that knowledge.

    • Commercials are the worst! Until recently my kids did all of their "TV" viewing from Netflix so commercials weren't an issue. Now that they're a little older my husband has been letting them watch some of his cartoons and anime and even though they're on the DVR he's terrible about skipping the commercials so suddenly they're asking for random crap. So far such requests have been fleeting but I'm sure that won't last.

  7. I was a single mom for 14 years and my kid went to a special school for smart kids that happened to be a couple blocks from our house…in a not super great central part of town. None of the other kids lived near us, and every time I dropped off or picked up my kid at one of these other houses, I felt totally inadequate, until one day when a good friend's kid came with me to pick mine up at a house that contained housekeepers, a nanny, an archery range, and who knows what else. As the familiar icky feeling came over me, my friend's daughter said "Not everyone can be rich!" And for some reason, that statement made me feel loads better, and it still does. Because it's true! Not everyone can be rich-so what's thebig deal? It never seemed to bother my kid so much, so why did I let it bug me?

    • I love this!

      My mom dropped me off at a friend's party (new development on one of the ridge-lines in Hawaii) in our crappy Jeep when I was in high school. I remember how horrified she was, and I was just laughing because I thought it made no difference to me. Our Jeep was way better at hauling recycling than any of those scary expensive cars ever would have been πŸ™‚

  8. As a teacher and a budgeting guru in a tiny apartment myself, can I say those "rich" people may just be up to their elbows in debt keeping up a facade? Also, you are teaching your children crucial values about making judgments based on values and not outward appearance, wealth, or status. Kudos to you for caring so deeply about your children.

    • No kidding, and lot of rich or poor perceptions are superficial. I never thought of my family as poor growing up. We didn't always have the best things, but my parents always made sure to point out that we had a decent house, and good food to eat. I remember clearly an instance where our church held an event for under privileged families in which our choir sang for them andy them they sprayed the kids by he group, and we all mingled and did crafts and played games. During the mingling portion, I remember being shocked that these kids that were supposed to be less fortunate than I were chatting about their super nintendos, air Jordan's, and five speed bikes (did I just date myself or what?), all things that my family didn't have because my parents said they were too expensive. When I asked my mom about it she explained that some people made different choices out how they spent their money. These kids had fancy shoes, and video games, but didn't always have food on the table. It's a lesson I've never forgotten. Poverty isn't always a measure of dollars in pockets, but of how we choose to use what we have.

    • How about this one: I grew up thinking I was poor. We did not have cable, I shared a room, family vacations were only to grandparents' houses, both of my parents drove crappy cars, I always had discount store clothes and shoes that were never quite right. Meanwhile, I watched friends take vacations to the Caribbean and get new cars every few years. It was not until I went to college that I realized my family had been socking away money. I got out of college debt-free while those same friends are now buried in student loans.

      More importantly, I learned about how to prioritize expenditures. A lot of "rich" to kids is the outward show of money. I think explaining that you have different values and priorities is one way to talk about it.

      Start college-bound accounts for your kids. Have them open savings accounts and start saving whatever they have. I never received an allowance from my parents but I started baby sitting at 11 and had a few thousand in savings by age 18. Being responsible with money, even very little, is a skill that will serve them well in their future.

  9. I grew up poor as well. I moved to the nice side of the tracks at 8, and I quickly learned just what I didn't have. My parents tried to pretend that we were rich, but it never worked. I wish that my parents had been as resourceful as those mentioned above.

    I think it is really important to be honest with your children because as little humans they deserve it. My advice would be to accentuate the positives and teach then that they are rich in spirit. This is my plan for my children as we are poor.

  10. I'm a foster carer in a better off area than where the kids typically come from and there have been several times where I've seen the kids in my care judged as being poor kids by both adults and kids. It makes me so unspeakably angry, but I must say that most of the time most of the kids and adults around here aren't at all judgey.

    For me, I feel this is an issue that isn't really my place to really discuss with the kids – I think this is one for their parents – instead I would move the kids away from those people and if they asked why or commented on something they'd said I'd say that they weren't nice people and we didn't need to be friends with them. Of course this only works if you're not surrounded by areholes, but I wanted the kids to know that it wasn't their family that was the problem, it was the attitudes of the other families who felt for whatever reason that they were above them.

