Today I read the latest edition of Dear Prudence–an advice column I enjoy reading on Slate. I found there this question:

Q. Regular Family in a High-End Town: Our family of five lives in a nice but modest home in a well-to-do town with top public schools. We believe we’ve taught our children to value what they have. The problem is, how to deal with the competitive environment—parents who can throw money at tutors or coaches, supplemental math and science clinics, and those things contributing to top grades and top college applications. It’s not that we want to be like that (we feel it’s so much pressure and overload, although that seems to be the norm), but we also can’t afford it. And what’s the appropriate response to “My kid is top honors/best at soccer/a genius/going to Stanford.” My standard reply is, “Oh how nice.” Any advice on how to help my kids muddle through this as they enter high school? It will only get worse.

I found myself able to relate to this question, as the Kid goes to a private school where our family income is definitely below the median, and I also went to a private school when I was young, where many families had more disposable income than did ours.

The thing to do is to talk to your children about choices. Had we wanted to, KPD and I could have gone into finance, or medicine, or any number of other more lucrative fields. KPD chose to be a teacher, and I work in public health. For several years, I had no income because I stayed home with the Kid when she was little. When we were living on a teacher’s salary, money was tight. We clipped coupons. We didn’t go out to dinner unless my parents treated us. We didn’t buy anything extra.

But those were choices. And the jobs we have now are also choices. We choose to do jobs that contribute positively to society, even though we make less money than we could. We choose to have jobs that allow us to have a home/work balance that allows us to spend a lot of time together as a family. And because we have made those choices, there are other things we can’t do. We don’t buy new cars every three years. We don’t own a second home.

Many of the families Kid knows have made different choices. Lots have big houses, or summer homes, or fancy cars (or all three.) So we teach the Kid that when she grows up, she can make her own choices. But we hope that she’ll do work that she enjoys and spend money in a way that brings her satisfaction. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a big house and earning the money to buy it. Some people like to work all the time in a high-pressure job. But that’s not me. I need rest, and family time, and I love our house and our community.

We make it clear to the Kid that we don’t think we’re better or worse than anyone else.  We admire our friends’ beautiful houses, and we invite them over to our little house and show them what it’s like to live in a planned community where we share parks and pools with our neighbors. When we think something is important or we really want it, we save up and spend money on it. When we don’t think something is worth it, we don’t spend money on it. And we try to talk to the Kid about the trade-offs we’re making so she can understand that these are decisions everyone gets to make.

I am sure that this family could, in fact, afford tutors and supplemental classes if they wanted to sacrifice other things. They could work weekends. They could give up other things they spend money on, like vacations or dinners out. Tutors aren’t THAT expensive, even for three kids. These parents don’t do those things because they don’t value them. Clearly, the letter-writer does not think that kind of pressure is good for children, and also does not think it’s necessary to go to Stanford.

So drop the insecurity, and explain to your children that you’re making the choices you think are best for them, and the other families they know are making the choices they think are best. You think things like play and time spent with family are more important than going to Stanford. So teach your kids about finding balance in life. Teach them that striving is not always a good thing. Explain to them the reasons behind your choices, and listen to them if they disagree with you. Then together you can make a plan for the future.

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