Price Tag Parenting

March 18, 2021
Reading time: 5 minutes


Are you moving mountains for your kids or, better yet, taking them there?

A friend of mine is in the rat race. He and his wife were blessed with twins a couple of years ago, and now they’re finding themselves in a house hunt in a desirable school district, about to enter a bidding war on a Los Angeles home that would make a Kansan blush, laugh, and pass out just reading the MLS listing. The couple is putting their all on the line, uncovering a multitude of financial secrets they’ve hidden from each other – which I do not recommend – to dive in over their heads in debt (another topic for another time). These are, like most of my friends, genuine, genuinely decent people. Why are they pushing themselves in so many uncomfortable ways to get into a position so stressful?


As a mother of four, I get it. The first time you hear the cries of your little one in the delivery room, if you aren’t still screaming yourself, you realize you are meeting the tiny creature for whom you will move mountains. That’s not a euphemism. That initial whimper, the inhalation preceding their first yell, convinces you to swear to the heavens above that you will chip away at Mount Kilimanjaro, stone by stone, and haul the debris across Tsavo if it makes that child’s life mildly more meaningful.

Whether you have your own biologically, adopt, or have chosen a younger friend to view as your surrogate child, you know the feeling. The impetus to make the world slightly less stressful for the next generation. One of my favorite kabbalistic teachings is called Tikkun Olam: repair the world. It’s the concept that The Creator left the Earth slightly misshapen so that we could be partners in creation. Because if we are not here to perfect ourselves and the world and lives around us, what’s the point?

But like all demands on us, there is a line so easily crossed. Do you want to give your child a better life, a better world, than the one you continue to grow in? That’s fantastic. You have mastered level one parenting. You feel a desire to want for your progeny. But what do they really need?

This will make many a realtor hate me, but your child doesn’t need the 10 out of 10 school district. Your child doesn’t need a ninety-second walk to a park with the finest swing set municipal dollars can buy. Your child doesn’t need a traditional suburban upbringing that would make Leave It to Beaver look like Breaking Bad.

Your child needs you. The fulfilled, content-yet-striving, peaceful you.

Since the advent of mass advertising, we have become conditioned to believe that we are never enough. That there is a piece missing in our lives that our neighbors and friends have. That we are not the best parents, partners, and people we can be unless we reach for an elusive, expensive “more.”

If you’ve never read the Adweek Copywriting Handbook by Joseph Sugarman, I highly recommend it. Even if your dream isn’t to become the next Don Draper, it sheds a harsh light on the psychology of want and how the world attempts to take advantage of those broken parts inside that make us believe we can fill the gaps in our souls with things. Clutter. Toys. Overpriced Southern California homes.

“Get the reader to say yes and harmonize with your accurate and truthful statements while reading your copy.” – Joseph Sugarman

I chose that excerpt with purpose. Harmony and truth are beautiful concepts, but if the whole world you’re surrounded with is slightly off-key, it’s best not to harmonize with it. I’m not concerned with Sugarman’s truth, your neighbor’s truth, or the truth of a highly polished Instagram mom who seems to have it all together. I am solely focused on my truth and yours. Become comfortable saying no when you feel you are being asked to give something you are simply unable to. To your spouse, your children, to in-laws, and the world, free yourself to say no. You were not created to join a child-rearing competition. You adore your progeny and will do whatever it takes to assure them the advantages you wish you’d had. That is enough. The guilt and stress that we feel above and beyond that for not earning enough to send them to top-tier schools, for not putting them in designer clothes, and for not scrambling before they were a twinkle in our eyes to enroll those miracles of space and time into the most exacting daycares, is a guilt that we can all set aside.

There was a reason that the Federal Trade Commission, facing outcries from parent groups, proposed a ban on unhealthy foods advertised to pre-teens way back in 1978. Joseph Sugarman and the men and women who followed his intuitive training are incredibly good at their job. There’s an advertising axiom that you can’t sell hard work. You have to identify – or create – a need in someone’s life that only the product of the day can fill. And we don’t completely outgrow the dangers of feeling empty just because we get older.

Todd Browning, a Graphic Design and Advertising instructor, suggests that marketers can tap into parents’ insecurities or feelings of inadequacy, targeting them with the mindset that “your kids deserve more.” And with the skyrocketing reach of micro-influencers and mommy blogs, many of which I adore, we can be constantly bombarded with psychology-based advertisements telling us constantly that we aren’t whole… and someone else’s kid is happier.

Sugarman was right. You can’t sell hard work. But that is precisely what raising children requires. There are no quick fixes. No snake oil. No product on the market that can replace the willingness to listen, teach, and learn from your kids.

I want to emphasize that it is okay and natural to desire and take pleasure in physical things, but when I’m about to purchase something for myself or the kids, I check my intention behind the wanting. Who is it for? Is buying – or not buying – it causing me stress? That moment of introspection can keep you from biting off more than you can chew and keep your choices sustainable.

Instead of focusing on buying for your children, be by their side. I tell my sons and daughters daily that there are many things in this world they can be, but there is only one thing they must be, and that is kind. Become a person who strives to live a purpose-filled existence, where each day you ask yourself, “how can I be more?” instead of “how can I amass more?” Don’t fall into the trap into which so many of us plunge headlong of believing that our children aren’t complete unless they have the tangible, material excesses that their friends undoubtedly, according to social media and commercials, enjoy.

I will tell you what I told my friend: parenting is a long, rutted road of switchbacks, dangerous curves, and steep grades. There is no sense in becoming focused on what others are or are not doing. Keep your eye on your own fuel gauge and occasionally appreciate the view.

RETHINK MOMENT: Are you fulfilling your child’s dreams or turning your all-too-brief time as a parent into a rat race with equally baffled parents who are chasing someone else in turn? How can you take a breath and make this journey your own?

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