At one point or another, most of us have wished to live out the plot of Blank Check. What could be better than cashing out $1 million and going on a serious spending spree? (If you haven’t seen it, that’s kind of the plot of the movie, except with a little more criminality and some FBI surveillance that we decidedly do not envy.)
The difference that kind of money could make in most people’s lives is unfathomable—heck, a surprise $5,000 could change a lot of lives. For others, that sum is just walking-around money. Different people inhabit different financial worlds, and there are people (kids, even) for whom Blank Check isn’t a dream scenario. And if they went on a million-dollar spending spree, the FBI wouldn’t look twice.
These separate worlds can create different kinds of people. Specifically, a child’s financial upbringing can drastically impact their growth and future. When we’re children (like Preston, the 11-year-old protagonist of Blank Check), money seems magical, akin to the fairy dust from Peter Pan. Yet as we get older, we realize how critical finances can be to our wellbeing.
So what does all this mean? Does wealth, or lack thereof, actually affect people? Can the financial status of your parents change who you become as an adult? The short answer is, frankly, yes—but there are other factors at play, too.
(Note: As with anything related to social science, we’re not discussing individuals here. We’re not saying people’s financial upbringings are guaranteed to determine their behaviors. Being born with or without means is just what washes up with you onto the deserted island of your adulthood; what you do with it is always up to you. The studies we draw from look at aggregates of data, so these situations don’t necessarily reflect any individual.)
All the Things Money Can Buy
Over the years, many studies have looked at the socioeconomic status of a family and its effect on the children.
Research published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found there to be “a growing body of evidence suggesting that improvements in family income may have beneficial effects for parents and children,” though “… the findings are quite complex and tend to be contingent on a number of factors, such as the age or gender of the child.”
Sociologist Susan E. Mayer is even more direct on the subject.
“Parental income is positively correlated with virtually every dimension of child wellbeing that social scientists measure,” Mayer writes in “The Influence of Parental Income on Children’s Outcomes.”
“… The children of rich parents are healthier, better behaved, happier and better educated during their childhood, and wealthier when they have grown up than are children from poor families.”
The financial trajectory and status of a family is connected with a child’s developmental capabilities, success in future relationships, and their successes, both economic and educational, later in life. This is not to say growing up rich will fix all your problems—but, in many ways, it certainly won’t hurt.
Money can’t buy happiness, many say…
But sufficient cash can help lower-income families feel a sense of stability, which has a measurable positive effect on the emotional wellbeing of the children in that family (to say nothing of the parents).
The Urban Institute, an economic- and social policy-oriented think tank, published a paper in 2013 that points to the necessity of stability in children’s lives: “Children thrive in stable and nurturing environments where they have a routine and know what to expect. Although some change in children’s lives is normal and anticipated, sudden and dramatic disruptions can be extremely stressful and affect children’s feeling of security.”
They go on to say that these disruptions, usually caused by financial or employment instability in their family, can cause “‘unbuffered’ stress that escalates to extreme levels can be detrimental to children’s mental health and cognitive functioning.”
Additional research from the journal Families, Relationships and Societies states that “a simple comparison of outcome means suggests that family structure and stability are importantly linked to the wellbeing of young children.”
On a positive note, good parenting can help alleviate or prevent the negative effects of an unstable situation: “Parenting and the home environment act as a buffer between instability and the child,” write the authors of the Urban Institute paper. “When they are positive and supportive, parents can protect the child from the effects of instability … .”
Taking Poverty to School
Studies show that children from low-income families or families who often struggle with economic hardships perform worse on cognitive ability tests. While there is plenty of research to support this claim, there is a lot of discussion about what actually causes the correlation between income and cognitive abilities.
Some researchers believe a lack of funds means parents can’t afford to send their kids to better schools, stunting their education. Others believe low-income parents are constantly battling with personal stress and anxiety, which means they aren’t able to support the development of their children as effectively.
The amount of money parents are able to invest in their child’s education can also positively affect their development. Naturally, wealthier parents have more funds to allocate to their kids’ educations.
