My wife, Kim, and I will celebrate 20 years of marriage next summer. Our wedding ceremony in 1999 took place at a church in Omaha, NE. As part of the process, we attended premarital counseling. Our counselor’s insights and wisdom helped secure a solid foundation on which to build a successful and happy marriage. I recommend it to everyone.
One of the key components of our counseling sessions was to better understand how each of us were raised differently, by different parents, in different parts of the country. It didn’t take long into our conversation to discover important factors in the way we were raised that led to differences of opinion on things—both big and little.
Take birthdays for example. Birthdays were never a big thing in my family. We celebrated them, of course, but usually when it was convenient—moving the celebration to a weekend was a common occurrence. (Perhaps the fact that my two siblings and I all have birthdays within three days of each other, in December, had something to do with it.)
For my wife, however, the actual birthdate is special. Her family always celebrated each person’s birthday with a large family dinner on the actual day. It included gifts and food and family—and everyone made a point to be there.
In this one example, my wife and I were raised with different experiences that ultimately influenced how we view birthdays. Even to this day, my wife experiences disappointment if I am not as attentive to her actual birthdate as she has come to expect.
Expectations based on our family of origin contribute significantly to the people we are today in countless (and often unforeseen) ways. The family dynamics we experienced and the economic conditions surrounding that phase of life are important for us to examine in order to gain perspective on our tendencies toward material possessions.
Some of our parents were collectors, savers, or even hoarders. These habits may be, in part, due to the generation they grew up in or their own family of origin story. For others, however, your parents threw everything away, or were neat freaks never allowing any sort of a mess in their home.
Both extremes can be influential on children. Sometimes we unintentionally follow in their footsteps, never challenging our assumptions, merely because our parents defined normal for us.
But other times, our family of origin experience may influence us to take the opposite path—especially if we felt it was unhealthy or we were mistreated. Or maybe your experience, like mine, was somewhere in the middle.
One question I often raise with audiences when I speak is to identify how your parents’ relationship with material possessions has influenced your own.
Socioeconomic status can also greatly influence who we become.
Growing up in wealth, or even middle class, greatly shapes our understanding of normal and often influences our baseline expectations for life.
When Kim and I bought our first house, it was exciting to own something we could make our own. However, disappointment soon set in as we moved our old things from our tiny apartment into the 3-bedroom home. It didn’t feel as beautiful as it did when we saw is as a model home. In fact, it felt kinda empty to us.
All of our rooms growing up were full of furnishings, even the closets were stuffed full. Without even questioning our assumptions, we began purchasing more and more things trying to fill the house as soon as possible—never stopping to consider how our parents worked for years to get to the place they were when we came along. We just wanted it all, even expected it, right away. This was our understanding of normal.
Of course, growing up in poverty can also greatly influence one’s relationship with physical possessions.
I have a friend. Let’s call her Hannah. Hannah grew up in poverty with eight siblings in a small home. They did not have many clothes or toys and often wondered where their next meal might come from.
This experience motivated Hannah to make something of herself in the business world. She studied hard, worked hard, and stretched herself whenever possible. Today, she is very successful. Somewhere along the way, she made a vow that she would give her children as good a life as she could possibly afford.
It is understandable how she got to this point and the pressure she puts on herself to provide for her family. But Hannah reached out to me recently because she is starting to think she has gone too far to the other extreme. She is beginning to see unexpected selfishness and entitlement grow in her children.
In order to combat this, Hannah’s family has started volunteering at homeless shelters and giving generously to organizations that help those in need. She wants her children to understand the reality of poverty—the life she knows so well—and help them see better the needs around them. She is beginning to recognize her response to poverty was excess—and that may not be the best answer for her family’s happiness after all.
Our heritage is deeply ingrained in each of us. It is influencing our view of the world and material possessions. But discovering how takes time and emotional energy. Of course, Kim and I can both attest it is worth the effort.