    It's like racism to me, if you feel that way about others, I don't need you in my life even if I'm not in the group you're feeling superior to. And if you're going to look down on the kids in my care because their shoes are 3 sizes too small and they're wearing clothes that are clearly second, third or fourth hand, and judge them for that while ignoring their bruises, their depression and their skinny little malnourished bodies, well you can just eff right off.

  11. Even though I teach in a very affluent suburb, we chose to send out daughter (and soon our son) to school in our 'burb, which has a _huge_ socioeconomic range. I always tell people that I didn't want my daughter to be the poorest kid in her class – and I want her to know that most people are like us, not living in mansions with summer homes and jetting off to vacation every three weeks.

    And, the reality is, sometimes not having a lot (my husband lost his job and then got cancer, so we really don't have a lot) sometimes just sucks. So we try to be honest with them about that too. I don't think that the angst is coming from your kids perceptions, though, but more about what other kids are saying to them. Do your kids feel poor? If so, just as everyone else has said, we try to accentuate the positives. Nope, we don't get to go on vacation all the time, but I don't work summers so we can hang out together and do lots of fun stuff. We talk about how we have a roof over our heads and enough food to eat, and there are lots of people in the world who don't even have that.

    As for what your kid should say to those other kids? How about – "my family is happy. If your family needs lots of money to be happy, that's your problem." It's not the nicest retort, and not the end of the conversation for you, but sometimes other kids just need to be shut up.

  12. I grew up poor and my mother was always forthright about our situation. She protected me from the worst but I was told what I could understand at the age I asked questions about our finacial situation. Being refered to as poor was never degrading to me; I felt like because my mother stressed being resourceful, kind and sharing what one has I was never poor where it mattered.

    Now that I am looking ahead to having children of my own in what in the long lost days of the middle class would be called a upper middle class home I hope I can instill those same values.

    Just be honest with your children much as their age allows ,stress your values and what makes them rich in terms of the human experience.

    We are rich only through what we give, and poor only through what we refuse.
    ~Ralph Waldo Emerson~

  13. I'm in a similar situation – studying and raising three on my own. My experience has been that some people will be just plain rude and that this is a reflection of their ignorance. Meanwhile, I have found that refusing to allow small mindedness to stop me getting involved as much as possible in my kids school (parent meetings, working bees, class get togethers or just playdates) has allowed me to introduce myself to others and for them to learn more about me and our situation. The reality is I am a hardworking person worthy of others respect. And only those who offer that respect are likely to be worthy of my friendship. Wishing you all the best!

  14. Stephanie, thank you so much for posting this. I think I needed a reminder of a few things after a discussion my husband and I had and these fantastic replies have cemented that I need to calm down, step back and refocus on the life we started out to create for our family. You guys all rock and totally have me in tears right now.

    We're a large family with one income. A couple of things I've found helpful over this last 17 years have been little, simple things like viewing it as being broke versus being poor. I've met lots of life-poor folks who weren't broke and lots of life-rich people who were broke. We also tend to take the view that kids aren't expensive, lifestyles and things are. I like to use that one when family acts like our desire for a big family (our 7th and final little heathen will be here in Spring) is why we don't have a lot of "things".

    You've gotten some great tips and very moving and heartfelt responses to this. Kids are great about understanding money things when it's explained to them with respect to their age and level of understanding. Good luck and I hope you'll post an update on this to let us all know how things went!

  15. We moved from my father's country to my mother's country (a far more expensive one) when I was little, and apparantly they had to work a lot for the little money we had the first 4 years. My mother could not even take us anywhere because she did not have money for the bus.

    And I really didn't know this untill some years ago. I really did not know that we had less money than other people, because it did not seem that way. We got lots of hand me down clothes and toys, but they were good quality.We had good and healthy food and were always clean and had clothes our size.

    I have since met children who are dirty and never eat properly, not because they are poor, but because the parents don't give a s**t.

    As long as a child is happy, well behaved and clean, the other children will accept it. Sometimes it is the kid who knows how to build a treehouse or make a zoo out of pinecones that are the cool kids!

