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!