Are we rich, poor or middle class?

Swapna Mirashi

These days you ask children in the city ‘where milk comes from?’ and you are most likely to get ‘supermarket’ for an answer.

‘Where does money come from?’ Pose this question to your child and the answer you are likely to hear is ATM – ‘a machine,’ ‘a hole in the wall.’ Many children today think getting money is easier than getting a toy from the claw machine in the malls – you just have to insert a card, key in some numbers and ta da… out it comes, always!

Our modern consumer culture reinforces the unwritten equations being formed in their minds;

More money = More stuff = Being Rich = Better Life = More Friends = Better Self Image = Happiness

And its corollary,

Less Stuff = Less Money = Being Poor or ‘Middle Class’ = No Friends = Bad Self Image = Doom

So when, while reading a book, my 9-year-old daughter once asked;

‘Mom, are we rich, or poor or middle class?’

Despite being a financial literacy professional for more than a decade, I found myself unprepared for this question from my kid.

In those few moments my mind raced to find a proper answer to such a seemingly simple question from an innocent kids. I struggled to find an objective answer to a question that may colour my child’s perspective for the rest of her life.  Or will it? While I was thinking all this, my kid asked me a couple of more times, holding on to the book she was reading, ‘mom, are we rich, poor or middle class?’

So, like a smart but stumped mother, who understands the worth of her words in such a situation, instead of giving an answer, I posed a question to her, ‘what do you think? Are we rich, poor or middle class?’

‘I don’t know,’ she shrugged, casually. ‘I don’t think we are poor. But we are also not Bill Gates. So, we must be middle class?’ Good hypothesis and reasoning. In fact, I was thinking precisely on those lines, in those initial moments of bewilderment.

My daughter went back to her reading, but left me with her question a lot longer. It is good once in a while, to ponder on the place of money in our life, our family. In that simple question, I realised that as parents, we look at money on multiple levels. Money is not a number, a fact or a math equation. It comes loaded with our hopes and aspirations, fears and failures, comfort and security, achievements and ego. In the modern world, with ‘World’s Richest’, ‘Most Expensive’ Lists, money has become a concrete measure of who you are and what you are capable of. As an adult, we are consciously or unconsciously following this narrative, and that plays a big part when reacting and answering questions.

How does a parent answer such a question? Here are a few handy tips;

Bounce the question back at the kids, especially any question that you’re unsure to answer.Very often, as the know-all adults, we are tempted to jump to answer, so much so that most parents do not realise the power of a question or that a question could well be a reply to a child’s question.

Posing their question back to the kids, helps parents understand what is already in the child’s mind, where they are coming from, how much they already know about it, what is their direction of thought and so on. This helps in multiple ways;

  • It helps a parent know what the child is thinking about – for instance, in the above rich, poor or middle class question, asking the question to the kid instead of answering the question at first, will give parents the context in which it occurs to the child – is it just a casual question, or something is happening in her mind that is leading to a question – something she heard or read about. In case of school-going children and teenagers, their questions are actually opportunities for parents to understand what’s happening in their minds and lives outside of the home.
  • It helps the child think about her own question – in trying to answer the question, the child’s mind gets actively involved in either answering the question or framing and reframing the question to precisely what is wants to or intends to understand. Being able to precisely define the problem (or ask a question) is actually first and the most important step in solving the problem or understanding the situation.
  • It helps you, as a parent, buy some time to think through your answer.
  • It will help you build on what the child already knows – easier for her to understand and appreciate and good for you to know what the child already knows.
  • Finally, sometimes kids just ask question for the sake of answering or very casually. Bouncing their question back at them, gives parents a chance to judge the child’s frame of mind before interpreting too much and giving an elaborate explanation or a lecture in economics, philosophy or sociology to a child’s simple casual question.
  1. With younger children (less than 5 years) – try to give an objective answer – even if it is ‘I don’t know’.
  2. ‘I don’t know’ is OK and a parent is allowed to not know. Better still, if you don’t know the answer or are not sure on how to answer a question, it is good to say; ‘I don’t know, it never occurred to me to find an answer to this question. Let’s find an answer to it together.’ This can lead to a great parent-child exploration of some tricky icky question and also help the child appreciate that it is ok to not know everything and understand the process of finding answers or solving problems.
  3. Finally, a question, when it is not casually asked, is just a beginning of a series of questions. Take time to answer them patiently and properly. Better still, allow healthy discussions instead of a question and answer session.