Photo: Josh Guerrieri
I bought my first car for $600 from the school lunch lady.
The 1983 Chevy Celebrity was worth every saved paper-route penny. Complete with a “Some bunny loves you” bumper sticker and a top speed of 63 mph, she coughed rather than purred and flaked instead of sparkled. The fact that she was the worst vehicle in most parking lots didn’t diminish my pride in earning that car.
I grew up in the ’80s in a family of 10. My mom stayed home and my dad brought home less than $30,000 a year working as a custodian. There were five boys and three girls growing up in a small-town, middle-class Ohio house with one functioning shower. Pretty cozy.
Thirty-some years later, I now live near Atlanta with my own big family. My wife and I work for ourselves, we live in a fine house, and our five young kids are happy, healthy and comfortable. By most measures, our life is pretty grand.
And, for a while, that was a problem for me.
I just couldn’t help feeling that life was too dang cushy.
Actually, I was fine with a cushy life for my wife and me. It was my kids I worried about.
I was concerned that by growing up in a more privileged environment, they wouldn’t learn as many important life lessons—they wouldn’t know the value of a dollar or how to change the oil in a car or realize that going out to a restaurant is a treat. Perhaps even worse, I wondered if our current lifestyle actually hindered their opportunity for success in life. Will they be hungry for anything?
Instead of relishing the seemingly better life that I now enjoy, I found myself actively trying to sabotage it. Rather than trying to create a more comfortable life for my kids (as most parents do) I was attempting to recreate my childhood in such a way that our kids experienced a lesser life.
No, we’re not getting five separate ice cream cones. We’ll take two bowls and five spoons, please.
Yes, we're walking.
No, you don’t need to put gloves on. It’s not even freezing temperature. Buy you a $3 bottle of lemonade? Are you serious right now? We’ve got an endless supply of water at home.
Here’s the ironic thing. I see “disadvantage” as the advantage I want my kids to have. I want them to develop toughness, grit, to not grow up with a sense of entitlement. Cold showers and government cheese developed these qualities in me. How—in their decidedly advantaged world—do I cultivate these traits in my own children?
Sabotage aside, we’ve actually found that pursuing a less comfortable life for our kids isn’t as difficult or unreasonable as it may seem, and it doesn’t mean we have to downgrade to a tiny house or trade in our Honda Odyssey for a clunker cargo van (sorry Dad!).
However, it does take creativity and intentionality, because our comfier lifestyles tend to lull us into entitlement and selfishness. So if you’re interested in fostering more resilience and grit in your kids’ relatively privileged upbringing, here are three simple tips:
In a world that increasingly pushes “bigger and better,” there’s value in being content with “enough.” Richard Foster, in his book Freedom of Simplicity, lays out a compelling view of a life free from the burden of “getting ahead.” The simple life enables us to gain a healthy perspective of the bigger picture, while minimizing our appetite for more stuff. Foster writes:
“We grasp and grab and never have enough. And most destructive of all, our flashy cars and sports spectaculars and backyard pools have a way of crowding out much interest in civil rights or inner-city poverty or the starved masses of India. Greed has a way of severing the cords of compassion.”
This doesn’t mean you’re doomed if you do well and own nice things. It just means you’ll have to work harder to fend off the all-consuming materialism we are wired as a society to pursue.
Unlike my upbringing in which “enough” was the fact of everyday life, it is an ideal that we frequently discuss with our kids in the context of one of our core family values: simplicity.
This is how we have gotten intentional about embracing—or rather harnessing—the power of simply accepting, and appreciating, that we have “enough” in our everyday lives:
Encourage presence over presents We generally opt for homemade celebrations with the people we love instead of more toys and more stuff. And when Grandma just can’t help spoiling her grandkids, we steer her in the direction of experiences instead of things—passes to state parks, zoo membership, money for a family trip.
Nights in We often prioritize staying at home together over running ragged to the next event. This takes intentionality because there’s always something we could be doing. Pizza and movie night is a standing Friday-night tradition.
