Sunday, March 04, 2007

You Can't Always Get What You Want

"...and if you try sometime you find, you get what you need..."
--Mick Jagger

Here's a rather disturbing article from the WSJ discussing the costs of raising a child through the age of 17. The first disturbing item is the fact that the government estimate of the cost is a paltry $279,000 (about $16,000 per year). Whaaat?! Did they buy diapers or did the kid pop out potty-trained? Did they purchase a crib? And what did they feed said child? Spaghettios for 17 years? Sixteen grand a year is a minimum, kind of like the government's "poverty level," which is notoriously low if you've ever lived in poverty and tried to qualify for assistance ($17,170 for a family of THREE).

Imagine your life on $17,170 with a kid. Plenty of people do it, but it's not easy. {Especially if you consider that a full-time (40 hours per week/52 weeks per year) worker being paid minimum wage would earn only about $11,000 per year. But that's just my own little dig at people who say that minimum wage increases would hurt business. And at a government that allows, say, a father working 52 weeks a year with no vacation to still earn 40% less than the poverty level. "Then the wife should work," you say. But then how do you pay for decent child care? In some areas of the country, (hello, Washington DC) child care costs can be as much as a mortgage payment.}

Anyhoo. Getting back to the WSJ article. On the one hand, I'm stunned at the lowballing of the government figures. On the other, I'm stunned at the Journal's top estimate for the higher income brackets: $1.6 million. Or perhaps more accurately, I'm stunned that parents would spend so much on their kids. Why does my kid need a (flat panel) TV in her room? Why does she need to take a Berlitz language class and have a language tutor at the age of 7? Why is she getting a brand new IPod Nano? How about *I* get the IPod Nano and give her my old-but-still-completely-functional-although-not-cool one? What happened to parents setting limits? As you know from reading these pages, I didn't grow up with lots of money, so maybe it's easy for me to say that it did me no harm (and perhaps a world of good) to not have had all my wants and dreams as a kid realized. But isn't there something to be said for leaving your kid with some unfulfilled wants? Where's the work ethic development if you never have to think, "I'll have one of those when I grow up," because you already have one? I remember my friend's parents putting a window-unit air conditioner in their bedroom. You know, back in the day when central AC wasn't standard, and air conditioners were a few hundred bucks. My friend was complaining about how hot her room was with just an open window and a fan and how she needed an AC too. Her mom said, "Honey, we can only afford one. And your father and I have worked many years to be able to afford one, and we're the ones who have to go to work to support this family. So it stays in our room. When you're older you can buy one for yourself and tell your kids that you also waited many years to enjoy one." At the time, some of our other friends thought she should call Social Services to report her parents for cruelty. But it did her no harm and made a good point: stuff costs money, and sometimes you just can't get everything you think you want due to money limitations.

But even where there are no financial limitations (such as the top bracket in this WSJ article), shouldn't a competent parent invent another kind of limitation just for appropriate human development? Should you give your kid everything just because you can? My opinion is hell, no, but I'm not sure how widespread that view is anymore. Even among just the "comfortably middle class" of my friends, some are spending unbelievable amounts of money in order to send their kid to the right pre-pre-school program, give her language lessons, make sure her feet are only in appropriate footwear for her kiddie orthopedic needs ($60 a pair), and throw the most wonderful party for their three year-old who will not remember it.

Don't get me wrong. Bambina is not deprived in any way. We're not eating government cheese out of principle. It's not my intent to withhold things she needs and that are good for her. The challenge, at least in our neighborhood, is being really vigilant about what starts to meet the criteria of "what she needs and is good for her." The definition is very easily expanded if you're not careful. It's a slippery slope that I feel like I'm trying to avoid on a daily basis, not judging where she is/what she has based on the decisions of other parents for their own kids. We don't have an $800 stroller, but most people here do. It's easy to feel like you need one too, until you remind yourself that as long as it's got wheels and is safe, we're all good. Some other moms at the park are kind of amused that at 2 1/2, Bambina is not in some kind of Montessori program or somesuch that can "get her prepared." Helllloooo? Isn't that the definition of Preschool? Which she will go to when she's three. Which, in our case, is a little homey but educationally sound one that operates out of the classrooms in a church basement. She already knows her letters and numbers and colors, so she'll be getting what she'll need most: the opportunity to learn to work in a group with other kids. And maybe make a rigatoni necklace and draw pictures of dinosaurs. Stuff we all did when we were kids and we turned out just fine.

As a kid, I wanted so many things that I couldn't have because they just were not affordable, and I imagine, not gonna be given to me regardless. Yeah, it felt miserable at the time to be wearing clothes from Sears instead of Lord & Taylor. I hated that my sneakers were no-name brand and all my friends had Nikes. I hated that me and my brother and sister all had to share one car (a broken down '76 caddy) for high school because my parents insisted we pay for it if we wanted it. I hated that other kids went on study-away programs in college when I couldn't because I was on financial aid. Did I miss out on something valuable? No doubt. But did I turn out fine regardless? Sure did. My horrible job at a Friendly's restaurant (the one where the manager would give you a day off if you gave him a blow job in his office the size of a parking-lot fotomat)--at which I never asked for a day off, I hasten to add!--paid for my books the first semester of my sophomore year at college. Could a young woman need any better incentive to succeed than that? The other women who worked there were stuck. I knew I was never coming back. That job taught me more than three summers on the Yucatan and I wouldn't trade its lessons for anything. There is no doubt that I'd have learned a lot on the Mexican peninsula as well, but there's the crux of the issue: a motivated kid will take the life lessons from any experience she has, be it making fribbles or building huts.

Which is my ultimate point after all my rambling. As parents, we spend so much money and give so many things to our kids, I suspect, out of some latent fear that they will not succeed financially and professionally, and the fault will somehow be traced back to us. It's hard-wired in a good parent to want your kid to succeed in life, to make a good living, to find happiness in a profession, to not worry about money or live in poverty. But sometimes the best thing you can give your kid is the gift of missing out on something they really, really want.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

OK, I have to quote Desperate Housewives here: Gabrielle (unhappy, spoiled rich trophy wife)says, "My husband gave me everything I wanted. I guess I just wanted the wrong things."

Getting what you want and being happy are, counterintuitively, not really realated, and may in fact be opposites! To a degree, of course, like most things in life...