There are resources for low-income families to supplement their children’s educations—in 2014, for instance, Washington D.C. Public Schools improved their after-school/summer programs and mental health services and began focusing on parent engagement. Even still, one thing is for sure: Kids from lower-income families face a steeper hill than kids from wealthy families do.
Shaped by Money
Those who grow up in stressful, anxiety-causing environments—like in a family that struggles to afford basic necessities, or a poor neighborhood with endemic violence—often see those issues drastically influence their behavior.
A review published in the journal The Future of Children describes the issue: “… when children are born into a world where resources are scarce and violence is a constant possibility, neurobiological changes may make them wary and vigilant, and they are likely to have a hard time controlling their emotions, focusing on tasks, and forming healthy relationships.”
That being said, another study found that people from lower socioeconomic plains are quicker to express compassion to others in times of distress. Meanwhile, it found that wealth doesn’t always affect people positively.
The study, conducted by psychological researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, suggested that wealthy people are less likely to experience empathy and compassion (again, on average, not individually) and can even have difficulty processing both their own and others’ emotions.
Some researchers believe this difference exists because many wealthy people haven’t had to endure the sorts of hardships that require the banding together of a community—hardships like the loss of transportation, eviction in the cold, or food insecurity. People with few means, the theory states, have to rely on the help of friends and neighbors more often, whereas the wealthy live in a more competitive, autonomous, individualistic environment. People raised in low-income households can gain a specific kind of flexibility and resiliency that can help make up for the advantages they weren’t afforded.
This is evident in a study on the impact of certain risk factors (including unstable employment) on the general health of children of varying income levels. The study found that although children living in poverty were at a higher risk of poor health, they were ultimately better prepared to overcome those health risks.
“The poor who suffered from relatively higher economic hardship and family challenges were the most vulnerable,” the authors, Yi-Ching Lin and Dong-Chul Seo, wrote, “but they exhibited a comparably better ability to respond to and recover from the difficulties than their counterparts.”
The health impacts of growing up wealthy versus growing up poor aren’t just physical in nature. Financial comfort is no guarantee of psychological comfort. Wealthy children face greater risks of substance abuse and feelings of maladjustment, according to some studies.
Growing up with wealth can skew their perception of gratification, theorized psychologist Tian Dayton. That is, the children of the wealthy can grow up without “want” or having to wait for their desires to be satisfied. When gratification is harder to come by in the adult world, it creates the ideal mental environment for substance abuse to thrive.
Well-off kids can also experience feelings of low self-esteem or, on the opposite tack, grandiosity. They can struggle to cope with extremely high (or absent) expectations of themselves. They also experience high rates of stress and anxiety due to the sometimes-extreme pressures put on them to succeed.
We’ll say it again: Every person is different. Not everyone who fits into one of these categories will identify with the above. A huge factor in how money influences someone is how they choose to value it.
A family’s attitude toward money, no matter how much they have, is hugely influential on its children. A parent’s relationship with money “forms their [children’s] money story—everything we know and feel about money,” financial analyst Anjali Pradhan tells Urbo. “For example, someone who grew up with parents who earned little might have a more healthy relationship to money than parents who were high earners but overspent.”
If you want to break out of your “familiar money story,” you first need to identify your relationship with money. Pradhan says to ask yourself these questions: “What visceral thoughts does money bring up? What feeling does it bring up in the body?” After you can identify and acknowledge your emotional ties to money, you can rework the ways in which money affects you, says the analyst.
The next step is to erase all your old feelings toward money.
“Write down the things you want to change about your money story on a piece of paper,” Pradhan tells Urbo. “An old school pen and paper is best. Burn this paper—it may seem hokey, but trust me, it helps!”
Next, write out new money affirmations you want to see in your life. Things like “I will embrace abundance in my life,” “My wealth will grow through investing,” or “I deserve a better salary,” are great ones to start with, says Pradhan. Write these out on cards, and “put them in a place where you will see [them], like your desk or the fridge door.”
It takes work to break out of your own “money story.” But it is possible, even without a blank check.