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Keeping Up With the Cohens

Keeping Up With the Cohens


Dear Rachel,

We live in a very affluent area, one that is far above our means and economic level. The problem is that our children go to school with other wealthy children, and expect to have the same clothing, gadgets and lifestyle that all of their friends have. Being that our children are pretty young (elementary and junior high school age), we don't feel that it is appropriate or their business to have to explain our economic situation. At the same time, with school starting, they want brand new backpacks and a new wardrobe like everyone else, and not only can't we afford it, but we see nothing wrong with the backpack from last year that is in great condition or the barely worn hand-me-downs that they wore last year. Yet my children feel like they are being neglected! Any advice?

Can't keep up with the Cohens

Dear Can't Keep Up with the Cohens,

As I am sure you well know, children can be bottomless pits where no matter how much they are given or how much they have, it will never seem to be enough. Because of that, buying them new clothes and new backpacks will not solve the problem, as there will only be something else that a friend will have that they will want. Therefore, you need to stop this game rather than play it, and you need to teach your children how to appreciate what they have.

In Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of Our Fathers, which we read during these long summer Shabbat days, we are taught, Eizehu Ashir, Hasameach B'chelko, "Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his share." This is really the trick with our children. There is always going to be a new style, a new game or just a prettier this or that, and if we allow it, they can spend their days looking at everything they don't have and simply being envious of what everyone else does. This can be something as petty to wanting a nicer eraser (yes, my children were devastated that I bought them plain pink ones and not the designed ones) to as they age, wanting a nicer car, a nicer house, etc.

Regardless of your financial situation, children need to be taught the difference between getting what they need and getting what they want. And it sounds pretty clear that your children definitely have what they need, and this is a question of pure want. Teaching our children to appreciate what they have is a lot easier to do when they are made aware of how many people are not able to have what they need, let alone what they want. While this needs to be done in an age appropriate manner, they should know that there are children in this world who do not have enough food to eat. There are children who do not have homes to live in. There are children who do not get what they really, really need, let alone anything extra.

In our home, we have a tzedakah box, a charity box, right next to the front door, along with a bowl of pennies. When my kids get up, one of the first things they do is put a penny in the tzedakah box. My little ones sing a song which goes, "Give a penny even two, to people that have less than you, help another when they're in need, that's a mitzvah, yes indeed…"

When our children are in a frame of mind of giving rather than taking, then it is easier for them to understand that they should be grateful for everything they have. Now in many stores there are collections for school supplies for children who don't have anything to start their year. Show your children these collections and let them pick out things that they want to give to other children. Explain to them that even though they want a new backpack, there are children who don't have even an old one to use.

Yet we all know the excitement of starting the new school year, and when possible, having that new outfit or new supplies can feel great. So sit with your children and go through everything they have and decide with them really what they need versus what they want. It might be that one child needs a new lunch bag whereas the other ones have from the year before, or one child needs a new pair of shoes. When it comes to what they need, try to let them go with you and pick out the one they want. Let their need and their want coincide if possible. Sometimes even just having a really cute supply box can make them feel special and spending the extra dollars on the fancy one is well worth it if you can simultaneously fill both need and want.

And when it comes to clothing, again, look at what they have that fits, and what they will be needing during the year. And then take them shopping with you. If your child needs a new winter coat, that is a necessity. But she certainly doesn't need the fanciest one or the most expensive one. But here is a great opportunity for children to learn the value of money. When you do take them shopping, explain to them that you are willing to spend "X" amount of money for what they need. Come up with a reasonable amount to cover what they need. Then, let them see what they want.

If you have a budget of $100 which would cover two to three outfits, but your daughter really wants a particular outfit that costs $100, she will need to choose. Let her get that one outfit, but then she needs to know that it is the only one she will have. She could have a lot more, if she chose different items, but she will need to live with what she chooses. If she gets the outfit she wants, then that is what she will have for the season, and then she can't complain that she doesn't have more clothes.

So each and every parent must decide what it is that children need. And ideally, those needs can be met and supplied. But when it comes to what our children want, that is where we should not only not give in to the demands, but use them as an opportunity for educating our children. I hope you are successful in teaching them to appreciate what they have and to learn the value in giving to others less fortunate than themselves. And hopefully this approach will affect their friends as well. Maybe your children will be the ones to start the new trend of giving rather than always taking!


"Dear Rachel" is a bi-weekly column that is answered by a rotating group of experts. This question was answered by Sara Esther Crispe.

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the Co-Director of Interinclusion, a non-profit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of and wrote the popular weekly blog, Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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Daliah San Francisco, CA via March 21, 2016

Money is a necessity not a value. It is nice to be important but it is more important to be nice. We live in a twisted imperfect society where people are thought to consume and compete, if we live above our means we are foolish. If we join the crowd we become "goats" If we want the next fashionable gadget just to show off we are out of our mind, We must live according with reality and not join the chains and we will be free and happy, and then we not only can enjoy life but find solutions to any material problem we may have. Reply

Lisa Providence, RI February 15, 2014

Keeping Up With The Cohens Your situation isn't unusual. Many children want to be like their friends, but that's not always possible. Your children need to know the truth, that you don't have the money to buy them brand new things - especially if some of the things they have are already in good condition. If they get upset, realize that it's NOT your fault. Reply

Anonymous NYC June 25, 2013

Point them to Warren Buffet You shouldn't explain your financial haves or have nots to the children. You could have all the money you want, but if you don't want the children to take things for granted, then you have every right regulate what they spend. Let them earn it. It's important for children to earn their own things and learn to respect money. Let them know that is is wrong to waste money frivolously, especially when others have so little.