  16. I really think focusing on the choices you make for your money is great advice. I did not grow up poor, but I did grow up in a neighborhood where others visibly spent more than we did. However, because of the focus on choices for our money rather than not being able to afford things, I never felt 'less than'. In point of fact, I suspect many of those people made similar amounts of money and in some cases less than my family. They just made different choices.

  17. My parents explained it as being about choices – that our values say that spending time together as a family, doing things instead of having stuff, and making sure we're giving to people who have less than we do. Sometimes people see that since we don't spend the money we have on name brand clothes and new cars they think we're poor, but really it's because we choose to spend our money on different things.

    • These are things my parents pointed out to us as well. Even when my dad was making a lot of money, they didn't spend money on such things. Later, when he wasn't making very much money, we barely noticed a change. I'm sure my parents noticed and there were stressfull times, but we were happy and always had each other.

  18. Man I know how tough this can be. When I was a kid, my family moved from NJ to NC because the cost-of-living was so ridiculous in NJ. In NC we didn't have much money either, but because of the way they do the school system down here, there was a healthy mix of socioeconomic classes in the classroom. Suddenly I went from being the only poor kid in my classroom to having other kids that understood what it was like to not be able to afford class field trips and the like. We had a few of the "rich" kids in school that would be snooty but they quickly realized that wasn't a great way to make friends.

    Then you got to high school and things became super cliquey. Rich kids hanging out with other rich kids and looking down at everyone else because they couldn't afford Coach purses and Mustangs. I actually had a girl that I had to work with on a class project say to me, "I used to think you were a loser because of your poor people clothes but now I realize you're a pretty cool person." Gee, thanks.

  19. My parents were very up front about us not having money for everything we wanted. I don't remember it ever being a problem for us. It never hurt us, we weren't ashamed, and when our family needed help we got it. I don't think my husband and I will ever be big earners, but that's okay. Being economical is just another challenge πŸ™‚

  20. After my parents divorced my transition from elementary to middle school also included a transition from middle class to poor. My mother wanted us to have the best schools and so for high school she managed to get a subsidized town-home for us in a rich suburb. It probably didn't help that my mother expressed resentment towards our wealthy neighbors and also towards our poor neighbors. I also had to move many times and give up activities I enjoyed so that might have more to do with the resentment I developed. I do think I would have been better off in a school in the city, the city schools I plan on sending my kids to, so these aren't run down city schools. The students are a range of very wealthy to dirt poor and the school system well rated over all, plus we get to choose which city school we want to send our kids. That clarified, yeah, the wealthy suburb school was good but so were the city schools and I would have had kids to befriend that I had more in common with and shared similar troubles to mine as well as teachers who were familiar with dealing with students like me. Getting your kids to "the best schools" isn't the be all and end all but I do understand that in some areas the only decent schools are in the wealthy suburbs.

  21. This topic has really made me thankful that I live in Australia. We obviously have 'rich' and 'poor', but the divide is virtually indistingishable within our schools. The upper echelon of society attend their own schools, and everyone else mingles in the public and private systems (of which the divide is again minimal). The only schools that do not have uniforms are the more alternative schools, and they always have rules about labels etc. I cannot fathom the judgemental attitude that your kids are facing based purely on home finances – we simply do not see that here. In the end, you kids are loved and cherished. The children that treat your kids like that obviously have grow up with a skewed sense of what is important. I doubt their home lives are truely happy.

    • I also live in Australia and had a much different experience to you. My parents were hardworking middle class public servants with three children. I went through the public system until high school, and then won a scholarship to a private school. My scholarship only covered tuition, so I had a second hand uniform and normal stationary. This marked me from day one as poor.

      I gravitated into friendships with the other students who were from lower socioeconomic groupings and/or brainiacs who shared my advanced classes. For the next six years the posh students tried to make my life hell, and it seemed as if they felt that kind of behaviour made them superior.

