Middle Class Brats?

I fear I am raising spoiled-rotten, middle-class brats. I fear I am raising the very kind of children I would have hated as a child. Why? Because they are comfortable and cozy and have everything they need in their day-to-day lives.

They do not go hungry. They do not wear shoes with holes or ones they have outgrown. They have comfortable beds with good mattresses. They have their own books and toys. The electricity has never been shut off. They don’t eat fast food for dinner. (Just last night I made them chicken tikka masala, basmati rice, saag paneer, and stir fried vegetables.) They have the proper equipment for all their sports and activities. They have not had to endure the public school with no recess, music or art. There is a fine, moderately priced private school nearby. They are carted around in a comfortable minivan with seat warmers. They attend art classes, karate, swimming, piano and dance lessons. They get two weeks of day camp every summer. They are read to each day. There is time for all the attention and love they can handle. This is possible because I work very few hours and my spouse supports us. I am lucky to be able to choose to do what I think is best for our family.

I have not always been so lucky.

In my early twenties, I was a single parent to a beautiful, autistic boy. I left an unsafe relationship with the father and tried to support us by working full-time. I couldn’t get a high paying job, as I did not have a college degree or significant work experience. I struggled to make ends meet. One utility would always be shut off. Sometimes I could not afford a phone. To make phone calls, I had to ride my bike with my son in a bike seat to the nearest payphone. The childcare I could afford was terrible. I went to work each day worrying what could happen to my son. My landlord was a creep who constantly reminded that female tenants “might” be able to live there rent-free. When I turned to welfare for help with my head hung in shame, I was told that I made too much money and would need to quit my job to qualify.

The monthly check was $1 less than my monthly rent. The food stamps were $87 a month. There were no mommy-and-me classes for my first born. There was no summer camp. There was no organic food. There was not a dollar to spare. There was overwhelming and constant worry. There were food banks and church assistance. There was using student loans to live on. There were incompatible roommates, whose rent helped keep us out of the projects or shelters. There was the public shaming, when I used food stamps and other customers saw fit to comment on what I bought with “their” tax dollars. There was chronic degradation buried so deep it is still there, even more than a decade after I cashed that last check.

Would I want that for my two younger children now? Of course not. I would not want them doing their homework in the dark, to be cold, to have holes in their shoes, or to be deprived of nutrition — but sometimes their entitlement bothers me. Having grown up in a working class family with ten kids, I did have holes in my shoes. I slept on a mattress that had coils poking through the top. I wore ill-fitting hand-me-downs. I did not have the equipment I needed to participate in my sport. I knew what it was to be uncomfortable. I knew what it was, if even slightly, to suffer from not having some of the things I needed. My younger children only know the sting of not getting some of what they want.

I worry about the comfort they have. I wonder what it does to their capacity to love and care for their fellow humans and the earth on which they reside. I am sure there are many things they would want that I can’t or won’t provide. I do not buy them video games or the latest gadgets. They do not watch TV on a regular basis. I am sure they will have twangs of envy or desire, but they will not feel cold or hungry or denied.  I want them to be able to reach their full artistic, intellectual and human potential. But I wonder if they can be actively compassionate beings if they have not hungered or suffered. Or will they be engrained in unthinking consumerism? How to foster healthy growth and development without spoiling them rotten or turning them into consuming zombies is this middle class mom’s question.

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Linda Carney-Goodrich is a writer, teacher, and solo performance artist. She is a former editor of Survival News and former coordinator of the Welfare Organizing Media Project. She holds a BS in Human Services from Springfield College of Human Services and masters in Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education.

