By Esther Mann, LCSW
I’m the mother of six and live in the less-fancy part of this neighborhood. My husband and I have always lived simple lives. Neither of us comes from much, we don’t have that much, and we’re happy. We’ve never emphasized to our children that material needs are something to chase after, instead stressing middos, inner beauty, and a wholesome lifestyle.
We don’t have a fancy house, don’t drive fancy cars, don’t buy fancy clothing, and don’t go on fancy vacations. As I think about it, I think we have gone, as a family, on exactly two vacations. We are simple people with big hearts.
Out of our six children, all except one seem to be in step with my husband and me. They are not into fads or any of the latest tech-y devices. They always choose friends who have similar natures and come from similar type homes. Some are married now and they all pretty much parallel the lifestyle that my husband and I live.
Our youngest son, who is now 16, has always been different. I don’t know where he learned it, or whose example he is following, but somehow if you looked at him, you would think he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He is what my mother used to call a “feinschmecker”—nothing but the finest for him. “Yossie” does not blend with the rest of us.
From an early age, he refused to wear hand-me-downs, which is typical in our family. If I bought him three new shirts for the school year, Yossie would examine all three and, if I was lucky, decide that only one was good enough to wear. Initially, I would return the other three, buy new ones, and eventually get it right. If I refused to return the other two and told him that he had to wear all three, he would simply wear the same one every day, washing it out by himself at night. So determined was Yossie to have a certain look.
This specific behavior applied to everything. My other boys would go to the barber and the barber would cut away and that would be that. Yossie was busy giving instructions. “A little shorter here, a little longer there,” I had no idea what he was talking about! But he felt he had to have a certain image. He wanted to look cool.
As he got older, it intensified and related to everything about him. As a member of our family, he stood out, and anyone looking at us as a whole would probably think he was some distant relative who came to visit.
Sometimes I got the feeling that he was ashamed of us. He would tease his siblings about how they looked and once he tried telling his father that he ought to throw out a particular suit. My husband didn’t take that criticism too well and let Yossie know. He hasn’t since tried to give his father fashion tips. But you got the feeling that he was inspecting us and we were falling way short on his approval scale.
Validating my instinct that I think Yossie is embarrassed about his family is the fact that he rarely has friends come over anymore. It’s been dwindling over the years, and at this point, I rarely see or meet a friend. I’m always asking him to invite people over, since our home is open and we all love having guests. But it rarely happens.
However, I do stay connected to his teachers, and I know which boys are friends of his. Yossie is a good boy and I have no reason to believe that his friends aren’t also good people, but he seems to attach himself only to boys from wealthy families and seems to enjoy hanging out at their homes whenever possible.
This troubles me. He was ridiculously materialistic to begin with, and now it’s only getting worse. He does odd jobs, makes a few bucks, and spends it all on clothing. Yossie probably spends more on one pair of shoes than I spend on my entire wardrobe. I tell him that I think he is being wasteful, but he responds that it’s his money, he doesn’t ask me to buy him anything, and that he should be entitled to spend as much as he wants on anything he wants.
I look at Yossie in his trendy suits and stylish haircuts and wonder who he is. I know that our neshamos are more than skin-deep, so I wonder whether or not this should even be bothering me. It’s not like he’s stealing from anyone to attain the look he so loves. But it just turns me off. And I’m also turned off to the fact that he spends so much time with these wealthy people, whom he admires so much and want to be one of. He talks about what he wants to do when he is an adult and how successful he plans on being. He works hard in school, which I know is a good thing, but it’s all focused on getting into the best schools, ultimately getting the best job, and finally living the kind of life he sees his friends living.
So why is all of this bothering me (and my husband) so much? I’m constantly trying to influence him to shift his priorities—without any luck—and I know he resents the terrible nag I’ve become. We are just not sure how to respond to this situation that seems so disturbing. I know many parents are dealing with really bad issues that their children are busy with and I know that there is much about Yossie I should be grateful for. But I have to wonder whether these tendencies of his will lead him down a terrible path some day and that this was just the first sign of trouble that we should have addressed before it got out of hand.
A Worried Mother
Dear Worried Mother,
On the surface, this appears to be a simple situation that requires a simple answer. Yossie loves nice stuff; you don’t—get over it! But your concerns are layered and probably are triggering issues that you’re not even aware of. So let’s try to break it down a bit and see if I can bring some clarity to what it is exactly you are reacting to.
To begin with, if most parents are honest, they will admit that they would be more than happy if they could clone themselves and produce a bunch of little children who are like them in every way possible. Or, even better, children who are new and improved versions of themselves. How splendid! After all, when a child rejects any or all traits of one’s parents, it sort of feels like judgment and dismissal. What’s so wrong with me that my child feels the need to reject everything that defines me? Am I not good enough? Is my life not worthy enough?
So the first question you need to ask yourself is whether you are feeling unworthy in some way and if Yossie has made you wonder whether there is something about your lifestyle that is flawed. The answer might surprise you and give you something to consider and possibly address. However, whether your answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the important thing is to spend time reminding yourself in what areas Yossie has taken on the family culture and does resemble you and your husband. Maybe you were also a great student, albeit for different reasons, but is a great work ethic something you have in common? You mention that you have an open home. Maybe you and Yossie share the same social strengths and ability to make friends. There could be many areas, if you look deeply, that Yossie shares with you and your husband. Capitalize on those common traits. Connect in those ways. Admire those strengths publicly and remind both Yossie and yourself that you think he’s pretty terrific.
Next, I’m wondering why you think that people who dress and look a certain way can’t be absolutely wonderful human beings? Why should wealth and the ownership of a vast amount of “stuff” take away from one’s ability to live admirable lives? You didn’t mention anything negative about Yossie’s behavior, only his outer trappings. Wouldn’t you be the first to say that outer trappings aren’t important, and if that’s the case, then why can’t that presumption go both ways? I think you need to examine where your ideas came from that lead you to believe that if Yossie lives the life of his dreams, he can’t still be someone you can be proud of.
You’re unhappy that Yossie prefers to spend time at his friends’ homes and not yours. It may be that their homes are simply more fun. Perhaps he’s into sports and they have a large-screen TV that makes watching sporting events enjoyable. But it’s also possible that Yossie constantly feels judged by you and doesn’t want his friends to see him in that light, or maybe Yossie even worries that you might treat his friends in a way that signals your disapproval of their “looks.” There are many possible explanations for troubling situations. The challenge is to figure out whether or not they are personal and whether there is anything in your power to tweak them in order to create change.
You mention that you are fearful that his proclivity for money and the nice things they can afford him may be a precursor to terrible things down the road. Again, what’s that about? Why should one thing lead to another? Have you stopped to consider all of the magnificent work wealthy people accomplish through their charitable contributions and involvement in worthy causes? Maybe this could be an interesting and enlightening conversation to have with Yossie. Try asking him what success would mean to him and what he would do with his success. Hopefully, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by his answer. If not, let the meaningful conversations begin.
But to judge Yossie strictly on his taste for the finer things in life may be unfair to him. Clearly he was born with this recessive gene that probably can be traced back to some fancy-schmancy ancestor from way back when. So long as his other character traits and middos are where you want them to be, I would leave it alone. That is, after you’ve taken some time to explore what it is bringing up in you and your husband and why.
Ultimately, if you keep the energy between all of you positive and free of judgment in this regard, Yossie will be more likely to feel comfortable, connected, and safe with you and the whole family. I would imagine that at the end of the day, that’s what this is probably really about and what you want most of all.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.