In the book, Rich Girl in the Mirror by Cherie Bennette and Jeff Gottesfeld, fifteen-year-old Marilee works as a waitress to supplement her single father’s income yet the two barely make enough to cover expenses. Marilee convinces herself that a lot of money will not only make her happy but also win the love of the young man she adores and acceptance into the school’s wealthy princess clique. Marilee’s granny gives her something with special powers – a heart-shaped meteorite her granny calls the loverock. Marilee makes a wish on it and magically wins the lottery. It doesn’t take long for Marilee to learn that a large bank account changes the way others feel about her but it doesn’t change the way the girl in the mirror feels about herself.

Widespread Poverty

The National Center for Children in Poverty states, “Research is clear that poverty is the single greatest threat to the well-being of children.” They report that more than one in five children live in poor families with a range of 11% in New Hampshire to a high of 32% in Mississippi. Shy one percent, one out of three children in Mississippi live in poverty. The parents of over 11 million children age five and under in one of the richest and greatest countries in the world struggle to keep food in their children’s bellies.

These statistics touched my life. For several years my children and I lived in poverty.

My husband and I were middle-class and comfortable. But then our daughter, Moriah, was born and with one look we knew that our tiny infant faced years of special care. When she was diagnosed with progeria (premature aging disease) at eleven months, my husband left us - our daughter and son - for me to raise alone. Overnight, this middle-class mother found herself and her children plunged into poverty. My daughter’s medical needs involved 24/7 caregiving. Working outside the home was no longer possible and I applied to every state-funded assistance program available.

“We can’t afford it”

Malls became battlegrounds. My son constantly pleaded for things we could no longer afford and within a year my daughter joined the whining. I felt the tension of grocery shopping in my stomach. I heard myself repeating a phrase over and over: We can’t afford it. Those four words were as effective as spreading a blanket over an ant hill at a picnic. What I hoped for more than anything was to dampen their desire for new things. If they stopped wanting so many things, there would be fewer arguments.

It worked.

I remember the day it worked. A candy-filled plastic tube with long bright pink and blue ribbons on each end captivated by three-year-old daughter from her seat in the grocery cart. I saw the useless plastic as nothing but a drain of a few grocery dollars. Before I could stop her, she picked it up and shook it like a rattle. As the ribbons cascaded in waves of colors, Moriah's tiny legs started swinging and her face lit up.

A sudden change overcame her. Her shoulders slouched and the light went out of her eyes. With her chin tucked down she put it back.

I asked her why.

“We can’t ‘ford it.” She looked defeated.

Rather than reveling in the realization that she finally learned what I’d been teaching her, the change in her stung me to the core.

In that moment, I hated that my ex left us and provided nothing for our children, the government for the miserly amount of money it doled out and that, through me, poverty imposed itself on my three-year-old and dampened the joy to which every child is entitled at that age. She got it, all right. And look at the effect that it had on her.

How to reach my goal as a parent to raise children who could withstand life’s problems with courage and dignity when the month was four days longer than my money? No matter our current circumstances, I had to teach them that no matter how bleak things are, how rude people can be or how tough the road that they would do more than endure – they would thrive. However, at that moment, my precious little girl was far from feeling good about life. At only three years old, she was more than halfway down the road to one day being a person who felt poor in spirit.

And it was my fault.

Anything you want, but just one thing

I made a decision on the spot. I retrieved that piece of gaudy plastic and put it in her tiny hand. “From now on when go shopping, you and your brother get to choose anything you want.”

A little light came back on in her eyes. “Anything?”

“Yes,” I said and added The Rule. “But only one thing.”

She stared at the tube of candy and ribbons. “But, Mama, we can’t ‘ford it.”

“Yes, we can,” I said, thinking, we can’t afford not to.

If I wanted to raise children who felt like…no, who knew they could take on the world and win, I had to stop giving them messages that diminished them and instead give ones that made them feel significant.

Since we were at the checkout lane where all the candy a child can grasp is within reach, she pored over the rest of the enticing goodies but decided to keep the plastic tube in her hand.

“We can’t afford it,” is an explanation, yet children are years from understanding the full meaning of “afford.” To them it means that it doesn’t matter how much you want something, how many others you see with it, how many chores you do to earn it, the answer is always no. It’s not that a child in poverty hasn’t learned the implications of the word. They’ve learned it too well.

