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Judging kids of wealthy families causes damage that can last a lifetime

Passing judgment, subtly or not, shapes children's views of themselves and the world around them

Three children grew up in a home where alcohol was overused, emotional stability was absent and the family was in a constant state of turmoil. One child became a heavy drug user and spent his final hours on a sidewalk among other addicts. One child married, became a teacher, had a family and built a traditional life well away from his origins. One child had multiple marriages, attained a PhD and became essential to many classified NASA projects.

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Can you tell from these brief details whether the family was impoverished or affluent? Consider how you would attribute each person’s life accomplishments or failures based on whether they grew up in a mansion, an average home or a trailer park.

Children born into affluence have judgments placed on them that, subtly or not so subtly, shape their views of themselves and the world around them. Both wealth creators and future inheritors often try to raise their children without directly addressing the privilege factor. It may seem logical at the time of parenting, but there is a flaw built into the avoidance approach.

Everyone else in the community knows who their parents are, and other children are raised with parents who have likely already passed judgment on the wealth. Youngsters will be exposed to some sort of wealth judgment at an early age, with or without their parents present.

It can be argued that how they are introduced to the concept of their privilege may shape how they trust, whether they feel entitled, how they approach love relationships and whether they ever truly feel accomplished as an individual. This is not a topic to ignore.

Two examples

Imagine the surprise for all when Charlie jumped into the back seat of the car after his first day of Grade 1 and demanded from his dad, “Why didn’t you tell me that I’m Chinese!” Charlie’s parents had only discussed being Canadian. The family had never focused on any specific cultural heritage because within their Toronto-based Chinese-Welsh home it was irrelevant. At six years old, on his first day of Grade 1, Charlie had been labelled. His peers identified and addressed Charlie’s ethnic background while he was outside of his home, and Charlie, who perceived himself as simply Canadian, was completely unprepared. His parents had always felt that not discussing ethnicity was the best thing for their diverse and inclusive home. What if it wasn’t ethnicity being labelled, but wealth and perceived status?

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At the other end of the country a different type of labelling was taking place. Ada received a call from the school with the message that the teacher wanted to speak with her. Both she and her husband worked typical jobs and there were no specific perks provided by the prosperous family she had married into. They lived on their household income, and she needed to adjust her work schedule and the after-school care program to accommodate the teacher’s request. The teacher had arranged for another school employee to supervise the child as the conversation took place. The kindergarten teacher’s opening statement was, “I am concerned about how you are raising your son.” The look of shock was evident on Ada’s face, and she stayed silent. The teacher continued, “Today during Show and Tell (a common activity in which children have the opportunity to share topics of their choice with the class) Nicholas declared to the room ‘I’m rich,’ and we are concerned about how his behaviour may impact the other children.” The word “we” indicated this incident had already been discussed with the other teachers and staff.

Everyone else in the community knows who their parents are, and other children are raised with parents who have likely already passed judgment on the wealth.

Ada was embarrassed and quickly explained that the previous evening she had sat with her five-year-old and worked on teaching him how to count to 100 by stacking pennies in groups of 10 and counting them. At the end of the lesson, Nicholas asked if he could keep the 100 pennies. She agreed. He said, “Thanks mom, now I’m rich,” and with the biggest smile on his face promptly added them to his piggy bank. This particular teacher had been born and raised in the community where Nicholas’s father’s family was the primary employer. She had gone to school with Nick’s uncle and her lifetime of biases were exposed during this interaction through the judgment of a five-year-old and his mother. Ada was as unprepared as Charlie.

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Children branded by family reputation

What these examples demonstrate is that a family’s reputation and brand will impact children directly and quickly whether parents choose to address it or not. The pressing question is how to address it.

Dr. James Grubman, an esteemed author and family office expert, suggests a simple method. Provide children with the concept that families fall into three categories: having enough, not having enough and having more than enough. From that lens, children can begin to discern some of the nuances they may experience in non-family-controlled settings. Regardless of how parents decide to approach the topic, it is better to begin at home.

Humans like to build narratives to explain others’ successes or failures. We project our self-created stories on those around us without ever considering the impact it has on them. If the three children mentioned at the beginning of this article were poor, most people would feel empathy for the addict and think highly of the PhD for overcoming a troubled childhood. If the family were wealthy, the addict would be judged harshly for squandering opportunities, and the PhD would get comments from peers about “having it easy” as they assume she didn’t pay for her own education.

As the family office space expands in Canada, many of its professionals are building networks and connections to support families through these rarely discussed challenges. How a family approaches wealth conversations with children is determined by where they sit within the wealth spectrum.

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Judgment of children carries repercussions

What if the parents are themselves future inheritors who currently have no control over the family money yet still live in the giant shadow that it casts? They, too, are judged by colleagues and communities alike. When you meet someone with a well known last name, what narrative do you project onto their circumstances that further isolates you from their reality? Perhaps children are attending a private school where they are considered the least affluent, and are trying to keep up with others. They may be experiencing something at an elevated level with little support and in an era of social media. There is little empathy for rich kids.

Regardless of the circumstances, we need to remember that children are not wealthy; families are.

Carolyn Cole founded Cole & Associates, a family office strategy and design firm, after a 25-year career working with enterprising families. She leads the family office for three prominent Canadian families. Carolyn also acts as Special Advisor to Grayhawk Wealth, Family Office Service, is a member of the Association of Corporate Growth’s Family Office Advisory Committee and recently launched Family Office Administration Services. Carolyn’s writing draws upon her personal experiences both from her capacity as an advisor and as the mother of two adult sons who are fourth generation of an enterprising family.
Carolyn Cole