Carolyn Hax: Advice

Daughter starts to notice friends have more stuff

Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax

Dear Carolyn: My daughter, 6, has just begun noticing that many of her friends have much nicer homes than we do. For a variety of reasons, my husband and I live in a relatively small apartment whereas many of her friends live in large houses. She also shares a room with her younger sister — and I think is one of the only kids in her class to do so.

What do I say when she indicates that she is unhappy with the disparity? She has many other great advantages — my husband’s schedule is flexible, we travel widely, she is in many great extracurriculars and at a great school — so the last couple times I have highlighted that.

But I wonder if I should be having a deeper conversation with her about how we are choosing to save money and not to be locked down since we may move sometime in the near future, and about her father’s career choices, etc., to give her a fuller picture of why. She is generally quite mature and I am generally very transparent with her in terms of many other subjects.

How Best to Answer

As long as you’re not apologizing, but merely explaining, then go for it. “Different families make different choices. We chose to have less house and more flexibility” or “less stuff and more experiences.” If she’s receptive: “We can visit more places, have better schedules, and wow it’s great not maintaining a house — we can take you to (extracurricular or hobby here) in part because we’re not working in the yard.” It’s also OK to say things might not be this way forever, “it’s just what makes sense for us now.”

A few caveats, though. You don’t want to invalidate her feelings — or get all us-vs.-them on her friends with big houses. Yes it is nice to have your own room and sprawl out in a big house. These aren’t bad things, they’re just things you chose to prioritize below travel and flexibility.

And, you don’t want to overshare. Telling a 6-year-old you might uproot her at any time from everything she knows is not information she needs, and it’s anxiety-triggering in a way that “Maybe someday we’ll want a bigger place” just isn’t.

And, you may find that some of her friends have the big houses and the travel and the work flexibility — and so a conversation about priorities will turn into one about some people just having more than others. Don’t get caught off-guard; before you start these conversations with your daughter, think about your own way of handling that reality, of appreciating your life instead of being consumed with envy of others’. A message of perspective, like, “Sometimes I wish I had all those things, sure, but I come back to being grateful for the life I have, because it suits me,” traces straight to your values and can’t be delivered too soon.

Dear Carolyn: Not long ago I asked my sister, “Could you do me a favor?” She replied, “Tell me what it is first.” I was taken aback by her response. It turned out she could not. I then asked a friend, who said, “I sure hope so, what is it?” What a difference her tone and response made.

Let me state that I hate to rely on others, especially my sister, but have no other family nearby.

Sensitive

I can’t do anything about your sister, and nor can you, really; you can ask her not to be so blunt, of course, but it’s still up to her whether she softens her edges for you.

There are two ways you can help yourself here, though, that don’t rely on anyone else.

The first is in your signature: “sensitive.” You can decide not to let it get to you when someone is a few social cues short of graceful. Whether you stop asking your sister for favors altogether, or go into these conversations knowing she’s terse and prickly, or remind yourself afterward that your discomfort with asking means you’ll always emerge feeling icky, or something else, or all of the above —you can work your own dials to limit your sensitivity. Rule of thumb for a lower-stress existence: respond to trends, not incidents, and know the limits of what you control.

The second thing you can do is banish the “Could you do me a favor?” phrasing from your lexicon completely. It’s both mealy – since you’re just padding what you really want with an introductory ask — and an ambush, since you’re forcing an answer before you disclose all the facts. The two encounters you describe here are both telling you this in their different ways; your sister and friend both essentially said, ‘Please just state what you want.’

So, please just state what you want: “I can’t drive myself to the doctor next Tuesday because I’m getting anesthesia. Would you be able to take me?” That leaves them nothing to navigate except a simple yes or no.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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