      Thirty years later, my ex didn't want to pay me child support directly so we agreed that he would pay for school fees and health insurance for my daughter instead. I enrolled her in the same school, but from Grade 1. Now, my daughter is used to a very posh life style (her father's side of the family), a middle class lifestyle (my side of the family), and a poor lifestyle (having a single mother who barely scrapes by). Nothing had changed in the school environment. If you are regarded as poor it's as if a shark sensed blood in the water.

      I eventually pulled her out of school and sent her to a government one. This was a godsend. Students either didn't see socioeconomic differences, or they all came from similar backgrounds.

  22. My dad died when I was very young. I grew up on a below-the-poverty-line income. Mum was always TOTALLY up front with me about How Money Worked – this much comes in, we pay this much on bills, this is what's left. She also always, always, gave me a (small!) allowance, so I had some control. (Which, lets be real, I blew on candy every time until I was about eleven.) The one and only splurge was my piano lessons, which I LOVED.

    I never felt poor or disadvantaged, because I understood how priorities worked. Mum was doing all she could with what she had, it was because my Dad died, and… that's just how it was!

    By contrast, my aunty didn't explain things to my cousin, periodically bewailed the sadness of not having things Like Everyone Else, and as a result he spent most of his childhood and teens going WHY CAN'T WE HAVE XYZ WHYYY.

    Be matter of fact with them. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for, and they're also young enough not to care as much as adults do.

  23. My son and I just read this together. We have been going through similar scenarios since he started going to what I can only call a "rich kid school" six years ago, and most of his peers live in villa-type houses and have multiple game consoles – and yes, those are really among the richest families in the country. We lived on my very modest income. He was actually worried that we'd "go broke;" when he was in first grade the counsellor of the school advised me not to talk of money matters when he was around. What I did was to explain that while we did (and probably always would) have much less money than those families, we would always have enough to eat, a roof over our heads, and the guarantee that he could continue to go to school. Since then, he has been very understanding when he was told we couldn't afford something like an expensive skiing camp, and he has also been so laid-back about material things that quite often, when asked what he wants for his birthday or New Year, can't even think of anything to ask for. He is, however, proud of other "cool" things that others don't have, like a mother and grandmother who are published writers, and his baby sisters. That's what he wants me to write here.

  24. My parents always took the time to point out that it didn't matter how much money you had, it mattered how you used it.

    There were many families we knew who's parents made considerably more than us, but we lived a comparable lifestyle because of my parents budgeting skills and because we sacrificed the things that weren't as important for the things that were (no going to the movies because we were taking piano lessons, no big christmas presents, etc).

    My parents also used it as an opportunity to teach us that life is all about trade-offs and sacrifice. I vividly remember my mother telling us that a lot of people have to chose between their dreams and their money, and that sometimes you have to chose between your family and a good job, and that she and my dad had always tried to make the best choices they could. i was only 9 but i understood that and i had a great respect for my parents' choices.

  25. I am coming from the opposite side of this issue from most of the commenters here. I grew up firmly ensconced in the upper-middle class of the deep south. My parents had worked very hard for what they had, and as a result, what we had as children. They made sure to never let us forget that there were others who were struggling to just get by, while we had more than we needed. We were given opportunities to give to charity starting at a young age, and had choice between giving gifts to the poor at Christmas and getting more things for ourselves. We always chose to give. When our towns got evacuees from other cities from storms, we all volunteered with the Red Cross.
    I am eternally grateful to my parents for the way they raised me, because I came of age between Katrina and the economic downturn. My adult life has onvolved being beyond broke, and yet happy. I lived in the Treme in New Orleans, which is known to be very, very poor. It has the richest culture of any place I have visited in my lifetime, though, and I am a better person for having lived there. Had my parents been any different, I might have given up on independence and simply moved home. I certainly wouldn't have moved to a "rough" neighborhood and eschewed my car in favor of streetcars and walking. I wouldn't have been part of impromptu second lines and street fairs, would have never learned other culture's traditions.
    From either side of the issue, approaching the topic of class disparities with grace and neutrality is important. It is really just as important that those who have teach their children as much about the value of human life as the have-nots.
    Your children will be fine. They have a mother who obviously cares deeply for them, and is working hard to make their lives wonderful. Have a frank discussion with them about money, scarcity, and the fact that they have more richness in their lives from love and personality than those with money ever will. Money seems to make people think that they do not need other people or culture and history. I was never so lonely as when I was younger and we had enough money to be expected to act a certain way, which generally meant "We didn't invite you to our birthday party because you have a pool and three cars and wouldn't think we were cool." Oh, but I wanted friends more than I wanted a pool or a car or a new puppy. I am glad your children have you and each other, for that reason.

