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When Your Kid Has Rich Friends

Photograph by Getty Images

"Jayden got an Apple watch for Hanukkah last night," my daughter informed me. I hide my shock that we are about to have a conversation about the merits of giving a first-grader a watch that costs almost $300. I search her face for longing but don't see that she's pining for a watch that she doesn't really understand. She doesn't have an email address, a phone number or an Instagram account. The sole appeal for this watch is that the kids at school "knew"—either through intuition or from older siblings—that it was a nifty gadget.

At Hanukkah the night before, my daughter got a Junior Scrabble game. We've opted to do presents every other night this year, culminating in a "big" gift the final night, which is an art set I got at Target for $30.

I knew this would happen.

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We chose to send our kids to a private school with our eyes open. Part of making that decision means we threw our hats in the ring with people who have wealth far beyond ours. Now, three years at this school, I'm finally getting comfortable talking about relative wealth.

In the beginning, I consoled myself about my own financial insecurities by insinuating that people with more money were likely less happy than we were. I'd say things like, "some kids have a whole lot of toys because their parents are super busy with work." The implication was clear: The toys were a consolation prize for some emotional lack. Even coming out of my mouth, I knew it was false in most cases, and the opposite of what I was trying to teach my children. If I didn't want them drawing false or baseless conclusions about other people based on their perceived financial status, then I couldn't either. Unfortunately, that was what I was teaching them because I hadn't gotten comfortable myself.

My kids deserve to hear the truth from me without a bunch of garbage that's mean to assuage my insecurities.

I faltered a few more times. The first year at the school, my daughter noticed that "everyone" went somewhere fabulous during Spring Break. We opted not to travel, which was the right decision for us, but her stories of hanging out with Mom and hitting the local Target paled next to tales of Euro Disney trips and skiing in Park City. I still hadn't gotten comfortable in my skin, so I avoided the topic as much as I could.

I also experimented with apologizing for not being able to give my kids an apartment with a view of the lake or brand new ice skates for a trip to the rink. That didn't feel any better than denigrating families with more money.

Finally, this year, I tripped into the best response of all when the subject of wealth comes up: The truth. And the truth is that I know very little about other families' financial situations. So I keep the focus on ours. When my 6-year old asked for Fitbit, I told her the truth: "I'm not comfortable with you counting your steps because I want you to move your body for joy. You have the rest of your life to count your steps. And that's an expensive gadget that I'm not willing to buy for you."

I don't need to say anything about anyone else. It's enough to communicate to her what my position is on any given expense. It's rarely only about money anyway; any parent's reason, including mine, for opting out of a given expense is likely to be the product of making decisions on several levels.

Sometimes my kids bring it up, of course. They regale me with tales of the playroom full of toys that other kids have. I listen, and unless they ask me directly, I offer no commentary on the merits of having a basement full of toys or spending 10 days at a Disney resort.

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My kids deserve to hear the truth from me without a bunch of garbage that's mean to assuage my insecurities. And I'm getting better at it each year, though I still have a long way to go. I'll keep working on it because as my kids get older, the gadgets will get bigger and more expensive. Today's Apple watch will be tomorrow's Mercedes.

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