This test is not just for our children to learn - but also for us as parents to learn to stand strong and do the right thing despite pressures. Someday, the children who did not receive everything on a silver platter will be the fortunate ones, and the ones who did, like empty vessels. Reply

Anonymous Far Rockaway, NY August 7, 2011

Reply to Anonymous It is a big problem for families with money to teach proper values to children. No one wants to raise spoiled or arrogant children. No one wants see his/ner children grow up to be G-d Forbid addicted to drugs or afflicted by various diseases due to constantly needing one yet bigger thrill after another.

Parents with money face the challenge of teaching their children to use that blessing wisely and to be satisfied with what they have, to be content with an ordinary life rather than always seeking the fanciest newest toys. The parents can set an example in this, by owning cars whose purpose is to transport people rather than to make everyone else choke with envy, by wearing modest and useful clothing rather than the costliest furs and the priciest designer styles. Most of all, chilldren can be taught the value of intelligent giving, tzedakah or charity in its best sense, helping others to help themselves. Reply

Anonymous m, m May 10, 2011

how does a family like the Cohen's get a lesson? I wonder what you would write to a family like the Cohen Family.

I have alot of money, live in a big house and I can feel the resentment from those who can not afford the beautiful clothes that i can buy for my children and the large house.
Sometimes i think that I fall into the trap to enjoy others wanting my lifestyle. It makes me feel important, an example and loved? I am happy to create a want so others will chose this life and strive for it. I like others to want what i have. How can I work on this? I think that if I have the money to spend that i should spend the money to keep the small business owners making a living. I give to charity. It is a responsibility to have wealth but it creates jealousy, problems for others. They judge me because of my wealth and behavior and i am an individual person. so What should I do? What should I teach my children of inherited wealth about this fact that others want what they have. At this time we ignore it and consider it their problem Reply

Angela Sudbury, MA May 10, 2011

tricks to add value I would suggest one trick in case your kids really hard to convince. Embellish and accessorize. From my experience with two girls I know that kids appreciate hand-made cute things. Like, you can sew a little flower or super-man on the old shirt or sweater, you can make a key chain to go on the backpack, or you can embellish simple headband. You can change buttons to the fancy ones. All this will make your kids a trend setters and teach them how to express their personality with creativity and not only money. Reply

Rachel Amelan Wilmslow, England via May 22, 2009

Keeping up with the Cohens Now, it is interesting that the children feel that they have to acquire all these possessions. Last night, at the local Brownie pack, we asked the children to write down/draw what was important to them. As I went round the room, I could see that they had generally drawn pictures of parents, siblings and pets: a few had indicated that they wanted to be happy. I ventured to ask one group of little girls whether they thought money was important and they laughed. They said that they did not really think that it counted in the list of things that mattered to them. Mind you, one giggling young lady added a £ sign to her paper at this point...

I think that the above exercise should be set for these children. It clarifies the thinking wonderfully. Oh, and actually it is generally parents who are bothered by such things. Reply

Felice Debra Eliscu via February 25, 2009

RE:I think the "Cohens" deserve a little bit of sy " It is a proper education to teach children to give -and those who have more will give more. If the "Cohens" had any idea that it is difficult for you to afford -they and their children would find a way"

This is something we do not hear enough of. Wealthy people sustain the economy and give a lot of time and money to charitable organizations. Reply

Lisa Providence, RI October 28, 2008

Keeping Up With the Cohens I grew up comfortable, NOT rich! I was taught money doesn't grow on trees and to treat money with respect. I was taught needs come first and wants come second.

There were times when I did get jealous of the other kids at school, but I wasn't competitive. I was able to shop for beautiful clothes, shoes and anything else I needed - especially when there were big sales going on, and I have NO regrets!


Annie Maaleh Adumim, Israel October 2, 2008

What you have to give Your children, need you, not your money.. being around for your kids is the number 1 gift you can give.... I grew up also in an affluent neighborhood with my grandparents who taught me a lot about saving and not needing everything that everyone else has. I learned to invest in things that last, and be grateful for what i have. I felt better that i didnt have to follow the crowd and run after the styles that came in and out of fashion. Classic mixing and matching clothing is a look that goes a long way. who cares what other pple think. Thank G-d, i live in Israel now, in a neighborhood that really appreciates and respects eachothers differences. Eizeh Hu Ashir Hasameach BeChelko, Who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot. I am happy for my friends that have a house, and Thank G-d, i have a beautiful apt.. we are happy for people that have more.. because, we know that what we have is to be shared...what else can i say? Good Luck! Reply

daniela September 11, 2008

The I think the "Cohens" deserve a little bit of sympathy. They have money. Hey after all, that means that G-d entrusts them with such money. They give their kids, not everything, but what is in line with their own lifestyle. It is certainly no education to have a mansion, an expensive car, etc (which in some positions are a necessity) and to deny the children their fancy clothing, toys or whatnot. It is a proper education to teach children to give -and those who have more will give more. If the "Cohens" had any idea that it is difficult for you to afford -they and their children would find a way - they would even find if it meant renouncing to their own (it's much easier to go to school with the cheap backpack for those who "set the fashion"). You are stealing from them a mitzvah. What isnt forbidden is permissible, they are happy to give their children what is permissible, and why do you think they would not buy for your kids too? All Jews are righteous, give the "Cohens" the benefit of the doubt. Reply