After a family dinner with new friends in Bedford, N.Y., the other night, I had to drag my oldest son, Jacob, into the car to go home.
We weren't even halfway down the driveway when Jacob began gushing, "I don't think I have ever felt jealous in my whole life. But tonight I really felt jealous. That was the best house I have ever been to."
"When you just asked me if I was coming with you or sleeping over, I really thought to myself, maybe I should sleep over," he continued. "They had the best art, the biggest pool I've ever seen, a huge trampoline, a crazy jungle gym, every board game imaginable. They had everything! And Mom, you didn't even go upstairs to the boys' bedrooms. One of them has a castle in his room. A real castle! His room is a castle and his bed is inside the castle," Jacob effusively prattled on and on.
I was momentarily stunned that Jacob noticed the art, since the majority of what's hanging on our walls is done by the 8 and under set. But I quickly gathered my wits and tried to find something coherent to say.
"It was pretty fabulous," I began. Okay, I had validated his emotions. Now what?
"The trick is to be happy with what you have. It's one of the hardest lessons to learn in life," I told him. "Even I'm still learning it, Jacob. Someone will always have more than you," I said.
Madonna's depiction of life in the 1980s — "we are living in a material world" — pales in comparison, I think, to the materialism that has become rampant in New York these days. The homes, the cars, the planes, the clothes, and the help: Sometimes I feel as though I'm living in a city on steroids. And let's not kid ourselves — it's not as if our children don't notice.
"No one wants to come to our house for a playdate — including my own kids," a mother of two grade-school girls said matter-of-factly. "My daughters share a small room in our relatively small apartment. They'd much rather play in the spacious playrooms of their friends that have been anally organized by the overpaid nannies."
Several parents I questioned said that although only a small percentage of their children's classmates lived lavishly, their children's imagination were captivated by the exposure to such material wealth.
How do we teach our children what Sheryl Crow's 2002 hit "Soak Up The Sun" pertinently states: "It's not having what you want, it's wanting what you've got"?
"Jealousy is a normal part of childhood development," a psychiatrist on the Upper East Side said. "Parents in every socioeconomic bracket need to remind themselves that all children — even those who ‘have everything' — are jealous about something. It's important not to feel defensive about your child's jealousy."
A father of three teenagers said that his children were jealous about so many different things he didn't know where to begin. "When I look back, I now see that I used to feel bad about their jealousy as if it held a mirror to my shortcomings," he said. "But they've been jealous about such ridiculous things: new puppies, boat trips, fancy homes out West, hundred-dollar blue jeans, and parents who don't give curfews. I've stopped worrying about any of it," he said.
A psychologist I spoke to said that she instructs city parents to make an effort to give their children perspective on wealth. "It's understandable that many children going to private schools in New York feel genuinely deprived if they spend the summer in the city, or don't have a summer house, or don't go away over Christmas vacation," she said. "Instead of being annoyed with your child's perception, it's more effective to volunteer with them at a soup kitchen, or take them to distribute food packages to the elderly."
My husband said that if he had been with us, he would have pointed out to Jacob that material goods don't necessarily bring happiness — and that practice, hard work, and accomplishment are much more likely to bring a lasting sense of fulfillment.
I told him that I did try this tactic: After I told Jacob that someone would always have more than he would, I also said that it was okay to want to have lots of stuff, but that stuff didn't always bring happiness.
It went in one ear and out the other.
"Mom," he said seriously, "there is always someone who has more than anyone else: Someone who is at the tippy, tippy top. That's where they are. At the tippy, tippy top."