“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better,” said singer, comedian and radio star Sophie Tucker. Cher, Charles Barkley and David Lee Roth all have said it, too.
It seems obvious the same would be true for raising a family. After all, poverty has well-documented negative effects on kids. But it’s actually more complicated than that. Affluence presents its own set of challenges, including higher rates of depression, anxiety and alcohol use, especially among suburban teens, according to “The Challenge of Prosperity,” a study authored by Dr. Cheryl Rampage, executive vice president at The Family Institute at Northwestern University in Chicago and [email protected]
As a mother, I’ve been both rich-(ish) and poor (also -ish), and yes, in a lot of ways rich is better. You can eat out once in awhile, go to movies at the theater (even the expensive nighttime ones!) and not stress out when your child is invited to a birthday party and needs to get a gift. You don’t have the sort of day-to-day ever-present stress that’s rough on a marriage and makes you snap at your kid when they say they need new shoes. You don’t wake up in the night, terrified that you’re going to lose the house.
And yet … there’s a certain ease and sense of privilege to having money that don’t seem good either. When we had more money, we used to have a woman come in once week to clean. It was great (oh, so great!). However, once, when I asked my 4-year-old to clean up a mess she had made, she replied blithely, “Let Carmen do it.” Not so great.
And after my husband lost his job, it was awful in all kinds of ways. But there were also unexpected moments of beauty in our new situation. One summer day, when our food budget was sort of nonexistent, we gathered things from the garden and figured out how to make amazing pasta with lemon and zucchini. (Poor people probably eat a lot of carbs — and zucchini) We felt scrappy, like we could handle things.
For very young children, money = good
When children are very young, the evidence is clear: Having money is a huge advantage. Kids in families with a decent income have higher birth weights and better physical health and hit development milestones earlier, according to Rampage.
“Early childhood — prenatal year, birth year, age 1 — is by far the most important period for income sufficiency,” says Dr. Greg Duncan, professor in the School of Education at University of California, Irvine. “Early childhood is a time when brains are being wired; there’s really an explosion in development.” It’s also a crucial time in the development of stress and immune systems.
According to a study by a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, poverty can make real changes in the brain’s architecture, affecting the frontal and temporal lobes and hippocampus, which can lead to lifelong problems with depression, learning difficulties and limitations in the ability to cope with stress.
Citing a study from Cornell University, Duncan said that low income at the beginning of life is associated with all sorts of seemingly unrelated outcomes later in life including early onset arthritis and hypertension.
Low-income families aren’t able to provide their children with advantages available to higher-income kids. “Low-income families are spending about $1,300 per child per year; and in high-income families, it’s about $10,000,” Duncan says. “High-income families are much more likely to consider their kids as ‘projects’ and are very conscious about cultivating skills and opportunities for their kids.”
The extra money funds enrichment experiences and equipment — things like summer camps, lessons, vacations and computers.
A few bright spots
There are some possible positives to a less affluent childhood, though the research is murky. Poor and working-class children are more likely to enjoy close ties with extended family, can relax more easily and have more energy, according to research by sociologist Annette Lareau. And lower-income kids may actually have a childhood with more fun, without parents hovering over them and scheduling their time. However, the fun comes at the expense of learning not-so-fun skills that help later in life, such as time management, challenging authority and navigating bureaucracy.
And the effects of poverty can be mitigated. Putting more money into the pockets of low-income families makes a measurable difference. Studies have shown that income boosts, even relatively small ones, create a noticeable bump in test scores. And according to a national health survey, the levels of cortisol — the stress hormone — went down in families who benefited from increased earned income tax credits, Duncan says.
Affluence comes with
its own issues
High income is a positive factor through childhood, but affluence creates its own challenges by the time kids enter junior high. Children from wealthy, suburban homes are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, and they are more likely to use alcohol, according to Rampage’s research.
There are several factors involved in this:
Lack of family responsibilities: “Kids from less affluent families generally have to do chores because their parents are working,” Rampage says. “Kids in affluent families tend to have no actual responsibilities in family life so they don’t have a sense of really being needed.”
Large homes: Bigger houses isolate teens from the rest of the family. “Kids in these families tend to have their own bedrooms, bathrooms, computers, their own mini fridge. They can live a life that’s pretty much outside their parents’ range of vision. Their parents are not in touch with what’s really going on.”
