In my early high school years (a long, long time ago), I had a friend who was really good at tennis. So good, in fact, that he would regularly beat accomplished adult players at the tennis club in our little town.
His parents were his biggest fans. Recognising his potential, they took him out of regular school and got him a tutor and a dedicated tennis trainer. This was in the days of Boris Becker and by all accounts, his parents believed that they were investing in their son’s future as a player on the lucrative professional circuit.
To the rest of us, it felt more like they were using their kid as a future investment. Huge difference!
As parents we’re often told to invest in our children’s education and future, but what does that actually mean in reality? Does it involve sending them to the best schools and universities, getting them established in the most influential social circles or directing them onto a marketable career path? And whose interests should we have at heart in doing so – theirs or our own?
Before I toss too many pebbles at my school friend’s seemingly self-serving parents I should take cognisance of my own little glass house. You see, I’m not beyond passing off my own interests as being beneficial to my kids’ progress.
Just the other day, I convinced my wife Sam that buying a rather expensive board game which deals in great detail with the politics of the Cold War would contribute greatly to our son’s chances of success in his matric history exam which covers the topic. She smiled and went along with the idea, knowing full well that my own obsession with modern cardboard-based entertainment (don’t laugh – it’s nothing like Monopoly!) was at least as big a motivator as my concern for my Josef’s academic prowess.
There’s no doubt that helping to pave the way toward your child’s wellbeing in years to come is going to involve money. You might want to put some aside in a college fund or even create a stash of cash dedicated to getting them through that post-school gap-year which will allow them to ‘find’ themselves. But ultimately, I think, it’s the non-financial contributions you make as a parent that will have the most lasting impact.
I really believe that investing in their future is mostly about providing them with opportunities that will broaden their mental horizons and let them experience the myriad of possible life trajectories the world has to offer. And luckily, that doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Depending on their proclivities, it might involve regular trips to museums and concerts or the forest and library, guitar or surfing lessons, and much else.
I never really understood the benefits of letting the world be your oyster. Isn’t the inside of an oyster a closed off and claustrophobic little place? For me, children deserve a bigger canvas: a world that’s an endless sandbox and laboratory in which to experiment, play and explore. I think their parents should be there to guide them and keep them safe, not to funnel them into a career in accounting or law or the family business just because that’s a sensible thing to do. By all means, teach them to be financially savvy and pay for them to do a B.Com degree, but you might also want to invest in them in other ways.
And what should we expect in return for all of the effort we put into sending them on their own way? That’s not really a fair question, because it’s not simply a matter of putting down a bunch of money now with the expectation that dividends will be paid back to you at some point in the future. What I hope to get in return is the knowledge that as grownups my kids are not only financially secure, but happy and living life to their full potential. And yes, once Sam and I are old and in need of frail care, a little support would be nice, too.
Personally, I feel increasingly rewarded by my ability to live vicariously through their successes and by watching them accomplish things I know I will never be able to do myself. Like, play the saxophone a bit like Charlie Parker or, I guess, tennis a bit like Boris Becker.
I don’t know what happened to my old school friend in the end. Let’s just say that I never spotted his name on the Wimbledon schedule. Has Josef increased his knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction? I guess we’ll have to wait until he’s written that matric exam.