Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"Mommy, Are We Poor?"

I have to say, this recession thing is taking me back to my youth. Growing up in the 70's, the era of inflation, oil embargo's and doing without was central to my foundation. We grew up in a middle class family, struggling to make ends meet. With both parents working, my brother and I grew up as latch key kids who could run a house ourselves by age 10.

Somehow, we did fine. I wanted Farrah Fawcett hair and instead had bad dime store perms that looked like light socket frizz. I wanted new clothes and put up with hand-me-down jeans, with 4 inches of red bandana sewn on the bottom hem, to cover my lanky frame. I learned that life went on if I didn't have the latest craze. Fast forward to today: I am a mother of 4 children who are have more "stuff" than I ever dreamed of, and can barely pour a bowl of cereal. I know I am getting old because I feel like I'm on the crotchety side of the generations -- pointing a finger at the lazy youth and condemning them for their wayward habits.

It's been a long while since we have had such an economic crisis, and many kids today have no frame of reference in having to pinch the penny -- and they often aren't needed to help the household survive. They really aren't "needed" at all. How does being indulged in sheer entertainment for your entire childhood affect your drive, empathy and engagement? Maybe there's a gift here. I think the recession is going to shake up this generation of children who have been at the center of the universe for far too long.

In my middle class neighborhood no one shovels driveways, no one delivers newspapers and no one bikes to a part time job after school. Finding a high school babysitter is like striking gold; teenagers today don't want to work -- and they don't have to. Their parents buy them all the Uggs and iPods and Razor's they need, and they are too busy on Facebook to bother with an afternoon job -- unless you want to pay them $10 per hour cash -- and they aren't busy.

The mess of the economy has left millions of us in various degrees of dire straits as jobs disappear, savings goes down the toilet, business is dead in the water and no end in sight. The gnawing fear is palpable, and at times overwhelming. Many parents feel guilty they can't provide their kids with all the indulgences as the questions start pouring in:

"Mommy are we poor? Are we going to have to stand in line for bread?"
Their only concept of doing without harkens back to an old Jimmy Stewart movie.

While I am seriously worried about our future generation inheriting a debt beyond imagination, I'm glad my kids are getting a dose of reality with this forced curb on our consumer-driven youth culture. We knew deep inside that giving our kids the Wii, Guitar Hero and whatever else they wanted was wrong; but did we see it was also denying them of the value of wanting? The opportunity to participate in the family economy?

According to consumer expert, Juliet Shor, author of Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture our kids have become consumer drones who watch 40,000 commercials per year and have often become the dominant voice in family purchases -- including what type of car to buy. Many kids are over-scheduled, over-stressed, obese and depressed. Maybe having less cash to spend is just the diet they need.

The upside of an economic downturn is more time together as a family. In making lemonade out of lemons; a positive slant can look like fewer extra curricular activities, and more dinners at home, fewer 'toy of the week' purchases and more classic games of gin rummy, Clue and Scrabble. Our social connections with one another matter more to kids than 'stuff' anyway. UC Berkeley is home of the "Greater Good Science Center" with a department called; "Half Full: Social Science for Raising Happy Kids," containing current research and ideas on happiness, altruism and compassion for kids and families.

While our young children can shift more easily, the way to captivate our teenage culture is through social service. Teens are very aware of President Obama. Eighteen year-old voters showed up in record numbers to cast their vote and be counted, and almost every school in the nation, at every grade level, broadcast the inauguration in the classrooms. We have a great opportunity to engage our youth. To show them the value of money, the struggles our country is facing and instead of bemoaning what they "can't have," inspire them to what they"can do" to help bring our country turn around.

Shoveling the driveway for the 80 year old neighbor, helping plant a garden in the backyard for summer food, taking old toys to a shelter, leading the family's efforts to reduce carbon footprints, or helping a friend who is down and out -- can transform our children, increase their innate gratitude and help them to flourish. Maybe asking for their help will elevate them to become the next "Great Generation."

The recession is impossible to escape these days, and many families are hugely impacted. How are your children reacting? Could there be a silver lining for those kids who have never known an era of doing more with less? Do you have stories of kids rising to the occasion and making positive changes? I'd love to hear your comments.

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