We are often faced with a vicious generational cycle of working hard to pay for education so our child can hopefully earn a place at an excellent school, enter a great university and secure a job at a thriving firm. But with so much changing in the world around us, does money still hold the same value, especially with a younger generation whose dreams and ideals seem so very different from our own? How can we educate our children to learn the true value of money – especially if they are from a privileged background – without them feeling berated for being recipients of that privilege? The answer is to look at our lives in a different light – as contributions – and to revisit what the word ‘wealth’ really means.
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu is a Zulu expression, essentially translated as ‘a person is a person through others’. In other words, one is who one is because of others. One is not who one is in isolation – and certainly not an island, to reference Donne’s poem. One cannot wallow in one’s own press clippings either, without honestly acknowledging the contribution and ‘wealth’ of others in one’s life – and vice versa. This interconnectedness, how we owe our successes to so much more than just hard work, luck, or a loan from the bank of Mum and Dad, is key. Money, while useful and most necessary, is only one part of what is seen as ‘success’; we need the rich tapestry of others in our lives, to help us become all we are capable of becoming, so that money takes its rightful place in our lives.
I love teaching Ulysses. In Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses has been bitten by the travelling bug once more and addresses his sailors at the port in Ithaca. These men have been with him for ten years in the Trojan War – and more beyond – encountering all manner of obstacles, near-death experiences and life-changing opportunities. He piques their interest and encourages them to sail beyond the horizon, reminiscing with ‘you are a part of all you have met’. Every single person we meet – homeless, home owner, rich, poor, saint or sinner – makes a contribution to our life, contributes to our ‘wealth’. We may not have undertaken an Odyssey quite like Ulysses, but our lives are multi-faceted and rich.
There are so many different forms of wealth, yet we concentrate immediately on the financial. It’s what we own, or earn, or have – our assets. We can have all the money in the world, though, but be spiritually poor, time poor, health poor. Does our philosophy in life – what we teach our children, what they identify as success and wealth, how we contribute to their world view – give them a healthy perspective? We should think about whether we are helping them to construct a healthy version of wealth (or worth) or subconsciously fuelling in them an inexorable pursuit of the material, above all else.
I remember listening to a well-known Headmaster of a senior school speaking of his own upbringing: he had benefited from bursarial assistance at a prestigious senior school. In turn, he is now determined that all pupils in his care enjoy – but are also aware of – the privileged education to which they have access, and realise their responsibility in ‘paying it forward’ as it were. He ensures that they are involved in empowering and enriching communities. It is not about nurturing guilt; it is about fostering gratitude. I walked away from that evening thinking ‘here is a good man’. He is helping shape the characters of young men and women to both use and appreciate wealth wisely. That is ‘Ubuntu’ in practice.
My own school has an initiative where we send trainers off to boys and girls in Laos. I watch our boys when we have assemblies, and see via a link, the recipients of their ‘old’ shoes, half-way across the world, gratitude streaming down their faces as they hold the trainers. It’s heavy stuff. We send boys to South Africa on exchange, where they spend time in schools similar to ours. They also visit townships and come back definitely changed. They have never seen children in conditions like that and it gives them pause to reflect: not everyone has access to running water; not everyone has the kinds of hopes and dreams we have. The challenge is for parents to keep children grounded – to value money – and not fit the stereotype the media sometimes associates with children in private schooling. No mean task. As our society becomes more and more cashless and we order groceries, toys and gifts at the click of a button, there is simply no ‘physical’ exchange of cash. This immediacy puts no distance between the wanting and the getting. The item just arrives. What about pocket money? How much is too much? Maybe it’s really not so much the amount but rather what we teach our children to do with it, to build their wealth. By this, I mean all types of wealth: spiritual, physical, emotional, and time.
I remember working on a speech competition with a pupil many years ago. We decided on a title based on a concept by Nouwen, called ‘Make your dash count’. The ‘dash’ is the line on one’s tombstone between date of birth and death and is the legacy we leave behind. One way to infuse that dash with meaning, creating wealth in myriad ways, is to ask our children to pretend that they are at their 80th birthday. Someone is giving a speech about them, recounting their impact – what their ‘dash’ has meant. Here’s the challenge: they have to write that speech themselves. It is a tough assignment, and one which my boys moan about when I tell them what we are doing. Amidst groans of ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I don’t know what I want to be’ or even ‘I don’t want to boast’, I observe mini epiphanies.
At first, the pages are blank: they don’t know what career they are going to have or how much money they will earn. But, they do know what they want people to say about them. Bit by bit, the speeches evolve into real pieces of art as they dig deep. Boys write about finding a cure for cancer, of making money to donate, of designing famous architecture which houses ‘special work’ which touches lives. I see boys asking their peers to tell them what their best qualities are. And, as I watch, a priceless dialogue – external and internal – is born. They write more often than not, about giving back, about making a real difference in society. They don’t write about working themselves to death, or their net worth or how many hours they spend at the office. They write about values. Writing about one’s life in retrospect when one hasn’t yet lived all of it is the best goal-setting one could do: not at 25, not at 50. At 13.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘The mass of men worry themselves into nameless graves, while here and there a great unselfish soul forgets himself into immortality.’ What if our pupils, recipients of an enviable and brilliant education, could be one of these great unselfish souls and become custodians of wealth – instead of it owning and driving them?