21 Responses

  1. Miqueas

    I can definitely understand the words you write. Growing up I had it hard as well. I think it’s a wonderful thing that you can provide for your children. All those extra curricular activities help them to see better that there are fun constructive activities that don’t involve drugs or other harmful factors. I think that a very viable option would be participating in volunteering with your children, at a local homeless shelter perhaps. Shopping at thrift shops and showing them that can be fun and you can find very nice stuff for cheaper because someone didn’t want it. It’s important to keep yourself and your children grounded to know that many people live in different situations. Maybe watching a mind opening film? Good luck 🙂

  2. Pablo

    I would say that you should take your children to a Third World country and have them see and explore what real deprivation is like, and do so frequently while they’re still impressionable. I have found that adults who grew up in comfortable middle- and upper-middle class environments who have traveled to Third World countries and TRULY interacted with the locals in a variety of ways have been amongst the most conscientious, sensitive and well-adjusted people I have known. I come from a Third World country, and my parents are immigrants who lived lives of extreme deprivation when they were children–of the almost starving in mud-brick shacks variety. Coming to this country has improved their material lives, and my life, immensely. So I know of what I speak.

    And it needn’t be lavish trips to Africa or some impoverished corner of Asia. Central America, especially Guatemala, my country, is just a cheap four hour flight away from almost anywhere in the continental US. Arrange a service trip with your children and see what happens with their attitudes.

  3. Joan Nikelsky
    Joan Nikelsky

    Your values are good and you are most likely transferring them to your children. Be sure to tell them about your past and what you lived through, the strugges, ups and downs. Make sure they see or hear about people who are less fortunate and who have the same difficulties you did. You haven’t said anything that would indicate they are “spoiled brats.” As long as they learn kindness and compassion for others, and maybe even get a touch of activism, they will be fine.

  4. Kathy Modigliani

    Such a thoughtful question: How to foster healthy growth and development without spoiling them rotten or turning them into consuming zombies? Earlier comments mention volunteering at a homeless shelter or visiting a less privileged country – both sound like important experiences to me to expand their knowledge. But it might not build deep empathy and overcome the sense of those people as being “other than us” unless they were “living among” them rather than “visiting.”

    To build true empathy, I would encourage you to help your children spend in-depth time with other kids who are not so well off. Assuming you also live in a middle-class neighborhood, is there such a thing as a mixed-class Fresh Air camp? And yes, tell them stories about your childhood as you just told us. Thank you.

  5. cory

    i have 2 suggestions for your concerns – one is thinking about how you can raise your children not to be spoiled, as other comments addressed. you probably are already doing this – think about what kind of exposure your kids get to kids of different classes or poor & working class backgrounds. they’ll relate more with more exposure. and think about what’s expected of them. if you give them everything & they never have to work for anything, or expectations of them are low, that could contribute to their sense of entitlement.

    the other suggestion is to look inward. can you imagine middle class kids that you would respect? you could imagine your kids as those kids. i can only imagine all the crazy messed up stuff that you’ve probably had to experience from middle class people – and at the same time, as someone who grew up & is currently middle class, i’m hurt & angry that your assumption in this post seems to be that middle class people aren’t able to have compassion for others.

    it sounds like you might be worried that your middle class kids won’t be able to understand & relate to your experience. that might be true, and as you say, in some ways you wouldn’t want them to. but i’m sure you will find effective ways to share it with them, and also they will have their own experiences that you all can share together.

  6. Your article was so powerful I started crying. I’ve always been middle class and am raising my two boys in relative comfort (well, we don’t have a mini-van, smile). My father took our family of five to Liberia where he had a teaching fulbright for a year; later we lived two years in Cairo, we went on camping trips to Mexico often, so I resonate with Pablo’s advice above. My parents emphasized nonmaterialism and were anticonsumerist; in the 1970s Ralph Nader was the family hero. It worked — me and my siblings all work for nonprofits now (and I’m get Class Action email, ha ha). I worry about the effects of peer culture and the constant emphasis on possessions in our culture and hope I can take the boys overseas for at least a few years so that they are able to be skeptical of American cultural values.

  7. @Cory

    Get over yourself, this powerful post is NOT about you, so take your middle class “hurt & anger” somewhere else. Why do MCs or UMCs always make things about them? Enough with the narcissism.

    @ Everyone else

    Your replies are sadly very class-based. You all speak on traveling to “Third World” countries where the OP’s children and “experience” poverty. Or you suggest volunteering at a homeless shelter, or the best one is “exposing” the children to people who live in poverty here in the US.

    Only one poster suggested ACTIVISM.

