Q. Whenever we ask our 13-year-old son what he wants to be when he grows up, he says, “All I want to be is rich.” He talks incessantly about the things he hopes to have in the future, including expensive sports cars, the latest technology, and fancy homes in exotic locations. He has even started to learn about high-end brands and mentions them in conversation.
Our son’s fixation on money and materialism bothers us. He never talks about how he’ll achieve his goal of wealth or what he’ll contribute to the world in his pursuit of success. But worse than that, he has no interest in talking about potential careers that focus on helping others.
We’re worried that he has developed the wrong values. We’re not sure how this has happened, since we aren’t a wealthy family and we are very clear about our feelings towards money—namely, that we are meant to steward our resources in a responsible way as a reflection of our gratitude to God. We have tried to teach our children that God enables us to provide for our family by giving us gifts and talents, and that it’s not necessary to accumulate a lot of wealth to be content in life. We also make it a practice to give generously to the Church and charities, but we haven’t told our kids about this because we don’t want to appear to be bragging about doing good works.
How can we make sure that our son is developing the proper values about money and materialism and not simply buying into the culture’s consumerist values?
A. Don’t you just love the confident pronouncements of a newly minted teenager? On the one hand, it’s great to be idealistic and believe that anything is possible, but on the other hand, young teens typically don’t have any idea what it takes to achieve the success they envision.
A 13-year-old boy will readily state lofty goals like playing pro football or making the Olympics, and a girl might claim she plans to win The Voice or make it in Hollywood. An entrepreneurial teen might even plan on becoming the next Bill Gates. All those paths would lead to fame and fortune, which, in our culture, seem to be the ultimate standards for success. Yet kids don’t typically know what it takes to make their dreams a reality.
Sometimes, like your son, kids think they can just skip the fanfare and simply “get rich.” It doesn’t occur to them that wealthy people usually are extremely hardworking and patient. They applied themselves in school, and they have often taken risks and experienced failure on their way to ultimate success.
In our culture, being rich looks like the path to an easy life, filled with endless choices, exciting experiences, and stuff—lots of stuff. And, of course, buying all the stuff you want means you’ll be happy, right? That pervasive materialism actually robs children of joy in childhood and will have an impact on their satisfaction later in life.
Your son’s growing interest in wealth for its own sake is a reason for concern about his values, so you’re smart to notice and respond to his fixation on money. Your focus ought to be on helping him consider his gifts and talents and encouraging him to exploit his strengths. If he does that, he’s likely to be successful in life, but more importantly, he’ll enjoy his life’s work.
Consider having your son take an interest inventory or a strength-finder test to identify what he’s good at. These tests can suggest potential career paths. Even at 13, it’s not too soon to help your son identify his skills so he can imagine himself doing something cool, not just having a burgeoning bank account.
You also need to instruct your son about the realities of making money. Ask him to identify several people he considers successful and research their backgrounds. He may realize that most successful people get rich the old-fashioned way: They earn it by contributing to their communities and society. Usually, they provide goods and services in innovative and useful ways.
Finally, teach your son that wealthy people are capable of doing much good in the world, and that becoming successful carries with it great responsibility. Where would the world or the Church be without philanthropists who steward their wealth to help the poor and support charitable work?
One mistake you’re making is keeping your habit of charitable giving from your children on the assumption that sharing your acts of stewardship constitutes bragging. Actually, in the parenting business that’s called “setting a good example,” and it’s essential if you want your son to understand that giving to the Church and other charitable organizations is a responsibility for everyone, not just the wealthy.
Rather than keeping your son from knowing about your philanthropic deeds, you might consider involving him in them. Let him research and choose a charity to support. Teach him about Catholic charities and the good that the Church does in your community and around the world. And when he does start to earn money, make sure you require that he also begin the habit of putting something into the basket every Sunday at Mass.
These days, it’s difficult to teach healthy, appropriate attitudes about money. But ensuring that our children have the right values about money and materialism will help them keep the proper perspective and stay focused on the things that really matter.