Teaching the difference between need and want

Writer Charles Dickens
Writer Charles Dickens
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As a child, I was often told to eat up because there are children starving in Africa.

Although I didn’t like the idea of anyone starving, whether in Africa or down the road in Finchley where I grew up, I found it difficult to make the connection between me avoiding eating sausage and tomato stew (my culinary nemesis) and famine conditions nearer the equator.

I make sure I don’t make such throwaway comments to my own children, mainly through fear that they will give the classic response: ‘Well, send the food to them then.’

But also because I think that it is very difficult for children to understand what it is like to be in someone else’s position.

My whole family enjoyed watching the BBC adaptation of Great Expectations over Christmas.

The harsh realities of Victorian life were excellently portrayed and the children were intrigued by the concept of ‘bettering yourself’, a common theme in Dickens’ work.

But can they really relate this to their own relatively privileged lives?

In a different extreme, I have just started reading a book, Room (by Emma Donoghue), about a small child and his mother who live in just one room.

The mother had been abducted when she was 19 and kept in this room ever since. Her son was born in the room and knows no different. That other people even exist in the real world is a concept this small boy finds hard to imagine.

For my children, understanding their lives in a global context is essential.

We have to be extremely careful with money at the moment.

Yet at the same time I want them to realise how lucky they are.

We have a house, a car and food in the cupboards. Just because the cupboards cannot always be full of their favourite cereal does not make us poverty-stricken.

It may be a difficult year for us all, but I think that if we were all transported back 100 years we would all struggle to survive.

Back then, children would usually leave school at the age of 12 or 14 to go to work.

Women would be paid a lot less than men, but would be expected to stop work once they got married.

And remember, it wasn’t until 1928 that women were granted the right to vote on the same terms as men.

In 1912 there was no National Health Service and an individual’s health care depended upon their ability to pay, or religious groups and private charities who helped those who couldn’t afford to pay.

There was also a very clear distinction between the classes, making life for the everyday working class family very hard.

There was no formal benefits system to help those in need.

On the plus side, though, a British man did get into the finals of Wimbledon (but then lost three sets to one, but let’s not think about that).

So how do we get our children to appreciate what they have got, rather than what they haven’t?

Offering their unwanted food to the starving overseas isn’t going to work, so maybe we just need to teach them the difference between what they need and what they want.