  26. I grew up with a little bit of both worlds. I was an only child until 9 years old, and my parents were comfortable, but not well off. We used to go antique store shopping when I was younger(which I hated) and I remember having a friend go with me to Disneyland for my birthday one year. However, when my parents decided to do foster care, I honestly don't remember a difference, except we went thrift store shopping instead of antique stores hahah. We had all the drug and abuse children, and didn't figure out that we were eligible for WIC until about 2 years in. I loved every minute of having brothers and sisters, and never wanted anything more than what my parents could provide. I don't think we ever discussed money, but at that point it didn't matter.

  27. This is not a comment on the post exactly, so please excuse the interruption…
    I notice that the author of this piece and a few of the commentators are from the Detroit area. I just moved to the area (from Chicago) a few months ago. If any of you have ideas for where to go, what to do, where to make friends, or any other suggestions, please, please share with me!
    Thanks so much! And, again, sorry for being off-topic.

    • Where abouts in the Detroit area? I'm the poster (hello!) and just moved to royal oak, and don't really feel like I fit in with most of the parents around here. I'm not too sure of where to go yet, but I'm most certainly looking!!

      • Hi Stephanie! Speaking of being "a 'poor' family in a rich neighborhood", I live in West Bloomfield. I feel very out of place here. I don't have children (which makes me unusual in the neighborhood, evidently), and I live in the one apartment complex amid all these tremendously large houses!
        I've yet to find too much fun stuff to do around here, besides go to the very nice library. And how did I LIVE before eating at a Coney Island?!

          • Stephanie,
            I am in Royal Oak and moved here a few years ago from the East Coast. My husband and I are the parents of a two year old. There are many times I feel like I don't fit in here-I'm an older mom, I took a huge step back in my career so I could be home much more with my daughter, I am happy in the bungalow we live in and never want to live somewhere bigger or more "grand". It's definitely not the norm, but it's something I hope to pass on to my daughter. Love people and experiences, not things. Choose experiences over things and possessions. I grew up the oldest of five with a stay at home mom and engineer dad. We definitely had less than everyone else I know, but we had great experiences! We traveled on road trips (sleeping in the car like a previous poster said is something we did all the time, but it was Denny's parking lots, not WalMart:) we hiked, went to the beach, rain forest. I wish my parents had done a better job of explaining the choices part of finances, but I never felt "poor". In retrospect, my best friend was rich, with a capital R, but her dad was always away working and I actually remember feeling sorry for her, because her dad wasn't around all the time like my dad was. πŸ™‚ Anyhoo, if you would like to get together for coffee or tea sometime, just let me know.

  28. I don't have kids of my own, but was really touched reading through the comments. I grew up poor and definitely knew it. My parents were divorced and both were broke. We often had to live in shared rentals, my dad was homeless for a time, we used food stamps, etc. I didn't feel ashamed, because my parents made it clear that having less money doesn't make you a worse person. They didn't tell me it was a question of priorities, because we didn't always have money even for the things that were high priorities. They did tell me that we needed to do the best we could with what we had, and that people who think more money makes you a better person are wrong and superficial.

    One thing that my father did, which I really appreciate to this day, is involve me in some of the budgeting. He would tell me how much we could spend on groceries, clothes, etc. and involve me in choosing where to shop and what to buy. I think this started when I was about 8. It was almost like a game to see how far we could stretch the money, and it helped me budget as an adult. My mother, on the other hand, was always very guarded and hand-wavy about money so that I wasn't sure what was going on. That was really frustrating.

    Something they *both* misled me about was paying for college. I wish they'd told me that they'd help me apply for financial aid and that it would be expensive but worth it. Instead, I got the impression that there was some money for it and was very unpleasantly surprised when I got into a school I loved and they couldn't offer me a dime to help pay for it.

