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

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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?

Comments on “Mom, why do the kids at school call me poor?”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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. 🙂 Anyhoo, if you would like to get together for coffee or tea sometime, just let me know.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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 🙂

  11. 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.

  12. 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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