A few weeks ago I had a serious talk with an old friend until 2 in the morning about raising our kids. He has two young kids. I have four. We marveled about how our kids are growing up with many advantages that we did not have at their age, and wondered if perhaps they have it too well.
Like my wife, my friend came to the United States as a war refugee from Vietnam. His family –dad, mom, and four brothers– lived in a cramped apartment in New Jersey. His dad supported them on a near minimum-wage job while the kids were tossed into the public school system before they knew much English. They suffered greatly during those years. His youngest brother tragically drowned one day, sucking the life out of the family and causing his mother to suffer a breakdown that led to crushing medical bills. He overcame all that, and the hardship he went through made him the man he is today.
The thing is, this conversation took place while we were blowing through a bottle of wine in his nice home in the suburbs. Our kids and our wives were asleep upstairs in the four spacious bedrooms. He pointed out the dilemma he thinks about all the time: he wants to provide for his kids so that they never have to suffer like he did. But if he does a too good job of providing, then his kids might grow up soft. The real world can be a harsh place, and there is something to be said for having the strength of character to deal with whatever gets thrown your way, but how do you pass that on to your kids?
I have no good answers for him. I too want my kids to navigate their way through life and develop a strong character, generosity, and a caring spirit. I don’t want them to get whatever they want, which makes it difficult for them to learn about gratitude, appreciating what they have, learning the difference between ‘want’ and ‘need.’ Yet I still buy my son a new snowboard when he outgrows the last one. My kids play Xbox on a flat-screen tv in their room. My youngest son’s choo-choo tracks, Matchbox cars, and toy dinosaurs fill up one of the rooms of our house. The truth is, they have everything they want.
I guess, therefore, the next-best thing is to make sure they realize how lucky they are. I blogged before about the time I had my children call their great-grandpa to talk about what life was like for him as a boy growing up during the Great Depression here. I blogged about the time I had my kids call the electric company to ask about how many families in our area lost their power because of unpaid bills during the holiday season. When we lived in Jakarta, my kids saw the extremes of abysmal poverty and gaudy wealth. They went to the international school where they saw kids whose parents were diplomats, international businessmen, and oil company executives live in huge bedrooms with expensive toys, and get driven to the toy store by a hired driver in an air-conditioned car. Students at the school wearing $100 Air Jordans ran around an astroturf track separated by a chain-link fence from Indonesian kids the same age on the other side running around with nothing. My kids also saw the joy when we gave one of our old bikes to the children of our Indonesian driver. It was those kids’ first bike. Hopefully the look on their face registered with my kids.
In the end, perhaps this is a quaint problem to have. There is a lot of suffering going on out there. My friend and I should be happy and grateful to have achieved enough success in life so that our children can grow up comfortably and without undo worry. Someday the real world will deal out setbacks, and our kids will have no choice but to cope. Hopefully we will have given them enough to draw some lessons from their parents. Only then will we know whether we raised our kids right, and with the necessary strength to thrive in the good times and survive in the bad and emerge a better person.