Parenting: How Money Struggles Change Things -- And How They Don't

Children living in poverty face immeasurably greater challenges than those who are better off. They need social supports and, often, support from the government. But most of all, children need caring, resourceful parents who give them time and attention.
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Until now, we have centered most of the "blame" for kids growing up in poverty on one group: single moms. Single moms, as a whole, have been credited with everything from street crime to alcoholism and depression. Primarily because they're raising children without fathers we, as a society, have persisted in seeing them as insufficient parents. This is despite the fact that many have been tasked with raising children in the face of a substandard educational system, insufficient health care and day care, not to mention jobs.

Additionally, blaming single moms for raising kids who don't become productive members of society ignored the fact that not all single moms are alike. There are many single mothers by choice, chance, or circumstance. What's more, the number of single fathers is growing by 6 percent each year -- double the percent of the numbers of new single moms. The diversity of family types tells us that times have changed. The heretofore thought of "gold standard" family -- meaning mom, dad and kids -- has been tarnished.

In these dire economic times many people -- single parents or otherwise -- struggle to make ends meet. In spite of this, many parents continue to raise children who are emotionally healthy. Often when we talk about financial struggle and what it means to raise children under very tight economic circumstances, we give parenting skills short shift. By assuming that difficult financial situations have the same unequivocally negative effect on children, we discount the time, effort and care that many financially struggling parents put towards raising good children despite, or maybe even because of, their circumstances. Herein lies the problem with statistics, which don't look at the individuals within the whole. As a research psychologist I know that if you torture statistics long enough, they will confess to anything. Pick a statistic, I like to say, and there will be someone there to support it.

But what the big numbers can't do, and will never, is look at the patterns and events that don't quantify family life, but shape and define it. When I met Denise, her twin boys were three and she had recently left her husband, their father. From the beginning, she told me, her kids learned what it meant to sacrifice. They were comfortable, and then they weren't. "My sons would know that if they asked me for stuff, it would put me in a bind because I had no money," Denise told me. "So mostly, they chose not to ask. There were many times they didn't get to do things that a lot of other kids got to do. And that was hard -- for them and for me, because this life was my choice and not theirs." When you're a kid, it's always more difficult to understand why things are tough financially.

When I met the boys years later they were 18, and applying to college. Independently, each son had framed his college essay around Denise. One started this way: "[In the life my mother gave me], I don't feel as afraid of failure. I know if you can go all the way down to the bottom, you can totally rebuild everything all over again." The other boy wrote, "I've learned to understand that achievement has nothing to do with where you end up, but with how far you've come, and how hard you have to fight to get there. This is not a lesson I would have learned if I did not have the life I had." The boys had faced hardships in their lives, for certain. But from those hardships they drew great strength. Life might have been easier had Denise had more money. But the lessons she taught them would have been different.

Unfortunately, many of us often overlook the fact that having money, or not having it, is not the overriding factor in determining how or whether we instill values in our children. Take Jean. Jean had spent most of her married life as a full-time mother. When her husband, Rick, died suddenly, she found herself in a tough spot, with few marketable skills outside the home and three sons in school. "I had all sorts of extraordinarily demanding jobs," Jean told me. "My kids really worried because they saw how hard I worked -- which is exactly what I didn't want them to have to do. I had many sleepless nights." Jean made ends meet thanks to scholarships, financial aid and the income she earned at her odd jobs, but found herself facing a uniquely middle class conundrum. "One school said I didn't qualify for an extended payment plan because I was worth too much, and the other said I didn't qualify because I didn't earn enough. And I thought to myself, this is the great middle class."

Her children struggled after their father's death. Jean's oldest, for example, had a hard time in school. "When my father died, I shut down," he recalled. "The school started putting me in slow classes. I started thinking I was dumb, too. At that time in my life, what I really wanted was to be reassured that everything was going to be OK." At the same time, he took on babysitting duties at home not, he says, because he was told to but "because it seemed like the right thing to do."

Children living in poverty face immeasurably greater challenges than those who are better off. They need social supports and, often, support from the government. But most of all, children need caring, resourceful parents who give them time and attention. They need healthy, supportive communities. This is true whether they're rich or they're poor, whether their parents are married or not. While money struggles certainly do change families, they don't necessarily spell doom for the children in them. It's easy to forget, but kids are very resilient. They'll adapt to many different lifestyles.

Which is why one of the strongest weapons parents have is the power to communicate with their kids about what's going on in their lives. Simply put, parents must talk to their children -- and hear what they have to say in return. Be curious and eager to know them. Because in a world that sometimes disappoints, scares, and hurts them, what they want most -- far more than any material item -- is to connect with you.