  29. I can empathize with your college situation. My grandmother had led my parents to believe she had set up a college fund for me when I was born. But then when college time came the college fund was suddenly something she had never said. My parents were furious that she would do something like that. I've always been fairly resentful about it too. Not because I wasn't given the money but more because I thought it was an awfully dishonest thing to do. So instead of going to the private school I wanted to, I ended up going to a local state school. I enjoyed my time there but I wish I hadn't wasted the time and money applying for schools I could have never afforded without that supposed college fund.

  30. I grew up on the opposite side of this as well. My father had a very successful business, and he made sacrifices to get the fancy things he wanted. When I got to middle school, and everyone started noticing the money people did and didn't have, I was known as the rich kid- the same point in time where my parents split and all the money dried up. My brother and I had grown up in a very large house, which my mother managed to keep, but barely. She started being upfront with me as to why I couldn't have all the new clothes and things I wanted, and I really started to appreciate the worth of everything, instead of just wanting MORE. I am about to become a single mother myself, and this whole discussion strikes close to the heart because we'll be living in the "broke but happy(I hope)' category as well, and I agree that it is SO important to be honest about budgets, I won't be able to give my kid alot, and I'm currently living with my mother again just so he'll have the best I can give, but I want him to know that happiness is most important, and that it doesn't come from an object, but at how you look at life.

  31. Depending on how old your kids are they probably don't care or realize the money difference and are just curious when they ask why the other kids call them poor. I wish I could better remember how my parents handled it, but when I was in elementary school my brother had a similar experience. He had a friend come over to our house and then the next day at school tell all the kids that my brother lived in a shack. We were a family of 5 living in a 2 bedroom house, but the funny thing is we had lived in a "shack" before with one room and no running water so imagine if the kid had seen that one.

    Anyway, I recall my parents never buying us toys or new clothes or anything like that but it never bothered me because it is just how things were. We got one Christmas present that probably cost 15 dollars, but we thought it was awesome. Our parents never talked to us about money problems, but they also didn't pretend they had money. Not having money just wasn't really a problem. Anyway, without really remembering the dialogue in my family, I knew we didn't have money but wasn't really jealous of other kids until I graduated college with lots of debt and wished someone would pay it off for me hah.

  32. I grew up extremely poor – my mom was a single parent of 6 kids, and we were the recipient of food stamps and welfare, living in a house that was falling apart.

    I remember asking my mom if we were poor, because the kids at school said we were. She replied that we were poor by our communities standards, but by worldwide standards we were very fortunate. She talked to me about poverty very frankly and openly, and pointed out that we had running water and clothes and food and the ability to go to school – and that some kids in other parts of the world had none of that. It really made an impression on me.

    My mom also always asked us to donate 10% of whatever money we got as gifts, etc., because there was always someone who could use the help. She always pointed out that there were times that we wouldn't have had food on the table if it weren't for someone else's help, and really emphasized that we needed to help others in return.

    Looking around at a lot of other people my age, I feel really fortunate that I grew up poor. I know how to manage money and balance a budget, and I am very happy living pretty simply.

  33. There have already been so many good responses! I grew up very poor, but generally wasn't identified that way (and definitely wasn't the poorest in my small, rural school.)

    Like people have said, being honest and talking about priorities is the best place to start…they may not understand it all now, but eventually they will (I couldn't understand why my parents chose not to make more money – there were several work opportunities they passed up, but looking back and with an adult perspective…sometimes it is better to be poor than make yourself miserable in a job you hate.)

    Try to offer them opportunities for personal choice. My husband's family made 4x as much as my family, but his mom would buy him cheap knock offs that were clearly going to be mocked by other kids. On the other hand, when we went back to school shopping, my mom would tell us we had a budget of $50 (or whatever amount) and it was up to us whether we wanted to buy 2-3 new name-brand items or 4-6 new cheap brands or go to a second hand store and pick out 10-15 pre-owned name-brand items. If there was something pricey that we really, truly loved, we weren't deprived of it, but it came with some tough choices and meant we really had to be resourceful with what was left.