Doing without seeps into their soul and breeds dark emotions like envy, frustration and victimization. I saw it in the eyes of the children in our neighborhood and in the eyes of their parents. Our children take everything personal. In the cart that day, my daughter was on the cusp of giving up. I’m not sure what she was giving up on but instinct told me that it was something crucial to her sense of well-being.

For a while, my children struggled with the new concept of, ‘I can have anything I want but just one thing.’ In addition to the box of cereal I chose for them, my son picked out one he craved and put it in the shopping cart. At another aisle, into the cart went a box of fruit-wrapped snacks.

“Which one do you want?” I asked him.

“I want both.”

“That’s not the deal. You get to choose one – cereal or fruit wraps.”

Instead of seeing hunched shoulders, angry eyes and an eventual temper tantrum, I saw wheels turning as he weighed what appeared as though it was a life-changing decision.

“I’ll take the cereal.” He reached into the cart, pulled out the fruit-wraps and put it back on the shelf.

As we hit the frozen aisle, he side-eyed me as he eased a pepperoni pizza into the card.

“Pizza or cereal?”

He looked at me with puppy eyes.

I stood firm and changed it from a question to a statement. “Pizza or cereal.”

“Ah, Mom.”

I didn’t say anything else. I didn’t need to.

“Pizza,” he said in a quiet voice.

“OK. You know what to do.” And he did.

It took a while for them to get the new message but once they did, it stayed planted. Grocery shopping no longer raised my blood pressure. Store tantrums became a thing of the past. Rather than the constant barrage of “Can I have’s,” my children focused on selecting that one precious item. Shopping became something we looked forward to doing as a family.

Consistency Wins the Game

The lesson trickled to any event that involved purchases – garage sales, the mall, carnivals. Everywhere we went that promised enticing things to buy became anticipated events, in a very good way.

Sometimes my children reminded me of the rule.

We were at a garage sale. My daughter said, “You mean I can have both?”

Heck, one of the items she chose was only a quarter. Her incredulous tone alerted me that I was about to break my own rule. The truth is, when we set rules that makes sense, children want us to maintain them. It gives them a standard that frames their sense of right and wrong. Realizing what was on the line, that in that moment I was about to set a new precedent, I had to say no.

Even as I write it, it sounds mean but it wasn’t. Consistency is one of the foundations of discipline. In his article, “Consistent Parenting – How to Unlock the Secret,” James Lehman, MSW states: “Consistency is one of the main requirements for kids to learn how to predict things.” And Nashvillian Allison Edwards, LPC agrees. She posted in an old blog dated April 25, 2012: “The general rule of thumb in parenting is that if you say something you should stick to it. If you (say that you will) take away dessert, you should really take it away. If you say, “If you do that again, you’re not going to the birthday party,” stick to it.” It helped that, to my children, it was never the money that mattered. What did matter was hearing me say, “Yes.” As long as they could have things that mattered to them and that they had a voice and control over their decisions, they felt they were on the winning side of life.

The bigger picture was the change in my children. I no longer saw them watching with envy another child who had a toy they desired. I no longer heart ‘poor talk’ – “Mommy says we can’t have it acoz we can’t ‘ford it.” Best of all, the memories of “No, we can’t afford it,” became so removed from their reality that they thought and behaved as children do from homes with a more than adequate income. I learned that beingpoor and feeling poor are two different things. My children no longer felt poor in spirit.

Although I privately yearned for things they could not have such as private lessons and club memberships, what mattered more was that they were blissfully unaware of our poverty for the rest of their childhood.

Who could have guessed that the next rung up the ladder of, “You can have anything but just one,” is gratitude? This time, it was I who learned a lesson from them. Making choices instilled a greater value on what they owned because they got to choose what mattered to them. The fruit of that was gratitude and they took good care of what they bought.

There is a cliché that the world is divided into Have’s and Have Not’s. Although Marilee from Rich Girl in the Mirror suddenly becomes a “Have,” the new ocean of wealth didn’t penetrate her spirit and she still felt like a Have Not. Giving children opportunities to make choices, hear “Yes,” from a parent and setting consistent boundaries that make sense go a long way toward helping your child feel rich in spirit.