As I ushered the little boys (as JDP and SSP have been termed in our family) out onto the church playground after collecting them from the nursery we approached two much older boys (probably nine or ten) who were playing some sort of game with a disconnected tether ball. While we waited briefly for a break in their game to walk through I heard Boy #1 say to Boy #2, “You can be a skin doctor, or you can be a heart doctor. You make a lot of money as a heart doctor. You can buy a Rolls Royce if you’re a heart doctor.” I cringed when I heard it and we quickly traipsed through their game.
I find it sad to hear grade school kids already vying for careers that will put them in a particular tax bracket. And yet, I know that by age ten I was well aware of who had money, who didn’t, and how its presence or lack thereof shook out in the playground pecking order. So I don’t suppose I should have been surprised that these two boys (one of whose father is in fact a physician) would be just as aware of it as I was at the same age. Money is an easy way for kids to measure the merits of a career. Things like whether a job is engaging, challenging, rewarding, satisfying, or meaningful to the greater good are much harder to evaluate for yourself and to communicate to other people. It’s much simpler just to make a lot of money and drive around in your Rolls Royce, isn’t it?
I thought about this moment again yesterday morning as my buddies at NPR told me that there is now a course in China for the offspring of billionaires and other very wealthy parents. It is run by China Britain Financial Education, has been dubbed a “mini-MBA” and focuses on teaching these kids – who will likely never have to work – how to do things like raise money for charity.* These children are clearly very aware of their privileged circumstances, as evidenced by one girl’s response to the question of what her ideal future would be. She responded, “I want to become a princess. I want to have a castle, and I will have lots of servants. I won’t do anything, because I’ve got lots of money, so I just buy whatever I want.”
The NPR piece goes on to explain that large scale wealth (China now has the world’s second-highest number of billionaires after the U.S.) is a relatively new phenomenon, and that the incredible focus on money (described as the “be all and end all in modern day China”) has created something of a morality vacuum which is present at all points along the socioeconomic spectrum. Paul Huang, head of R&D at China Britain Financial Education comments that “For the wealthy family, their problem is they don’t know and don’t care where money comes from, and they spend money in a disgusting way to other people. For children from poor families, when they grow up, they try to do anything to get money. They don’t think it’s right or wrong. That’s another problem.”
Presumably if you’re reading this blog you’re an adult. And if you’re adult you probably know someone who is wealthy and miserable. You probably also know someone who is scraping by and yet lives a full and happy life. If you’re an adult you probably know well enough that money is not a one-way ticket to happiness. I do not begin to deny that money can accomplish all sorts of wonderful things. It can eliminate the incredible stress brought on by things like unpaid bills, cars that break down, lack of health insurance, or untended home repairs. It can also add immense pleasure to life by enabling things like vacations, date nights, pedicures, or a new tube of lipstick even though you don’t need it. So yes, money is certainly a big contributor to happiness. But it is only one component of a happy life. Other factors include meaningful work, physical health, satisfying friendships, a strong support network, and enriching interests and hobbies. In actuality, this is a much taller order than mere wealth. Kids don’t see that, though. They see castles and servants and Rolls Royces.
I would be lying if I said that earning potential wasn’t a factor in my choice of career. (If it weren’t I’d probably be a horse trainer of some kind.) But it wasn’t the only factor. I also wanted a career that would allow me to help people in some way. I wanted a career that would be intellectually stimulating. And I wanted a career that would be compatible with my family life. I have a career that meets all of those needs and I am grateful that I wake up every day in a life that makes me very happy. I wouldn’t take a Rolls Royce today if one were parked in my driveway because I couldn’t fit all of my kids in it.
Back to the boys on the church playground. Someday my boys will be in that same position, bouncing a ball on a playground and puffing up their little chests about what they want to be when they grow up. Right now they are four, two, and one. The little boys have no concept of money whatsoever. IEP’s conception of it is vague at best. But I know that window is closing, and probably by first grade he will be well aware of the markers of money. And when that day comes I will work to impart upon him (and the little boys in time) that money is just money, and the only thing that matters is what you do with it. By and large, you will be happy when you decide to be, not when you have a Rolls Royce.
*The great irony of this is, of course, that it bears absolutely no resemblance, even on a kiddie scale, to an actual MBA.