Children in the United States grow up in the midst of affluence. This does not mean that all these children are affluent. In fact, one in every five children in this country is poor. Poor children, however, are surrounded by others who have abundance.
Being materially poor: The miseries of poverty are intensified by the constant enticement to acquire things, through television, movies, billboards, magazines and material goods of other people. A child deprived of basic needs may feel the lack of frills just as keenly. Justifiable discontent and anger, or resignation and despair can be the result.
Being spiritually poor: Those children who are more fortunate materially often experience a different sort of poverty, a spiritual one. It is easy to become overindulged by an abundance of food, possessions, activities, and choices.
Food: Children with too great a variety of food develop dissatisfaction with meals, and find it difficult to be grateful for what is served. Classmates make fun of other children’s foods and school lunches are dropped into the garbage. Food, so important to both our physical and social needs, becomes a topic to argue over. Possessions: Something similar happens with possessions. Children may show disappointment in gifts instead of receiving them graciously. They may fail to care for what they own, and so waste the resources given them. Having too many things also impacts creativity, depriving children the joy of making or inventing something. When they do create something, they may see it as inferior to a manufactured item. As a result they long for more things, coerce embarrassed parents to buy more, and look for satisfaction in buying and owning things.
Activities and Choices: The plethora of organized activities for children begins when they are babies, and continues on into adulthood. Some children have little time for impromptu play by themselves or with friends. As they move from one activity to the next, they don’t take time to appreciate God’s beauty, like the intricacies of a snowflake caught on a mitten, or the song of a chickadee. They don’t have time to be silly or to read piles of books just for the pure pleasure of reading. Some children play more than one team sport in a season while others easily quit one activity to take up another. Neither situation teaches them to make a full commitment to one thing (and one group of people) and stick with it. Teachers may be reluctant to assign homework because they know how busy the children are after school, and so a learning opportunity may be lost. Families rushing off to these activities are too busy to eat meals together. They miss the chance to support and appreciate each other, and to pray and learn together.
The results: These lifestyles can result in anxiety and depression in children. Family counselors have seen an increase in parents seeking help with conflicts that arise between them over children’s activities. And, perhaps worst of all, this overindulgence rarely teaches children to care for and give to others. Instead it can cause a lack of interest in or commitment to other people, and bring about an overall feeling of discontent with life, rather like the feeling of having eaten too much fudge! In short, overindulgence depletes the soul.
Hope for all the kids: Though living different degrees of poverty and wealth, all our children are sisters and brothers—they are one generation of the people of God. Giving children an understanding of Catholic Social Teaching begins to balance the inequities among them. Children with less resources learn that God loves them, that they deserve better lives, and they learn the skills they need to achieve their goals. Children from wealthier homes learn that they too are loved by God and are called to share, to help, to learn and to love others. Both groups need to learn how to work together for social justice.