Modern Grace: 3 Tips for Raising Unspoiled Kids

Around this time last year, I did some back-to-school clothes shopping for my son. He was a newly minted six-year-old heading to first grade, growing so fast that it seemed he was leapfrogging sizes. “Can you please try these on?” I asked, setting a stack of pants in his room. “I want to make sure they’re the right length.” 

My son was playing with my dad at the time and immediately resisted. “Mama! I’m busy! I don’t want to try on clothes!” I did not appreciate his tone or his lack of gratitude. My dad must have felt the same way because he said to Emmett, “You’re a lucky boy! Look at how many new clothes you have for school. When I was growing up, I only ever had two pairs of pants. My school uniform that I wore in public and the pair I wore around the house.”

My son, born and raised in safety and comfort, couldn’t believe it. “You’re kidding, habbi,” he accused. Of course my dad was not kidding. He was born in 1953, before the end of the Korean War. His family was considered middle class by postwar standards, but this just meant he wasn’t missing meals. I gathered that he never got to eat his fill of food, even though as the first son he got to eat more than his older sisters. When I was growing up, I never saw my dad waste a grain of rice. 

This generational gap between the postwar and millennial mindset is a common story in Korean and Korean American families, leading to a nagging fear: are we raising spoiled kids? Nothing pleases my dad more than to see his grandchildren well-fed, well-educated and well-dressed. But no one wants a spoiled child on their hands either. 

There are two aspects at play when thinking about raising kids who are “not spoiled.” The first is the social-emotional piece. We want kids who experience genuine gratitude, who aren’t entitled jerks walking around thinking the world owes them whatever they want. Secondly, we want kids who understand the value of money and resources, and therefore will grow up to be financially responsible adults who will be able to take good care of themselves, any dependents, and be reliable members of their community. 

Next month I’ll provide tips on how to provide a strong foundation of financial literacy and responsibility from a young age. This month, we’ll focus on 3 ways to practice a mindset of gratitude and healthy perspectives.

1. Gratitude Practice

It’s tempting to think that gratitude is a natural upwelling of appreciation that doesn’t need to be taught, but much like dental hygiene or nutrition, gratitude is a habit that needs to be explained, modeled and practiced to support a healthy mind and body. A gratitude practice can be whatever makes sense for your family. If you are religious, it could be a habit of saying grace before meals. Non-religious families can practice sharing the things they are thankful for each day. It can be writing in a journal. 

In addition to reflection, gratitude can also be expressed in actions. I like sending thank you notes, and help my son write them for birthday gifts even though it’s time-consuming and takes a lot of effort. It’s also important to me that my kids actively acknowledge and thank people who are in helping roles instead of taking their work for granted.

unspoiled kids

This includes people who have long-term relationships with them like their teachers, school staff, and healthcare professionals, but also people we might see for a short time like restaurant servers or grocery clerks. We also practice social courtesies like holding doors open for people in public places and saying thank you when someone does the same for us. 

2. Identifying needs vs. wants

A fellow parent once said to me that you haven’t really earned your parenting stripes until you’ve carried your screaming child out of a public place, holding her/his writhing body under your arm like a surfboard. Asking a tantruming toddler if that extra dessert is a need or a want likely won’t get you far, but in a calmer moment even very young kids can start identifying the difference.

Liz Frazier, author of Beyond Piggy Banks and Lemonade Stands, How to Teach Young Kids About Finance, created poster boards and had her kids sort needs versus wants using pictures cut out of magazines. Ron Lieber, author of The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids who are Grounded, Generous, and Smart about Money, uses the “Lands End” rule as shorthand to explain to older kids that sturdy clothing is a need, whereas fancier brand-name clothing is a want. (You can insert your preferred brands to demarcate the difference in your own family.)

Mentally identifying the difference between needs vs. wants helps kids (and adults!) make more responsible decisions because it helps prioritize necessities over treats and luxuries. Hopefully it also provides some logical underpinning as to why we can’t have everything we want in the moment.

3. Delayed gratification and setting SMART goals

Have you seen those memes of dogs with a treat on their nose, waiting patiently until their human gives the signal that they can gobble it up? (The human version of this is the famous Marshmallow Experiment.) Practicing delayed gratification might not be terribly helpful to a dog, but we know that human societies are built on the ability to make a plan and see it through to completion.

To help little kids practice delayed gratification, we can ask them to wait for things they want, firstly to test if they actually want it, and secondly to help them cope with the inherent discomfort of waiting. Waiting is hard for everyone, regardless of age, but we all need to learn how to deal with it if we want to reap more mature outcomes.

Older kids can create their own delayed gratification for things they want, such as a new laptop or a fancy pair of sneakers, by setting a goal and working toward it. (Younger kids can do this too, with the help of their grownups, which I will talk about in more detail next month.)

The acronym SMART stands for:
  1. Specific
  2. Measurable
  3. Attainable
  4. Realistic
  5. Timely


By making a specific plan and earning out the reward, kids can learn valuable lessons that are both emotionally and financially empowering.

Money is a taboo topic in American culture, and many Korean and Korean-American families also might not have clear strategies for helping their kids gain financial literacy. The postwar generation suffered greatly from their deprivations, but their stories may be too far removed from the current generation’s experience to serve as true guidelines for inspiring grit. Luckily there are plenty of contemporary experts and resources on the topic so our kids can learn how to appreciate both their past and future legacies.

Next month: How to raise kids who are financially smart and empowered.


Grace Wuert

Yoojin Grace Wuertz was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States at age six. She holds a BA in English from Yale University and an MFA in fiction from New York University. EVERYTHING BELONGS TO US is her debut novel, which was selected as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and included on Kirkus Reviews’ Best Fiction of 2017. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Massachusetts Review, among other publications. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her family. You can find her online at www.gracewuertz.com

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