Gadgets-be-gone As much as possible, we choose healthy, gadget-free recreation. This usually means we’re at the park a few times a week, on a hike or maybe just wrestling on the front lawn. OK, often wrestling on our front lawn!
If I wanted that ’83 Chevy Celebrity, there was only one path to ownership—I had to pay for it. I shovelled driveways and cut lawns. I started delivering the morning paper when I was 10, and began working on a farm when I was 15.
Though our eldest child is only 10, we are fostering the same work ethic in him and in all our kids: if you want something, you’re going to have to work hard for it. It’s also important to us that our kids recognize that their world of plenty doesn’t extend to other countries or even other homes in their city, and that our Earth’s resources are finite.
Contributions, not chores In our family, there are certain base responsibilities to keep the house in order, and everyone is expected to contribute—without getting paid. After dinner each night, everyone sets off to finish their daily contribution, be it bathroom wipe-down or playroom pickup. It’s not very difficult or time-consuming. Sometimes, it’s not done correctly. But the larger point we drive home is that to be a functioning part of society, you have to contribute. You have to take responsibility. Don’t always be a consumer, be a contributor.
Waste not, want not We eat healthy (primarily real food, veggies with every meal, water over juice) and talk to our kids about food waste and the environment. We also just eliminated paper towels in favour of cloth, and our trash is noticeably smaller than it used to be. And hand-me-downs fill the kids’ closets, as we’ve mastered the sell: “It’s new to you, isn’t it?”
Stewardship We teach the kids about money and stewardship. They have a tiny allowance each week if they did an optional weekly contribution in addition to their required daily contributions. They must divide their pay between spending, saving and giving. Every quarter, they get excited to pick a new charity, even if they’re only donating a few dollars.
In my own upbringing, there wasn’t a lot of time for my parents to worry about the dangers of my crappily built bike ramp or which neighbourhood kids used the “F” word. And that’s a good thing.
Trying and failing develops self-efficacy and independence. And if we hover over every project, every conversation and every decision, we rob our kids of that valuable learning experience.
We attempt to foster this development by creating a home where failure is acceptable and independence is encouraged. A few areas where we’re intentional about this:
Embrace autonomy Ask your kids to try doing something first, before automatically doing it for them, whether that’s tying their own shoes or spelling a word. This will be inconvenient and often slow. But it will be worth it, for them and for you.
Stay on the sidelines Encourage your kids to play without you. Allow them to referee their own games, pick their own teams and build their own forts. They get to experience justice and winning and losing without you.
Celebrate risk-taking Did the kids do something slightly terrifying? And didn’t get seriously injured? That’s cause for celebration. You’ve heard the saying “No risk, no reward”? Well, it’s really important for our kids to experience pushing outside their comfort zone and realizing that most times they will be A-OK. That said, stick close. This allows you to still have some control over any safety concerns (maybe don’t climb on that particular branch) while allowing them to fail in a way that won’t cause serious injury.
The real aim in allowing our kids this independence and risk-taking is to give them access to life’s best teacher—experience. No manual, rule book, moral code or anecdote we share with our kids can substitute the power of real-life experiences. And so we set them free to try, to fail and to experiment, coming alongside them as needed for encouragement.
In our own family, weaving these values—simplicity, responsibility, independence—into our daily lives is an ongoing commitment that is rarely easy because it often comes at a cost. We have to check our own egos to not keep up with the Joneses. We have to accept inconveniences for the sake of a big-picture lesson. We have to be patient when “doing it themselves” takes 15 minutes longer than “let me just do this for you.” And perhaps most difficult, we’ve got to be OK seeing our kids uncomfortable, and, at times, unhappy with us.
In my family we do this not simply to toughen our kids up to the realities of a harsh world. That’s not our job. Instead, we create these slightly “lesser life” moments so that our kids have a fighting chance to grow up grateful, driven and confident, to best prepare them for whatever life may bring—which someday might mean picking up their prom date in the 20-year-old family minivan.
Josh lives the full life in Atlanta with his wife, Erin, and their five kids. He and Erin blog and podcast about parenting at Build Your Best Family.
This article was originally published online in July 2018.