  8. Abby

    What thoughtful comments on a very important subject. Money, wealth and class are key issues for all parents. Our society is very oppressive to parents, as Ms. Carney-Goodrich’s story so clearly points out. All parents – those with adequate resources and those without – must fight to raise their children so that they know their own preciousness and that of all others. May we all have the courage and compassion to do what is right.

  9. David

    Great that you are asking the question. But keep questioning yourself.

    Are the heated seats in the minivan really necessary? How does this differ from not buying your kids all the latest gadgets?

    Is lack of recess and music and art programs enough reason to send your kids to private school? You take them for private art and music lessons anyway. Sending them to public school might (with the right attitude on your part) do a lot to expose them to a wider reality. You could even become an active parent at that school and, along with your children, become part of a broader community.

    1. I can’t help but agree. This country shoves power and privilege down our throats. The more you have the more you are. Although Im trying sympathize with her I can’t help but notice the slight bragging. I also find it hard to believe they would just come out and tell her to quit her job or that strangers would stop to ridicule her in public with the risk of offending more then just one person. Sure people pass their judgment but this doesn’t add up. If she wants them to learn she must start by giving them what they NEED rather then what they want. Considering the location she lives in is well off it would be likely that the public school would be as well. I can guarantee you it would be first class status compared to the schools in Compton or better yet these third world countries where children have to fight to learn. Poor kids here in America live like gold compared to these truly poverished children. I say once her kids hit 16 she cuts off money supply and forces them to go out and work a minimum wage job to earn EVERYTHING they WANT. That’s how you teach em lol.

  10. Karen

    It’s amazing how much I share your worries, even though I grew up thoroughly middle class, never experiencing the hardships you did. However I come from an immigrant family and so my PARENTS lived through many struggles, and they passed on very clear values about hard work, thrift etc. For example, we never had an allowance–we just had to earn whatever money we wanted to spend. And we had loans to pay back from college. I think I resented them for “making my life difficult” and so wanted to make my kids lives easier. But I can now see how having certain responsibilities has shaped me, and how little my kids have internalized any such understanding of self-reliance or obligation. I know it’s never too late to change, but boy does it feel like an uphill battle as I try to instill these “new” values that they are not expecting. My favorite line (which tells you just how suburban and unexposed they are) is: “none of my FRIENDS has to do these things!!!” Or: “everyone ELSE has x, y or z…” You’ve done really well in putting on the limits around video, etc. We finally relented on a couple of those media-related fronts and I really regret it as it does shift the focus considerably and I have to work very hard to transition them to other activities. Anyway, I really appreciate your raising the issues and want to say thanks.

  11. RoAnne

    Really Linda? You’re really fearful that you’re raising brats? you sound like you dont have any control over that. I think you wrote that piece to get exactly what you got from most of the posters—a lot of warmth and strokes. Why would someone with the fear of spoiling share a detail like “Just last night I made them chicken tikka masala, basmati rice, saag paneer, and stir fried vegetables.” You enjoy spoiling them, it makes you feel good and you have every right to do that. So own up to your choices and quit whining. Everyone knows you’re a good person, Linda. I agree with Shirley, get over yourself and go soak the red lentils so they’ll be nice and tender for the kids.

  12. Marilyn

    What happened with the oldest son? Perhaps dealing with an older sibling with a disability would help their capacity to be compassionate?

  13. There is Third World poverty here in the US: from urban areas of disinvestment like Camden, NJ to neglected rural areas like the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Take your kids to Pine Ridge, and encourage them to be friends with some beautiful Native American children there. And become friends with some of the elders and other adults as well. But one word of caution: you must completely chuck any and all white middle class values and judgments from the dominant culture and learn to think with your heart.

  14. M.E.

    I believe loving and meeting the needs of children is what allows them to grow into caring and compassionate people. Deprivation does not. Modeling is another piece (not being preached to about how lucky they are). Kids don’t get spoiled by having a good life and adult models who demonstrate maturity and compassion for fellow human beings. They get strong, secure, and thoughtful. The idea that someone has to suffer in a particular way in order to develop compassion seems kind of nuts to me. First of all, suffering is part of the human condition and guess what? — rich people suffer, too. You’re not going to prevent your kids from suffering no matter how hard you try. And compassion and love are human qualities. They’re not the sole domain of people who’ve had hard lives.

