Give the Gift of Poverty: A Parental Strategy for Teaching Life Lessons

I still remember how it felt being a little girl listening intently to my grandfather reminisce. It was like having Norman Rockwell paint his vision of America on the canvas of my mind.

I grew up hearing stories of cold winter nights when Jack Frost sketched his icy masterpieces on the inside of single-pane bedroom windows. Of children sleeping five to a bed, snuggling and giggling under the covers, keeping each other warm. Of thunder jugs and outhouses.

In the back of my grandfather’s childhood home stood that old wooden shack. Just how far back it stood was a matter of perspective. The length of the walk somehow magically lengthened in direct disproportion to how desperately one needed to get there.

It was commonly known as a “one-seater.” The 4X4 shanty was fully furnished with an old plank fashioned into a bench. The hole that was cut out of the middle had been worn smooth with use and time. At your feet sat two bushel-baskets. One filled with red corncobs, the other with white ones. First, you used the red corncob, then, a white one — to see if you needed to use another red one.

My mother also grew up with an outhouse. Times had progressed by then. At her feet was a Sears and Roebuck catalog. Gone were the days of corncobs. No doubt that she and her five siblings took for granted the convenience of having reading and wiping material.

Two generations later, it never occurs to me to be thankful for toilet paper. Indoor plumbing seldom crosses my mind unless I’m cleaning — and then gratefulness is not what I’m mumbling.

Volumes have been written on the character, honor, and values of “the greatest generation.” Many, if not most, were raised in conditions we only read about in history books. They survived a real depression, fought World War II, and yet as a whole lost the battle on the home front when it came to passing down their core beliefs to the next generation.

That’s a topic that Kathy Shaidle has also explored on the PJ Lifestyle blog, in her articles on  “The Truth About the Greatest Generation” and “The 3 Most Destructive Members of the Greatest Generation.”

At the risk of painting an entire generation with one stroke of an oversized black brush, I think we can agree that the overall cultural impact of the Boomers was not quite what their parents expected.

It’s no secret that hard times bring out the best and worst in us. That is the simple truth behind the much-touted, saintly qualities of previous generations. My grandfather was born in 1898, my mother 30 years later. Those hard decades pressed virtues in and out of all who lived through them.

We want to give our children the very best. We want them to avoid our mistakes, our heartaches, and our trials. In short, we want them to have a life without pain. We want to believe that if we can pour in all good, we can expect all good to come out.

Unfortunately, that’s not how human nature works. The problem is found in our definition of “good,” which is usually some abstraction of prosperity, leisure, and fun. Hard work is painful, yet it yields the most satisfying results. This is not a new concept. It’s a common truth — it’s just not thought of as something we want to give to our children.

It’s often difficult to watch our child struggle with an unfulfilled desire, especially if it’s within our power to give it to them. But when we do, when we inundate our sons and daughters with “stuff” and fill their lives with little more than leisure and sports, we are not preparing them to live in the world of adults.

The truth is we are indulging ourselves. Few things are more satisfying to a parent than giving their child what they want. But sometimes we need to look at the bigger picture.

We only have a few short years to equip our children to survive. We see to their education and their health and strive for their happiness. But consider this: Just as you know it is far better to systematically put money in the bank for their college, rather than giving them money for candy, so too is it better to help them develop the moral muscles necessary to face the adult world than giving them momentary happiness.

Before anyone replaces the pool house with an outhouse for fear of turning their child into an OWS ingrate, let me offer a few suggestions.

  • Find or create opportunities for earning money. The chance to buy a desired item will put the wish in an entirely new light. Oftentimes what a child will pine for mom or dad to buy will lose all its luster once they discover they can have it by dipping into their own pocket.
  • Give children the opportunity to serve with no expectations of gain. Churches are a good place to start, but just being aware of needs in your own neighborhood can open a lot of opportunities. Raking leaves for the neighbor, cleaning a gutter for an elderly person, or volunteering at a veteran or children’s hospital.
  • Resist the urge to rescue your child from small failures. We learn more from our failures than our triumphs.

In spite of what the media would have us believe, the vast majority of Americans are not living in Hooverville. Nor are our children born into a class from which they can never rise. The American dream for my grandfather wasn’t a “dream” at all. It was a vision. Parents who have never had a formal education have dreamed of college for their own offspring and then painted a vision in their children’s minds of a future better than their own.

That is the American dream. We don’t have to demand that someone else must give us our “fair” share. We have been endowed by our Creator with the ability to imagine a better life and then create it out of the dust in our garage. It is our heritage to do so.

In spite of all their poverty, the generations before us kept their dreams alive.

This Christmas season, I invite you to join me in reevaluating the gifts we give to our children and grandchildren by asking, “What will this gift create in him? Will it be a tool for future prosperity? Will it ignite his imagination?”

“Or will it caress my parental ego?”

Every generation will be pressed by hardship at one moment or another. By using a little selective deprivation while they are young we can give the next generation the gift of fortitude.

Perhaps then, we will once again see a generation eager to build their lives, rather than stand with a sign demanding one.


Check out Rhonda’s previous articles:

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