Sunday Catechism: Mad World

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Q: What does the eighth commandment require?

A: The eighth commandment requires that we lawfully acquire and increase our own and others’ money and possessions.

Q: What does the eighth commandment forbid?

A: The eighth commandment forbids anything that either does or may unjustly take away money or possessions from us or anyone else.

Mad Men Party: G Cover for Boston Globe

This week I’d like to do something a little differently, and quote some passages from The Opposite of Spoiled by Ron Lieber. It’s a book I recommend, not because it has infallible advice, but it raises a number of thought-provoking questions relevant to how we deal with money around our kids.

The passages I’m quoting come from the chapter entitled “Are We Raising Materialistic Kids?” Highlights are mine.

Allison J. Pugh, now a sociology professor at the University of Virginia, spent a couple of years following both affluent and struggling families around Oakland, California, and described them in a book called Longing and Belonging. What she determined is that our children are constantly navigating something she refers to as an “economy of dignity.” In doing so, their feelings of self-worth often rise or fall depending on constantly shifting standards around the possessions and experiences that matter in their own little worlds.

Pugh, who saw these economies playing out in both poor and affluent communities, starkly describes the feelings that many children experience when they don’t have a Game Boy or haven’t been to the vacation destinations that most of the other kids are talking about. For kids with nothing to contribute and no bragging rights, it’s akin to “a sort of unwelcome invisibility.” Pugh describes the “matching” that goes on when they make meek attempt to interject with information about a different (cheaper) game or other (closer) destination that’s barely relevant. Kids want to belong, so this is one way of saving face. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the privileged among them engage in what Pugh refers to as “patrolling,” sniffing around the dignity claims of others in order to pass judgment. They run, she concludes, a “dignity gauntlet.” In this sort of environment, many parents attempt to shield their kids from any psychic blows by providing a “full provisioning” that leaves them wanting for practically nothing. (93-94)

Most of us will eventually be in the position where they’ll ask us to explain our own large purchases or extravagances. What will we say? Is every car or handbag or vacation defensible? And what does it mean if we feel defensive about it? Can we explain it all without scolding the child who is asking what is, at its root, a reasonable question, even if the tone of voice is a little bratty? After all, they just want to know what we stand for; our spending choices is one way that we articulate this.

Bold questions like this also result from pent-up frustration. We control so much, and they know it. Kids run the dignity gauntlet in outfits and arenas that are mostly of our choosing, not theirs. We decide what they can wear, what they can have, where they live and go to school, and what they can do when they’re not in class. Setting strict limits on all of this seems like the right default, even if we do drive nice cars ourselves. When we see them appearing literally to ache for things that other kids have or do, however, it often calls to mind our own feelings of childhood longing. And satisfying our kids’ desire for dignity and a sense of inclusion in the present can make us feel like good parents, and signal to ourselves and the world that we are doing just fine. Dignity, it turns out, involves intense feelings for both parents and kids. (96)

“That moment of deprivation and indignity scares parents up and down the class ladder,” [Allison Pugh] said. “They may remember their own experience of how often it happened to them and how much it hurt, and they want to protect their child from that moment. But they should relax. Kids manage that deprivation well. It’s not bad for them to experience it. That’s how I felt after three years of watching them.” (111)

I think our recent catechism questions, with their focus on work and justice, challenge us to remain engaged with the world, to participate in marketplaces, to honor by social contracts and legal systems, to take a stake in our societies — but also demur from its traps of false valuations and hyperbolic self-importance.

We can, and should, teach our children to take on economic responsibility without participating in the “economy of dignity,” to see how money becomes a problem when it seems to mean more than it is, when really the truth of our self-worth lies elsewhere. That education begins with our own attitude towards material wealth and how we steward it for them.

Why does a loving Father with infinite resources not shelter us from want and suffering? Because to do so misses what true security, providence, and salvation really is. To do so thieves us from Him and tempts us to thieve.

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