"Are we rich?" asks nine-year-old Sally of her parents towards the end of the second season of Mad Men. In typical early '60s Americana, the mother answers:

"It's not polite to talk about such things." And that's that. Sally doesn't get a second shot at the question or an answer. Sally's hunch is right, though. They are but they say nothing.

My cousin, in his teens, once visited our 'back east' relatives (everyone in California has relatives in New York; it's virtually required), and pondered whether something strange had happened to the California side of our family. He asked our grandmother, "Were we ever, you know, rich?!" upon his return. She just laughed at him across the table in her 1970s dilapitated senior apartment. I could see how he may have thought that. The New York relatives (as they are collectively known) went into family business together, they all own houses, they didn't have a gazillion children. Whereas we are southern Californians โ€” too laid back to make that sort of concerted effort in money making. None of us own our own businesses and grandma had six children. Yikes. She didn't answer my cousin at all.

Of course, we Americans of today don't think it's rude to talk about money anymore. My friends and I often relay the entertaining exchanges we've had with creditors and student loan officers. We are all, so to speak, in the same boat and it is not a yacht. 21st century American families barely have a handle on what is polite and not polite anyhow. But that doesn't stop my five-year-old daughter from asking the same question. Little kids tend to see things in extreme black and white. She knows we aren't going on a big vacation this summer, that we are a one-car family, and that we are a four-person family in a two-family house. My son looks over and reminds us that I've suspended their gymnastics lessons for the summer and that we usually shop in thrift stores.

"The thrift store thing is just us. It doesn't mean anything. Your father and I like that sort of thing." They aren't buying it though. No money to buy it with!

"Mommy, we're poor, aren't we?" How does one explain relativism to a child? She says poor. I want to say we don't talk about it. But instead I say we are okay.

"Okay?! What's Okay?!" she asks. Husband gives me a look that says now-you've-done-it. Little kid rule number one. Don't be wishy washy. Give a definitive answer or they'll attack with more and more questions. It got me to thinking just how do we explain this to kids? And is it best to go the old school non-answer answer?

"I want us to be rich, Mommy," she said. The way my daughter said it definitely felt as if I was somehow holding her back. "We aren't poor! We have computers and a Prius and a big TV. And we go to PRIVATE school." My daughter is kind of into the fact that she now knows she goes to private school. Is there harm in letting them have the illusion that they are well off, I wondered? I think she just wanted the illusion. It probably goes along with the princess phase.

"Well," I said, "we have the computers because your father and I work on computers for a living, the Prius was given to us by grandma and the big TV was a Christmas present. We didn't pay for any of those things. And Mommy believes in good education above all else. If there were good public schools around here you'd probably go to them instead."

"So then we are poor?!" she reasoned. I could tell it wasn't going to end. Then I did something a little controversial. We huddled around the Internet the way I presume families of old huddled around a hearth telling stories of magical and not-so-magical lands. I got on the web and Googled orphans, poverty, developing nations, children โ€” and then the big word โ€” images.

I thumbnail viewed the photos before I opened them in front of the kids, but I showed them what real poverty looks like. Children without shoes. Flies landing on faces. Malnutrition. Buildings of rubble. Hair uncombed. This, I told my kids, is what real poor looks like. Relatively speaking, we are nowhere near poor. I'm not sure how readers feel about showing their elementary-school-aged children uncomfortable images of human suffering. But is sheltering our children helping us as a society? My teenage students have the worst case of entitlement ever. I can't help but think if someone showed them what real struggle looked like, perhaps they'd change their tune.

Certainly, both of my kids were depressed a bit afterwards and asked more questions. Questions like "Where are their mommies and daddies? How come they can't give them food or a house? Why can't they go to school?" But for one brief moment in their short American lives I could tell that both understood feeling grateful that they'd arbitrarily been born here.

This post was included in The Homesteading Carnival.