The urge to provide everything possible for our children runs so deep that it can be hard to separate what they need from what they want, not to mention what we want for them. This urge includes managing our finances so that they have roofs over their heads and food on the table, but also juggling an endless array of options for enriching their lives. Without even considering our busy schedules, the parental balancing act is coming under additional pressure with the increasing financial complexities of the flagging U.S. economy and global disquietude. Change is afoot and we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, let alone the 2020s, when today’s preschoolers will be applying for, and entering, college.
The variables converge in today’s troubled bank accounts. "I'm already paying for uniforms, tutoring, and soccer. Can I really afford to add an art class? Can I make it fit? Can I afford not to?" It is a challenge to find the right balance among the battling priorities of our children's biological and developmental needs, having time to breathe, and the economic bottom line of our households. This is especially true when the results of our decision-making may not manifest themselves in the discernible, short-term future. Given what we hear about sensitive periods of human development, most of us would rather not wait until Penelope is 22 to discover that she is an amazing artist, or to support her burgeoning natural multilingualism.
This is where an essential truism of our times has to be articulated: Slow down and prioritize! Whether you orchestrate the time and money for enrollment for them in anything, everything, something, or nothing, your kids are going to turn out a lot like you. You transmit your worldview and your values to your children every day through your sense of style, your personal priorities, and your communications, whether you like it or not. Given the inescapability of these implicit factors, all you can do with your conscious choices is evaluate your priorities with a long view and devote resources accordingly.
What do you want for your child at middle age? Do you most highly value a healthy mind-body continuum? Is intellectual achievement paramount? Do the pragmatics of career carry the day for you? Whatever you care about most will be born out in the most serene manner possible if you can just take a deep breath, be yourself, and then look for the best pathway for your child to do the same.
Of course, the balancing act becomes simpler when you know your data. Pay attention to where your money is actually going, and it is that much easier to replace a low priority expense with one that’s more important to you. If ordering sushi for a family of four costs the same as a session with a master SAT tutor, the swap becomes academic, as it were. When the renewal period comes around for a class your child professes to despise again and again, maybe it’s time to finally let it go and have a little money to spend on spontaneous activities.
Another angle that adds up fast for the saving-savvy is to systematically follow the freebies. Little explanation is required here; libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions constantly provide educational opportunities at no charge. These include museums, public parks, cultural institutions like Lincoln Center, the library, zoos and aquaria — the list goes on and on.
Tough times do call for a certain amount of belt-tightening, though there’s a distinct upside to limiting your options to what you care about most, as opposed to everything you might like, for your child. No one knows your child like you do, and consciously managing your priorities for him is a profound opportunity. Ultimately, in making your financial choices, you must trust your instincts about who your child is and where she might be headed over the next several decades, well beyond the college admissions process.
WILL CRAIG is educational director at Partners With Parents, Inc., which offers educational consulting and tutoring services in New York City and the lower Hudson Valley. He can be reached at 212-928-5016 or [email protected]. For more information: www.partnerswithparents.com.