  15. Lena Rothman
    Lena Rothman

    I’m from a lower class/poverty class background.I agree with M.E. that “love and compassion are human qualities and not the sole domain of people that have had it rough.” I’ve seen poor people be mean and ugly, as much as rich and middle-class people. I’ve seen middle-class people be compassionate and giving.

    I don’t like the idea of taking the kids to other countries to see how poor people live nor do I like the idea of even taking them to other states. That feels like voyeurism.And then you all get to go home. David’s idea of having them go to public school where they can interact and be part of other kids lives makes sense to me.. Maybe working in soup kitchens is another good way to have the kids see real live human beings that are not privileged.

    Do your children have chores? Do they do some work for their money? Might as well train them now. Let them save up their own money to buy special toys/clothes they want. I think it’s about balance. You can still get them special gifts that maybe they can’t afford.The best thing you can do is not guilt trip them. Do you ever feel resentful of them having it easy when you didn’t? May be worth checking it out.

  16. Julie Joy
    Julie Joy

    Linda,

    You rock! Nice to read your writing. Thank you for sharing it!

    With all the comfort your kids have, I still would say they are diffferent than kids who are born into generations of comfort and money. Class doesn’t change in one generation. I would not call you a middle class person though I am glad that you are comfortable right now. Like many of us, the safety net, the cushion, for us is not as secure as for people who were raised with generations of security and money. Your security is still dependent on your relationship with your husband. You work part time and have three children. For example, if you were being abused by your husband, you would not be so far removed today from where you were twenty years ago, even with your education. And that insecurity is something that newly middle-class people know inside. And on some level our kids know it too. In your home they are exposed to your activism, your thoughts, and the family dynamics of class in your household.

    As a single mom with a Masters Degree and a disabilty I can only work part time and so our family has only one small income. We now go to three food pantries and can’t make ends meet every month. My youngest daughter goes to one of the richest public schools my Section 8 housing voucher could get her into. She is a technology addict. I allow it. I hope some day she’ll make a living using her technology skills. And it helps her fit into the rich kids’ league. I do whatever it takes to shield her from our poverty. Sometimes when I am doing political work, fighting for economic justice I wonder how much of it she’s getting. She knows we can’t afford the nice clothes, expensive foods, travel or big homes that 99% of the other kids at her school have in spades. Most have one or two elaborate summer homes. Our apartment is so small that we can hear each other clearly no matter where we are in the apartment. Yet it’s nice apartment on a dead end street in a brick two-family home in a town with “great schools”. We both have cell phones. Her friends don’t know that we go to food pantries and get food stamps. I believe that she understands deeply my struggle. I believe it’s her struggle too.

    I know your family is comfortable now and I’m glad. It’s good that you have chosen to live in an area where many of the other kids’ families have about the same as you do. For kids it’s all about how they compare to their friends and neighbors. As great as Brookline Schools are, I knew the comparisons with who lives in this area would be difficult for my daughter. I grew up in Mattapan and we all had about the same which wasn’t much but we never felt economically different than each other.

    Do your kids have any schoolmates that have less than you do? That would be the place to start I think in their awareness/sensitivity. Are there kids in their school who have more than your family does? That would be part two in their class education I think.

    We are the poorest family in my daughter’s school. So she only gets to experience part two in our neighborhood and school. So it’s my responsibility to give her a bigger view of how rich we are in the world. We are so lucky.

    We all deserve to be happy/privileged/content/comfortable, including you and your children. The next step is ensuring everyone has their basic human needs met. I’m very happy that you and your family are comfortable. So are we. It’s all relative. We all have to raise our consciousness and that of our children about class issues, no matter what class we’re in. My kids are aware of my class struggles. I think yours are too. And I think they have their own class struggles but may not be articulating them yet. My older daughter wasn’t able to speak up about her class issues until she was a senior in high school and joined a “Leadership” class that gave her permission to publicly address students and faculty in the school about what it felt like for her to be the poorest kid in a rich school. It was a huge turning point for her. She had been unable to speak about it until then because she needed to fit in.

