A few weeks ago, my wife arranged a playdate for our son with a sweet kid in his grade who lives in our neighborhood. The kid's father would pick them up by car after school to spend a couple of hours hanging out.
Our son could barely contain himself when we gave him the news: "His dad drives a Tesla! I'm getting picked up in a Tesla!" Next, like a biblical recitation of who begat whom, he counted all the friends he knew whose parents drove Teslas. He found sufficient fingers, but barely.
Dad, you're embarrassing me!
I am no stranger to awkwardness when it comes to cars and social status. My first ride as a teen was a big red Chevy Caprice Classic station wagon with a bumper sticker that read, "I'm the mommy, that's why!"
I went on to own various cars whose sole common trait was their universally agreed upon lack of cool:
- My grandfather's inherited Oldsmobile. The ads at the time, struggling to reinvigorate a brand with the word "old" front and center in the name, touted, "This is not your father's Oldsmobile." Nope. It's my grandfather's.
- My first new car: A Saturn SL-2. I felt giddy, like I was driving the future.
- My current car: A 2009 Kia Rondo. Verbatim from the review in Edmund's: "...about as endearing as your washing machine..."
new no car smell
Surprisingly, one of the ways my kids differ from their peers is that they walk to and from school every day.
On those rare days when I pick them up in the car, they point out the inappropriateness of the "Math that shit up!" sticker I proudly display in the window (swag from supporting the Playing With FIRE documentary) and glance around furtively to ensure their principal does not see it.
When our oldest started school, parent friends with good intentions would pull over almost daily during her walk, asking if she needed a ride. Eventually, those friends realized we were walking on purpose and labeled us the neighborhood eccentrics.
So they walk on. Did I mention shoes are either inherited from fashionable older cousins or else purchased at the local Ross Dress for Less and Kohl's?
So not only have we been the oddball family for some time, but there's no alternative prestige to be found in their footwear.
Air Jordan? A budget airline based in the Middle East as far as they are concerned.
We love our neighborhood, but we are the first to admit that we live in a bubble.
The kindergarten playground overlooks the Pacific Ocean. The public schools are great, and our home is strategically located walking distance from every school our kids might need until college. It's ridiculously beautiful and convenient.
The diversity of our neighborhood is less than our ideal (When we asked our realtor about the area, he cheerfully opined, "It's quite diverse. There are lots of Koreans!" The realtor was Korean-American).
Our neighborhood's Tesla to Toyota ratio is profoundly skewed, posing a real risk of affluenza.
How do we introduce our kids to reality given what they see day to day?
We frequently discuss the distinction between price and value. Despite frugal inclinations, we spend generously on help at home. For other families, nice cars are rewarding. For us, it's help with childcare, cooking and cleaning. It's okay to choose either if there is value in the spending.
Most of our recreational activities are either free or involve lightly used gear purchased at a steep discount - both kids go bodyboarding with me in the summers in hand-me-down wetsuits acquired from friends or at thrift stores. Good hiking trails are plentiful where we live.
We drive beaters, and dress like overgrown adolescents from the 1980s. (The kids may have won the ovarian lottery, but they lost the parental fashion lottery.)
(Reality) check please?
Once a month, we volunteer as a family in a local shelter. The kids get interact with often intimidating-looking clientele, and they have befriended the staff running the operation, some of whom began as clients. The talks and questions that emerge on the drive home are a frequent highlight.
After last summer's trip to Oaxaca, my daughter asked us why we keep traveling to places where there are so many poor people. That led to a profound discussion of how most of the world lives, and our responsibility to others.
We also have an annual family discussion regarding what charitable causes we'd like to support.
Is it working?
The jury is still out, and we may fail spectacularly.
My hope is that the kids will be able to understand their advantages without taking them for granted.
This means feeling responsible for doing something with the head start they've been given.
It also means they will feel a sense of accountability to those who began life with more obstacles than advantages.
I'll keep you posted on how badly we screw them up.