What good is excess wealth to a parent, or to their families? I have come to believe that parents who give everything to their children growing up are themselves selfish. You are wondering if I am being contrary to make a point. You are right to wonder this, but I assure you I am sincere. “But isn’t the very definition of a good parent,” you ask, “the one who is responsible and provides for their family to ensure they suffer no material want?” I say this definition is incomplete and, moreover, insufficient, unless you are raising children to be permanent children, cut off from the cares of the outside world.
The true responsibility of parents is to raise their children to be capable of safely making their own way in the world, and not to remove every obstacle from their paths. This means learning to handle adversity. Is life trouble-free for any person, regardless of their wealth? Say a person has amassed a fortune as great as that of the robber-barons of the gilded age. Does that mean they can now buy their way free from the envy, spite, and double-dealing of their fellow humans? Are their relationships protected against failing, their bodies immune from ailing, and their thoughts free of doubt?
Consider this: how can a child learn to handle adversity if they are never confronted with it? “What,” you say, “shall parents now let their children stumble unawares into the street to teach them the value of pain?” Life will bring its own troubles soon enough, my dear Deuteros. We do not need to invite them in. The point is more that we should not seek to bar the door to every trouble. Rather teach your children first by your own example that hardship can not only be endured but mastered. When you encounter your own inevitable setbacks show your children how you rise to the challenge, not only well, but willingly.
“I can see your point about the need to confront adversity,” you say “but why do you call parents who seek to provide a comfortable environment for their children selfish? How can wanting to give the best things to someone else make you selfish?” Think on it and you will come to your own answer. Will the child live only in the parent’s household, or will they one day wish to live an independent life? What then? Will the parent tend to every need until the child has died of natural causes while the parent clings to life? No and no, and no to every circumstance where the outside world will intrude.
The principal thing a parent accomplishes by eliminating any real-world struggles is avoiding seeing their child suffer. Who benefits the most from such a sheltered environment? Hence, I say this is the ultimate selfishness on the part of the parent, because in saving themselves pain they leave their children unprepared for life. I know that most parents would vehemently disagree, but that is to be expected. I have just called them selfish and bad parents in the same breath.
All right, let us respond to the incensed parent by asking them some questions: “Reflect back upon your own life. Did everything go easily for you? Was everything you have now simply handed to you? What made you the person you are today? Tell me about a time that you overcame a hardship or a challenge and came out stronger for it.” Some of the most driven people became that way precisely because they were sorely challenged and survived the tests. Not only survived but emerged from their suffering stronger. You learn to confront adversity by being confronted with adversity.
This thought experiment is usually enough to quell the anger for all the thoughtful parents, which I believe is most of them. It quiets their voices, because they are now reconsidering not only their approach to parenting but all they have done so far. But you will encounter some number of others who say something like, “I earned my money through my own hard work. I am paid a lot because I deliver a lot of value, and I am worth every penny. How dare you say I should not give every advantage to my children now and allow them to reap the benefits of my labor?”
Everything in modern society supports the wealthy parent’s view, Deuteros, and your opponent has the weight of numbers and opinion on their side. Further, they have built their entire lives following a formula that was not of their making, but which they learned to master. These roots run deep. By digging around the foundations like this you are questioning their values and by extension their very worth as a person. Do not expect your discussion to be easy and do not expect to be thanked for your service.
Be aware that many people are only too happy to be misled if it means they never have to confront painful truths. Though they cannot permanently lay to rest a nagging dissatisfaction, they can temporarily silence this voice with a new car, a buying binge, or a trip to Vegas. The most you can hope for is to add weight to that persistent doubt so that in a quiet moment it gives them pause to think.
You might get this person to observe that on their travels through, say, Southeast Asia they encountered many happy people who otherwise lived in poverty. That in fact having money is not the only path to happiness. And if you arrive at this mutual realization, consider yourself a success and do not seek to go further. Because to a person who has money, the idea that money does not bring happiness is madness. Not only or even primarily for what it buys them, but for what having money tells them about themselves and what it tells others.
Money tells them that they have done the right things and are being rewarded. It tells them they are a good person! And by making lavish displays of wealth, money signals to others that a person is successful. We want nothing more than to be considered successful. But happiness is intrinsic. I cannot show it on my arm like I can a Boss shirt under a Gucci suit jacket with a Rolex watch peeking out at the wrist. No, for bragging without talking, money beats happiness every time, at least to this person’s mind.
Never mind if the parent has learned anything from you. If you have learned anything from me, Deuteros, it is to identify the true value of things. Do you seek to arouse envy in your fellow person or admiration? Does a person admire you for what you have or how you behave? And will you set your own value by the estimation of others, who do not know what is valuable and what is not? Or will you set your value by your own estimation of how well you lived according to your values? True wealth comes from not needing to display wealth to be happy, rather than having wealth to display.