I teach 2nd grade, and right now we’re reading Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. If you haven’t read it (and it’s so boring that there is precious little reason to read it), here’s the basics: the Ingalls family leaves their home in Wisconsin to go to the Kansas prairie, because for some reason Pa wants to live in the middle of nowhere.
Once out on the prairie, Pa must build a house. And he does, nearly single-handedly. Once he gets to making the roof, though, he needs nails, and he doesn’t have any. So he borrows nails from a neighbor (by “neighbor,” they mean “someone within 10 miles or so”) to build the roof. Now, in Ma’s words, they are “beholden” to their neighbor, Mr. Edwards, and must at some point buy nails to pay him back. This is not a feeling she likes in the slightest, which highlights one of the main themes of the book: the importance of self-reliance.
On a test, I asked the students what Ma mean by being “beholden” and what value (character trait) she was showing. One student wrote: “She means to owe money to someone. She is showing rational thinking because you would be irrational if you do something to owe money.”
Let me repeat that last part: “You would be irrational if you do something to owe money.”
According to this child, borrowing money is not just undesirable or irresponsible, but actually illogical. It’s silly.
But many people do it. Why? Even this 8 year old can tell you it’s not a good idea.
It’s because she has been taught the values of hard work, responsibility, and self-reliance; values it seems half the world have forgotten about. To us, the Ingalls family’s quest for self-reliance, to the point of eschewing help from their neighbors unless they can be paid back, is strange. Why not have something for nothing?
Ma Ingalls knew and my student is learning something many people do not: debt destroys your character. There is value in being self-reliant. There is value in working hard for whatever it is you want, and going without the things you can’t afford until you have earned them.
And now I get to the familiar rhetoric of “entitlement”: too many people feel entitled to things they haven’t worked for. That’s not how people used to think. For generations people expected to work for what they wanted.
Even a child can see that debt is not a good idea, that if you want something, you have to work for it. (Please note, the student’s answer was not coached – it came purely from the child.)