Can I Be A Good Parent If I Am Poor?

If you are or have ever struggled with “making it” before, you are all too familiar with asking yourself this hopeless question. The answer is, emphatically, yes, you can still be a good parent.

Poverty or Poor?

First, let’s clear the air and see the difference between living in poverty and living poor. Poverty is living in extremely poor conditions, likely not knowing where your primary needs for the day will come from. Being poor is struggling to live in a “comfortable” state according to society. Per the latest Census, almost 13% of Americans live in poverty.

Those in poverty have significantly more difficult challenges as they likely fight each day for security, warmth/cool, and food. Those that are poor, or struggling to live comfortably, certainly deal with their own stresses as they try to finagle things around to make them work. Those in poverty have a disadvantage in terms of security, so their parenting is more focused on providing security. Those that are poor have their basic needs met, so their parenting has the potential to be more broad. Their struggle is in choosing the right thing to spend their time on.

What Does My Child Really Need?

Maslow’s theory of human motivation gives us a really clear picture of what we all really need to reach our full potential. This is true in general terms for both children and adults.

The way this reads is that once our basic, physiological needs like food, water, and rest are met, then we look for security needs. Once that basic need is met, we search for psychological needs like love, social connections, and accomplishment. Finally, we can self-actualize, or achieve our full potential through passion and creativity.

This theory is in line with why families in poverty often have lower educational scores and capacity than those in different situations. It also shows for those families that are poor, but have basic needs met, they have an opportunity to meet broader needs.

What Makes A Parent “Good”?

Every child is different, therefore, their needs are all unique. However, science and research are showing us some really powerful, foundational things that lead children to success. This is the ultimate goal of parenting. It is to raise our children up, further than where we have been (John 14:12), to be self-sufficient and motivated by their passions and interests that make the world better.

One study, as shared by Helen Pearson on TED, showed that there are a few things that “seem to be really important” when it comes to raising our children up, even through some disadvantages.

1. Don’t be in poverty.

Obviously this isn’t a choice any children have as they are born. Unfortunately it is true that until basic needs are met, it is always going to be more difficult, not impossible, to meet higher needs and grow. How can we help here today?

2. Engaged parents matter.

This is the primary struggle with poor families. Imagine the father that gets home from work and immediately focuses his remaining attention to the budget, maybe even going through their belongings to sell to make ends meet. He is so focused on filling the need for comfort and cushion that he forgets that is not the proper need.

Imagine the mother who spends her day with the children but focuses more on keeping the house organized so said husband is not so stressed. Imagine a single mother working in the day and doing school at night trying to get higher than the current situation and her kids are along for the ride.

There is no engagement in you simply being in the same room, or simply riding in the car with you for errands. There is no engagement in “maybe later, bud.” There is no engagement in your frustrated isolation and embarrassment.

This is not to add fuel to the fire. My intent, as the father described above is to wave the white flag at you like my wife has had to do with me so many times. Our kids need our engagement. They need our eye contact. They need your phone down and your to-do list prioritized properly. They need playgrounds, and goofy characters, and imagination, and running freely and laughter. It is through these things that our children feel truly safe in an unknown world, and therefore have the capacity to move on to feeling that they belong. We can check off a hundred things today and I promise you it still hurts at the end of the day when you feel like you still somehow wasted the day.

3. Routines make a difference.

The research from the TED talk listed above shows that children who went to bed at the same time each day had a positive difference on behavioral problems than those who went to bed at different times each day.

There are many reasons why bedtime routines are so important. Perhaps the most important of all is simply not rushing into the bedroom and missing an opportunity to just be with your child. After all, bedtime for children can already be such a stressful time as they separate from us and learn to ease themselves into rest. We add stress to stress by rushing them and the process along. Bedtime gives us an ideal opportunity to comfort our children, to discuss the day and truly connect with them, as well as read to them.

4. Reading opens doors, literally.

Check out all the wonderful ways that reading helps our kids. Reading literally builds neural pathways in the brain. They learn language, the beauty of communication, the creativity of characters and worlds. They can learn empathy and problem solving through stories and grasp the concepts forever. It is through stories that children can establish social connections and gain an understanding of things they like and things they don’t like. This, in turn, gives them a clearer picture of who they are inside and get a head start into becoming that person. Isn’t that just lovely? I think I’ll never miss a reading opportunity again. How weird can you get with your stories?

Affluence Is Not The Answer

Many poor families think that if they could just get out in front of this lack and pressure that parenting will just take care of itself. Research (I know, research again) has shown that is not the case.

Affluence has its own set of issues if the things above have not been well established. A lack of pure gratitude, humility, anxiety and depression often make headlines about affluent families. The interesting thing about this is that all of their basic needs are met, and then some. So what’s the problem?

As we see from the hierarchy of needs, simply meeting basic needs does not help us self-actualize by itself. When you meet a basic need, it’s just met. It doesn’t make a difference how much beyond the threshold you meet it. We make the mistake of thinking more cool clothes, cool gadgets, more on the car and house meets these other needs. The truth is that those basic needs can be met all day long but we won’t make it beyond it if we don’t meet those psychological needs of love, belonging, and responsibility.

I believe the reason affluent people battle more anxiety and depression is because they know their basic needs are met, yet they still don’t feel fulfilled. Guilt plays a role at that point when there are so many without, yet here we are with so much and still unhappy. You can find that place of fulfillment in focusing on the right version of success, of accepting responsibility, and being of value to others. If we do that and teach our kids to do that, affluence is absolutely not a crime, as you may feel it to be, but a gift.

Proverbs 22:6 tells us to “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not depart from it.” If you are one of the lucky ones who has basic needs met, enjoy that today. You can choose, right now, to focus on the right things at the right time. You can set your kids up the way you may have wished you were by focusing on their underlying needs. Don’t get lost in the brush! There is a lot of it out there that will make you feel like you need to respond to having more of this or more of that. Focus today on engagement, and on giving love. You are loved.

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