    Whether it's through travel or volunteer work or simply reading about other people/cultures…try to convey that there is always going to be someone worse off than you (also someone better off, but that's usually obvious). Even if your kids names are on the "gift tree", try to do something for someone else, even if it's just a tiny amount of help. There's a pretty large number of homeless people in the city I live in now; when they ask for change, offering a spare granola bar and having a conversation with them seems to mean a lot to them (and is such a strong reminder to be grateful for what we do have!)

    When they're old enough, encourage them to earn and manage their own money. My husband's family wouldn't let him work or earn his own money, so he had no power over how it was prioritized. My mom encouraged us to take on babysitting jobs, grow and sell produce, work multiple part time jobs, etc. so that we could pay for the things we wanted and make decisions (they weren't always good decisions, but we were so much better off once we were out in the real world and had already learned the hard lesson of what happens when you don't budget for your cell phone, car insurance or gas money.)

    While college isn't necessary for everyone, be up front about how they will be responsible for university/community college/trade school. My parents made it very clear that there was no budget for that and all 3 of us were well aware that our grades were going to determine what scholarships we got…3 out of 3 kids getting good enough grades for multiple scholarships and all completing a bachelors degree is a pretty strong testament. Talk about how middle school grades tend to impact high school grades which impact what college you can get into and what you can afford which will very likely impact your career path. (Obviously, make it clear that perfection isn't needed, but their best effort is.)

    Lastly, there are going to be judgmental jerks in every phase of life. If it wasn't about being poor, it would be something else (growing your hair too long, or too short, being too fat, being too skinny, wearing the wrong color, etc). Other people acting ugly is about their own personal issues and rarely has much to do with the person they're picking on…may as well get accustomed to that as a child, because as far as I can tell, some people never outgrow it.

  34. I'm in Detroit as well and in a similar situation. We just moved to Indian Village from 8 and Woodward. We live in a carriage house so we sure don't have the money the neighbourhood might suggest. My child goes to the 'poor' public school and uniforms are a lifesaver! Also, looking for likeminded friends πŸ™‚

  35. I love all the comments and ingenious ideas people have. I became a single mom when my daughter was 3 and I choose to work in a nonprofit. It doesn't pay well, but it gives me work/life balance. I have tried so hard to create experiences for her vs. having stuff. Stuff eventually vanishes but memories will last.
    My favorite comment so far was about being frank about finances. They are what they are. My daughter knows I choose my job because it makes me happy and that I help people for a living. She knows there are better paying jobs out there and that I choose to not have them. It can make things more difficult for us, but we have what we need.
    We also talk about labels and that we define who we are. No one else does that for us. (She's had problems with the same mean girls since the 1st grade. Calling her silly names.) Riches are not only material items. Happiness and health are great riches. Ones we have plenty of.
    Make your own definition of rich and poor.

  36. I grew up poor on welfare and food stamps. My father left when I was only 4 years old leaving us to live in a shelter. I remember getting the free government lunch at school and wishing that I had to pay for lunch. if you paid for lunch that meant that your family had money. After struggling through life and becoming a parent of two children I do not want my children to have the life that I grew up with. I save and work overtime whenever it is available. We both have good incomes and a very nice nest egg now. My 11 year old son just started middle school and is a straight A student. He plays basketball,tennis, mountain bikes, takes Jiu Jitsu and runs a mile a day. He is a shy kid and values his friends. He said some of the kids at school make fun of him and call him poor. He likes to dress in sweats and t-shirts and is always in comfortable attire. He said the kids always tell him that he wears cheap shoes. He is very particular about the way his shoes fit, so we buy him whatever shoe he says is comfortable. Sometimes he will try on a dozen shoes before deciding on one that he likes. The funny thing is that my daughter plays basketball and is sponsored by Nike. We are able to purchase shoes for 40% off. He can have any shoe that he wants, but always settles on running shoes. I had no idea that kids could be condescending at such a young age. There are times when he will not wear certain shirts because the kids make fun of it. I tell him to ignore them and just wear what he likes. Each person is different and that is what makes us individuals. The funny thing is that the kids criticizing him are not wealthy at all.

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