Family life

How do you explain your low-income status to your child?

As her daughter gets older, Tara-Michelle Ziniuk wonders if it's the right time to talk to her child about material possessions and being a low-income family.

low-income-families

Anna has started asking questions about material possessions. Photo: Tara-Michelle Ziniuk

I’m in the schoolyard, waiting for my four-year-old daughter to get out of class. All of a sudden I hear: “Please tell Brandon’s mom to pack more food in his lunch bag. He’s eating everything he has, but he’s still hungry.”

I look over and see two teachers talking loudly to one another, in the presence of parents and other staff. It’s entirely possible that the student in question has a big appetite, but it occurs to me (and likely other parents who overheard the interaction) that the issue may have been a financial one. Perhaps Brandon’s mother could not afford to pack him a bigger lunch. I wish the teacher had been more sensitive to this possibility. I can’t help but think some sort of protocol—like a discreet note placed in the child’s backpack—could have avoided this public awkwardness.

I don’t think my daughter, Anna, noticed this particular exchange. However, she did notice when her friend went to Cuba for a week. She wanted to know if we could go to a beach, too. She also knows, to some extent, that we couldn’t stay in our former apartment because we could no longer afford it.

Read more: Confession: I’m embarrassed of my apartment>

There are moments like these that she’s started to pick up on but, overall, I think I’m still in the clear…for now. While I imagine Anna will take note of the families going on ski trips this winter, I don’t think she’ll see it as any different than the in-town adventures the two of us go on. While I notice the brand names on kids’ outfits in the schoolyard, I’m pretty sure she mainly notices either the colour or the cartoon character on the front. She knows that we do go on vacations, but I’m not sure she realizes that most of her classmates don’t travel on overnight discount busses. I know we eat chickpeas on nights where I want steak, but I don’t think Anna knows that steak is my preference.

Once, my charming child told me that my day job was to “be on the computer and go pee.” Truth be told, I do spend a bunch of my freelancing days (which just got shorter due to her school schedule and not being able to afford—or justify—after-school daycare) on the Internet, with some pee breaks in between. Anna knows that many parents go to work outside the home, but I’m not sure she has any concept of incomes or careers.

Read more: Million dollar babies: The cost of raising a child>

I grew up in what can only be referred to a “class-complicated” household. My parents (all of them—my mother, father and stepparents) come from different upbringings in terms of careers and income. When my brothers and I were growing up, there were years where my stepfather had a sports car, but there were also years where we had to heat Zoodles on the stove in the can because we didn’t have pots. I remember our electricity was cut off regularly, but I also recall my parents going on cruises. Through all the ups and downs, my mother and stepfather were never, ever honest with me about it. Maybe they were trying to shelter me and my siblings, or maybe they were in denial themselves. Either way, it’s something I’ve resented well into my adult life.

So, while my own current situation is far less complex, and much more consistent, I often worry about being honest with Anna—I want to protect her from the anxieties of living hand-to-mouth, but I also want her to understand our situation.

Read more: Could you raise a child on $3,500 annually?>

Anna has been inside nicely furnished houses owned by her friends’ parents. She’s asked me why we don’t have some of the things her friends have, but the questions usually fizzle out. I’m often left wondering what will happen, though, when her questions become more persistent. What exactly will I say to her? I’m committed to being honest with my daughter, within reason. I don’t want to evade the truth about our financial situation, nor do I want to make her anxious over it.

I just want her to enjoy chickpeas, but appreciate steak when it happens.

When is the right time to talk to kids about money and material possessions?

Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a Toronto-based queer mom to a four-year-old. She started off as a single-mom-by-choice, and now co-parents. You can read more of her posts here and follow her on Twitter @therealrealTMZ.