Keeping up with the Joneses’…kids (part 2: the reality)

Okay, so I think forcing your kids to fight your internal battles between self-assurance and external pressures is misguided at best. But what does that mean in reality?

I’m not saying that I think kids should have the newest, most expensive, diamond-laden shoes. First of all, those diamond-laden shoes would scratch the crap out of my floors, and while those floors are going to have to be replaced at some point (thanks, cat, for ruining everything) (I’m talking about cat pee) (it ruins literally everything), they’ve got a few good years left in them.

What I’m saying is this: kids will face specific pressures from their friends and the culture in specific material ways. My job as a parent is to teach them to navigate those pressures, which means examining the ones that are worthwhile, paying attention to the very real pressure they feel and helping them determine when value outweighs cost.

The five main categories I can see are clothes, toys, books, activities, and experiences.

Clothes. All three of my kids are, for whatever reason, super into clothes. They do not get this from me. I got rid of almost all of my clothes except 5 dresses, and have never looked back. At 10, Sonya feels some brand pressure, but for the most part, they all just want clothes that they think are cool. Here’s how we manage the pressures:

  1. Hand-me-downs from cool people. My kids adore the neighbor, who is 14, which is, like, the coolest age. She’s small for her age, and my kids are big for their ages. They give us a couple of trash bags full of clothing every year. I always make sure to give them a $50 gift card to Amazon as a thank you (and to make sure I’m first in line next time), because those trash bags probably have $800 worth of clothing in them. Maybe more. These hand-me-downs let my kids explore the brands and styles they want, without costing us basically anything. Also, because I have three girls, they just keep getting passed down. By the time Amelia gets to them, they have been worn for years and years.
  2. Second-hand stores. This is something we did a lot more of when Sonya was little, because we weren’t getting a lot of hand-me-downs. Now, we are rich in girls’ clothing. Poor in storage space for said clothing, but rich in the clothing itself.
  3. New clothes for certain occasions. My kids like to match, and I like to think that they are going to be best friends for their entire lives, so every once in awhile I’ll buy them matching clothes – Christmas dresses, t-shirts. I also buy items for specific “spirit days” at school. The pressure to take part in “ugly sweater day” is not made up. It’s much more intense than the pressure I might feel to have a BMW, even though it seems sillier to me, as an adult who hasn’t felt any sort of pressure to wear ugly sweaters in decades.

So for clothes, the mashup is this: mostly free, some second-hand, and space in the budget for the things that they think are important.

Toys. Good God we have a lot of toys. I know, studies show that kids develop their imagination with just a stick, a pile of rocks, and three pieces of string, but every time I tell the kids to go play with that pile of rocks, they call CPS on me. Not really, because I don’t let them have phones. But they would. Their friends and classmates have rooms full of toys, and they know what’s available. Will they play with rocks if we’re outside? Sure. But the weather is horrible like 80% of the year, and toys are a thing we must have. Here’s our philosophy:

First, as with clothes, we rarely need to buy anything. As kid #3 enters prime toy age, our bins are stuffed with whatever she needs. I almost never buy toys for no reason, which means there’s budget room at Christmas and on birthdays for toys, if I want. The other thing is that we tend to invite a lot of kids to birthday parties, so the kids get their fair share of plastic pink crap without any effort from me.

I say yes to the following categories: building materials (LEGOs, blocks, magnet blocks), musical instruments (I am a masochist), arts and craft supplies (even…yes, even slime), anything that makes them think they’ll be a doctor some day, board games. We bought a huge dollhouse, which has gotten so, so much use. The general idea is this: what is the best jumping off point for their imagination? What is most likely to get them to not whine when I tell them they can’t watch YouTube?

Books: we are a family that goes to the library a lot, but we don’t pull out a lot of books and bring them home. Why? Because all it takes is one water-damaged book that you didn’t really want anyway but you let the kids get because hey, it’s free, to make you lose all the money you are saving.

We are signed up for Dolly Patton’s imagination library, and have been for nearly a decade, which is THE BEST, so we are chock full of high quality books for kids under 5. I also used to allow the kids to pick out a book every time the Scholastic paper came around at school, because I want to support the school and I also want to support literacy, but that has become too expensive so I just do that for the book fair night (same thing, but twice a year instead of…a thousand times?). For books for older kids, I try to find them used online. Like the other “stuff” categories, hand-me-downs are key, and we are basically full up on the basics, meaning we can splurge every once in awhile to make it fun.

Activities: We are ten years into a social experiment that I call “let the kids do whatever activity they want.” We have hit on some snags (those snags being that time is not infinite), but it’s actually going exactly as I hoped. Everybody feels like they get to develop their own skills, they learn teamwork and communication and organization and hard work, and at some point, they themselves self-select for what they want. Is it more money than I could have imagined? I mean duh of course. Except my kids are confident, strong, smart, musical, and artistic.

At one point, in a panic, I imagined the budget if all three kids were on the competition team for all the sports they do, all at the same time. That didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because it’s not just that competitive gymnastics is expensive, it’s also intense. As is competitive cheerleading, and competitive dance. Going all in on all things defies the laws of physics. Thank God.

Experiences: This is another place where we spend a lot of money. We have been to the zoo a trillion times, science centers, children’s museums, the amusement park. We swim and go to trampoline parks. We went to Disney World and were in Paris just long enough to take a rushed family photo in front of the Eiffel Tower.

To say we save money in this bucket is laughable, BUT. I typically buy 2-3 memberships for the year (zoo, children’s museum, amusement park), and we go to those things over and over. We heavily rely on reciprocal memberships when we are on the road, so we’ve been to children’s museum in Terra Haute, in Kansas City, in Columbus, and more. Wherever we go, I always bring a packed lunch, and the kids know that if they eat all the fruits and vegetables I pack, we can stop for ice cream on the way home (two bucks each for ice cream instead of the 47 million dollars it costs to eat crappy food inside the zoo). We travel hack, so our Disney World trip was half price and the flights to Europe were free.

Is it cheap? Heck no. But given that one trip to the amusement park could easily run you $300 if you aren’t careful (face painting! crappy chicken nuggets! dart games! overpriced ice cream! t-shirts!), we try to get the most bang for our buck, or…maybe I mean the least bucks for the most bang.

Kids are only as expensive as you make them, and I know there are parents, good ones, who simply say “no, no activities” or “Vans shoes are stupid.” At some point (maybe every point), I think that pushing austerity on your kids because you want to quit working at 50 instead of 65 is self-serving. I want my kids to be able to weigh material pressures against the makings of a good life as adults, and I think the best way to do that now is to give them opportunities and, yes, things, and help them to decide what they think is worth spending money on.

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