I must start today with a confession: I would be considered a child of privilege by most of the world. I grew up in a solidly middle class household in one of the richest countries on the planet. I never lacked anything truly needed to be a healthy and happy little guy.
However, that doesn’t mean I didn’t suffer pangs of want. When you’re solidly middle class and surrounded by some upper middle class folks, you can feel desperately deprived at times. I never had the designer clothes of many of my classmates. Other kids often had more up-to-date electronics and gadgets. The sharpest line was drawn when everyone got cars on their 16th birthday, leaving me alone on the school bus by the end of my sophomore year. (You may pause and shed a tear for me).
It didn’t matter that I was impossibly rich by most world standards. I felt, relative to many peers, poor. Growing to accept that – and perhaps even revel in it – was one of the great lessons of my life.
The Cycle Begins Again
I was reminded of my childhood deprivations this week when my 9 y.o. started to talk about watches.
My son had dug out the watch we got him two years ago and put it on. I asked him why, and he said that most of the kids in his class wore watches now so he wanted to wear his too.
I asked what kind of watches his fellow 4th graders had. If you’re a frugal person and/or not current with 4th grade fads, you may want to avoid a big sip of coffee right now.
They all had Apple Watches or Fitbits.
Me: What do they use them for?
9 y.o.: I don’t know. They shake the Fitbit a lot so it thinks they’re walking. They can use the Apple Watch to text people.
Me: Is that fun?
9 y.o.: I don’t know. I don’t think so.
Then my younger son wanted in on the chat.
6 y.o.: What is an Apple Watch? (Great question – one this Luddite needed to refresh himself.)
9 y.o.: It’s like a watch, but it has a screen. You can do some of the things on the little screen that you can do on the phone. You can even play Pokemon Go.
6 y.o.: That’s stupid. Why would you use the little screen when you can just use the phone?
(I believe my 6 y.o., with 10 seconds of analysis and no expense, has arrived at the same conclusion that took others years and hundreds of dollars.)
So my son wanted to compete with the rich kids, and his entry was the badass watch we had bought him two years ago for $7.54 (we promised him a reward of a digital watch once he mastered analog time). Let’s take a look:
He smiled as he looked at it on his wrist. He said it looked like something a spy or a soldier would wear (true). He talked about how it could even have different colored lights (yeah!). It sounded like he was preparing his speech extolling its virtues for later delivery on the playground. Knowing how kids are (and knowing that almost all of them have cell phones and could look up costs), I got a little worried.
I felt it was important he learn that rarely (OK, never) would he bring an electronic device to school and have it be the coolest gadget there. I reminded him that his watch was very inexpensive, while Apple Watches and Fitbits were quite expensive. He understood he shouldn’t push the side-by-side too hard, but he still maintained his watch was as cool as theirs (are you listening, Apple?).
I then saw a golden opportunity to teach him something deeper.
Me: But there is one function that your watch does just as well as theirs.
9 y.o.: (Excited and hopeful) What is that?
Me: Telling time.
9 y.o.: (Big smile) Actually, that’s not true. My watch is better. Their watches run out of batteries all of the time.
Sounds like I’m just about ready to have a pretty important talk with my son. No, not that one. The AK-47 talk.
Many Thanks, and Good Luck with the Parenting
To all of the parents who have given their 4th graders Apple Watches and Fitbits: I owe you a deep debt of gratitude.
Perhaps you bought it because your child needs the best technology to achieve athletic training goals. Or perhaps you just tired of your own device…
It doesn’t matter how it happened. I just want to say thanks.
You’re helping to teach my son incredibly valuable lessons. He’s already been forced to accept that he probably won’t have the newest, nicest things. He might as well stop trying to keep up with the Joneses.
But there’s more. The fact that you’re teaching with things so ridiculous is opening the door to wider lessons and early wisdom. It’s not just that we won’t keep up with the Joneses. It’s that the Joneses are buying empty and expensive status symbols that don’t work as well as a $7 watch. For a 4th grader, close to 100% of the value of an Apple Watch or Fitbit is talking about how much it cost. My son sees this irony, and that will hopefully pave the path for later, more subtle lessons.
The sacrifices you are making – of course the money, but especially the harder life you’re gifting your own child – do not go unappreciated. Thank you (and good luck)!
Do you spoil your kids rotten (or have future plans to do so), or are they suffering with hair shirts and $7 watches? Do you have an Apple Watch or Fitbit? Is it awesome? Let me know in the comments.
Picture courtesy of Dariusz Sankowski, because you know I don’t have one.