    And so it goes…

    Warmly,
    Julie

  17. Desiree Taylor

    Linda,

    So powerful. I am impressed with your writing always! Yes, I too had tears over this. It reminds me of what an activist woman said in the film, The Edge of Each Other’s Battles The Vision of Audre Lorde: In order for meaningful change to happen “We have to listen to the point of tears.” You provide a place in this piece for good, deep listening.

    As for your fear, I hear you. And these feelings are tricky territory for people who have experienced lives so much crappyier in some key ways, than their children’s. Jealousy can be involved in the way we see our children and loved ones, even when we provide the stuff to be jealous over. And it is too easy to judge a person for having this emotion towards their children and loved ones. But as they say, you have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to better understand.

    Jealousy can influence us in seeing our loved ones as spoiled and ungrateful, since they don’t even know that they should be thanking their lucky stars that their lives are the way they are. And God help the child of a parent who has had it tough growing up, when that child does those things that people do as they grow up and go through the process of learning better, things like being selfish, careless and ungrateful. Because the parent, having made the sacrifices they did to survive themselves, already has hurt shoulders on which they are allowing their children to stand. In those instances, a parent from a tough background may not act out violently to their children in response, but deep inside they may be angry with an anger that their children cannot understand or grasp, but an anger still perceived by the children somehow. This is some of that legacy of poverty that you talk about.

    Good luck Linda. You are doing a good job, and you are fighting the good fight in a world that needs healing. Times such as these. The suggestions here to tell your own story to your children are powerful. Maybe put together some binders, one for each child, with your writings in them. Articles like this one could be passed on to each child, and when they are adults, even when you are gone, they can read them and listen to the point of tears and understanding. This is so hard for people to do with their parents on a day to day basis.

    As for the suggestions to volunteer in homeless shelters: as a person who has lived in them as a kid, I see this idea as one fraught with challenges. The kids observing will not learn that life from visiting, as someone here said. And the folks in the shelter may feel like someone’s social education is happening at their expense. It can be done I guess, but it is very tricky. Maybe a child should be given the chance to choose this type of volunteering, or not, when they are older.

    Desiree

  18. Michael McGinty-Benton

    Well I didn’t grow up in poverty, but my family was fairly working class and near poor. My father was a janitor, bank teller, cook, and construction worker, and my mother a grocery store clerk, waitress/hostess, receptionist, and records clerk at a post office. I grew up in a small three-bedroom, two bathroom detached house with a family of ten living with me, and knew what it was like to struggle, as we often didn’t have the money to pay bills/rent and paycheck to paycheck was the way that we went on.

    Despite this lifestyle, I graduated high school (the first person in my family to do so), and went to college (even more shocking), getting a Master’s degree in Business. My wife has her PhD in Computer Science and comes from a solidly middle class family of university professors, which we both are now. We pull in about $150K combined household income, which places us in the upper middle class, as well as our highly skilled white collar professional jobs. My kids live in relative comfort with an above average-sized house and two well-off working parents who pack them great lunches in their tin lunchboxes.

    My wife and I adopted a child named Damien, who is EXTREMELY aware of class differences. He himself grew up in a lower class family, raised in the public housing projects of Chicago until he was six and his parents were murdered (sadly). Shortly after he was adopted by us and remembers going to public school on free/reduced lunch, and now attends an elite private school where his tuition is around $30K, which he claimed was his parents’ old combined income. Our biological son Lucas is more spoiled and dislikes poor people, not aware that many of them cannot get a college education or even a high school diploma. We are trying to teach him to be very thankful of what he has. Thanks, Linda.

  19. mike S.

    i think you got the wrong attitude! if you got money now use it to its full advantage!! there is nothing about being poor that makes people compassionate from my experience! in fact i would said the opposite if anything! there is always the most competition on the top and the bottom of every organic structure since life began whether its human social hierarchy or cells in a penguin embryo.

    poor people usually aren’t aware of they’re social status anyway i don’t think. things become the norm as long as your living in a area where everyone is mostly the same social class. use the money to tutor your kids in S.T.E.M. subjects and make sure they’re nice to people and don’t worry about shit.

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