Isolation also allows more opportunity for secret habits, such as cutting or using drugs. Popular boys from suburban homes, especially, are at greater risk for substance abuse.
Too much privacy: Cellphones and computers magnify the privacy and isolation of a large home. “These devices allow the kids to have a lot of contact with peers, completely outside of the range of the parents’ awareness, which can set the stage for bad choices and risky behaviors,” Rampage says.
Pressure to excel: Affluent kids face pressure internally and from their parents. “They were born into a very fortunate circumstance, but they haven’t earned it. They feel like they need to do things to demonstrate their worthiness,” Rampage says. “But what if you’re not a genius, you’re not a jock, you’re not gorgeous — you’re just a regular kid? How do you cope with the fact that everybody expects you to do great things? That can create a lot of pressure, which can eventually turn up in the form of depression and/or anxiety.”
How to mitigate the effects
Despite all this, income is not destiny, and there are ways to combat the negatives from various financial situations.
“One of the biggest factors in the achievement gap for low-income children has to do with young children and language,” says Dana Van Sinden, professor of child development at Long Beach City College. “There’s a very small list of things that make a difference. One is simply reading to children for as little as five minutes a day — that little can make a gigantic difference. The other side of that is modeling reading. You don’t have to be reading Kafka, you can be reading People magazine; it doesn’t matter. It conveys the same thing: Reading is important. If there are no books in your house and no one reads, there’s no reason for children to be interested in reading.”
A regular routine helps, too. Particularly important is a regular mealtime because it provides an easy opportunity for language-building conversations. Here again, income levels can affect how parents and kids interact. At lower-income levels, there tends to be one-way conversation, with parents issuing instructions. At higher-incomes level, there is more quizzing from the parents. At all levels, parents are frazzled and often rushed.
“There’s a difference between talking with children and talking at them,” Van Sinden says. “You have to listen to what children are saying and respond to what they’re saying.”
Duncan adds: “Provide your kids, especially young kids, with responsive interaction where you tune yourself into your child. Kids need to be developing vocabularies and language patterns and early numeracy. That can be done in a lot of day-to-day interaction. If you’re going to the grocery store and you have your 3-year-old in the cart, you can point out shapes and colors and have the kind of back and forth interaction that kids really profit from.”
Establishing a strong social or familial network is also positive. “A huge protective factor for low-income children is living with more than one generation in the house,” Van Sinden says. This eases stress in the household by adding more sources of child care and providing a safety net if one wage-earner suddenly can’t work.
Rampage recommends a high-structure, high-warmth style of parenting. High warmth is offering unconditional love, physical touch and approval. High structure includes having clear expectations and consistent consequences for bad behavior.
“Affluent parents tend to be pretty good on the warmth, but sometimes they’re not as good on the structure,” Rampage says. Giving kids chores gives them a sense of mastery and helps them feel like valuable members of the family.
Rampage also suggests restricting children’s access to devices and creating more communal time. “Human beings are wired to be social, and families are where children first learn how to be social,” says Rampage. “If they have less contact with their families, then there’s a greater chance that they’re going to go off in some ways that are not going to be good for them.”
It is also important to expose your children to different experiences, which help build connections in the brain, says Van Sinden. “It’s not dance class or soccer or music lessons in and of themselves that create big changes in your brain, it’s about having experience,” she says. “It doesn’t have to cost much. If you are bilingual and you help your child keep both languages, it has the same kind of brain-expanding capability as it would if your child learned a musical instrument.”
Even though the challenges of having a very low or very high income are different, the parenting guidelines boil down to the same basic things: Establish routines and clear rules, eat meals together, create communal time and really listen to your kids.
As I was writing this, I asked my two teenage girls how they’ve felt during some of the time we haven’t had much money. Sure, they were embarrassed by our stained carpet and car that has old-school crank windows. But, to my surprise, they both said having less money has been a good experience. When they do get something, they said, they appreciate it more. They watch friends buy stuff without thinking or caring, and they see how the things aren’t making the other kids any happier.
I feel bad about some of the tension they’ve surely felt in our house as we’ve struggled financially, but I feel like I’m raising sensible, conscientious girls. And I’m proud of that.
Still, sometimes they lay it on a little thick. The other day, my oldest was talking about a dream she’d had about going to Disneyland. “I knew it was a dream because we actually got to buy food in a theme park,” she said pointedly. Ouch!
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