As my husband and I eagerly await the arrival of our first child, I find myself thinking a lot about how to instill good values in my kid. How can I teach my child to have a healthy relationship with stuff? How can I ensure they understand what I mean when I talk about things that “bring joy” versus things that are a “waste of money”? How can I get my child to understand what money is really worth in terms of their time and even their happiness?
For starters, Dad and I wrote a book about raising money-savvy families, which will be published soon.
But then again, books aren’t all-encompassing.
One piece of (indirect) advice came from an unexpected source: Dolly Parton’s famous autobiographical song “Coat of Many Colors.” The song is better heard in her words (above) than explained by me.
What I find so smart about the song is the way Dolly describes her mother’s labor of love through Dolly’s childhood eyes. Here was a little girl who felt the weather getting cold and didn’t know how to sew and saw a box of rags as…a box of rags. But Dolly’s mother shared the experience of making Dolly’s coat; Dolly got to watch her mother sew the rags together, day by day. Dolly got to hear about how wonderful a coat “of many colors” is through all the stories her mother told her as she sewed and sewed and sewed. And after days and hours of quality time with her mother and watching the rags turn into a coat, Dolly got to wear the coat that she now saw as more than just a box of rags and even just a coat. Because Dolly experienced the making of the coat, the coat was worth that much more to Dolly, even though Dolly didn’t make the coat herself.
What also catches my attention in the song is the contrast between what the kids around Dolly see the coat as and what Dolly tells them the coat is. Those other kids weren’t with Dolly and her mother as the coat was made; how could those kids appreciate the time and love and skill put into the coat like Dolly could? Even if the kids did listen to Dolly, would a simple explanation help them grasp what labor it takes to make a coat? Now the listener hears Dolly’s pride through the other kid’s eyes as Dolly retells all the stories her mother told.
Now apply that to “today’s kids.” Today’s kids don’t watch their parents go through their working hours earning the money for a coat. Kids aren’t around to see a coat being made and packaged and shipped and unloaded and racked in a store, waiting for customers. Kids don’t know how much time and effort it takes to learn how to drive, to travel to a store, and to witness the simple intricacies of clothes shopping like sizing and checking out and paying, often because kids haven’t experienced those events themselves. From the kids’ perspectives, their parents used “adult superpowers” to get a coat, and then parents warned kids to “take care of it.”
Say a kid loses a coat. They forgot it at school or it fell out of their bag while at the park or something. Why is it such a big deal to lose a coat in the first place? Why not just have the parents use their “adult superpowers” again to replace the missing one? Why not just simply ask Mom and Dad for a new coat? Sure, Mom and Dad will groan and say something angrily and shake their finger and maybe even punish the child for the loss, but once that part is over, a new coat will–in the kid’s eyes–materialize anyway. Today’s kids didn’t experience the labor of love that Dolly did, and therefore today’s kids–like the kids around Dolly– won’t value a coat the way Dolly valued her coat of many colors.
So am I suggesting we should sew our kids’ clothes from boxes of rags? Of course not! What I’m suggesting is we should give kids the quality time and experience of what it takes to have material possessions. Dolly experienced how long it takes to sew a coat; let your kids see what it means to work for money by having them work for money themselves, like through extra jobs around the house. Help your kids understand “what you do all day” by talking them (and if you can, walking them) through what Mom and Dad actually do all day. Talk about where clothes come from and how clothes are made; if you can’t go in person, find a YouTube video of a clothing factory; you can even hit the rewind button as often as needed for kids to see. Help kids understand why clothes cost more in a store like Target than in a thrift shop. Heck, you could even teach your kids how to sew so that they understand the labor and have a valuable skill. At the very least, take kids to the store with you so that they understand what to look for in a coat, and so they get to choose “their” coat and instill some personal value in it.
As simple as buying a coat is, showing kids the ins and outs of where things come from and how things are made will help kids raise their awareness of what “stuff” really costs. And by raising their awareness through experience, kids will learn to truly value things.