I kept thinking over the weekend as I watched the girls enjoy the beach during our day trip to Montauk that we’re giving the kids a really good childhood. And it’s not because we have lots of money to spend on toys and gadgets and trips. On the contrary, we have pared down our lifestyle even further in the last 18 months, partly out of necessity and partly out of the desire to cut down on needless consumerism, but we also acknowledge that we are more fortunate than most. The one thing, for the most part, that we’ve had in abundance despite the intense juggling of business and work, is time spent with the kids. This is what I need to remind myself of when the envy starts to creep in. Oh you know, looking through vacation photos of friends on Facebook, admiring stuff that you wish you could buy.
But what I have learned in recent years is this: the stuff that you wished you sometimes had, that you thought you would need to give your kids a good childhood is often not necessary at all. Sometimes our perception of what we need can be influenced by what our friends and peers have, but it’s really not how much you have that’s important; it’s what you do with what you have that matters.
Not to say that the girls themselves aren’t immune to this. Mia in particular, will sometimes say that she’s the only one in her class who hasn’t traveled to another country yet (oh reeeally? I ask her). She’s been asking to go to sleepaway camp for the past few years like so many of her friends and I tell her, I don’t know, maybe some day. It’s these moments when I start to feel a bit bad that we don’t have the means to do some of the things that they ask for because frankly, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to afford sleepaway camp or extra dance classes or music lessons. But I just need to shake those feelings off because sleepaway camp or no camp, European vacation or not, the girls have a pretty sweet childhood.
Sometimes I feel like I manage our money a little too tight fisted and perhaps that’s rooted in the fear of what’s unknown, but when I see their smiles at the beach or the movies, or the times we spend in the burbs at my parents’ house, then I know that choosing experiences over things is right for us. It may get harder as they get older when they’ll feel pressured on their own to keep up with their peers, but I do hope that we’re laying down the foundation for them to feel secure within themselves, despite of all that (sometimes we need this reminder ourselves too). I remember wanting things and wishing my life was a bit different; I was a teenager once. I hope when they look back, they’ll remember how good it was and they’ll know that we tried to give them the best childhood that we could, just as my mom tried to give us a better childhood than the one she had.
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Some kids take to water like fish and the girls are no exception. They can stay in the pool for hours. I never learned how to swim properly as a kid, so I’m not a strong swimmer (I can swim, but not really well). I really wanted the girls to take swim lessons early on because I do have a fear of drowning and swimming is such an important life skill to have (btw, have you read this article on what drowning really looks like? If you haven’t yet, you should). Mia took swimming lessons a few years ago and she did learn how to swim, but I think she needs at least another round of classes to properly learn the strokes and get better at swimming longer distances and in deeper water. We’ve been stalling on Claudine’s swim lessons until we knew for sure she would be comfortable in a swim class, but to our surprise she figured out how to float on our last day at a pool last summer. When we went swimming for the first time this season last Saturday, she picked right up where she left off and figured out how to swim on her own within 20 minutes of being in the water. I watched her for the 2 hours she was in the pool and I’ve never seen as much determination on her face and in her little body as I did that day. She didn’t even want to play with Mia in the water; all she wanted to do was swim laps across the pool the whole time.
NYC initiated a program called “Swim For Life” about 2 years ago and the program was made available in our school this year. It partners local YMCAs with public schools and offers swim classes to second graders for 10 weeks as part of the normal school curriculum, partly to give disadvantaged minority children in the city an opportunity to learn how to swim (let’s be frank here; swim lessons cost money and it’s unfortunate that money is a factor in learning a skill that can be life saving. I know I’ve been lackadaisical myself about enrolling the kids in swim classes because of it). I had heard rumors throughout the school year that the second graders were going swimming, but I just couldn’t believe how the logistics worked. I mean, how do you walk 24 second graders 8 blocks to the local YMCA, swim for an hour, get changed out of wet bathing suits and into regular clothes and walk back the 8 blocks to school every single week? But apparently it works! I’m really pleased that Claudine will be able to take advantage of the program as she goes into second grade next year, provided that our school will be offering it again after this pilot year (and I really hope it does). Drowning is scary and while I’m glad I no longer have to go in the water with the girls every time we go swimming now that they are older, I still hover near the edge of the pool with my eyes on them the whole time. It’s probably the one time where I act like a helicopter parent. So do yourself and your kids a favor – teach them how to swim. Statistics say that accidental drowning is the second leading cause of death to young children. With the way these girls love the water, it’s enough of a reason to revisit putting swim classes as top priority above other extracurricular activities.
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Summer is grand. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before but I love summer so much more now with kids. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t love the hot humid weather that we often get here in the Northeast, but I do love all the things that we get to do on the weekends and when school gets out. All of this is so much easier now that the girls are older. No more bulky strollers and a bag full of diapers, wipes and 7 kinds of snacks to haul around. No more public tantrums because so and so happened to brush against the other one’s elbow by accident or some other equally ridiculous and random thing (ok, sometimes that nuttiness still happens). When we were still stroller bound, I couldn’t really do outings outside our neighborhood that wasn’t within walking distance if I was parenting solo that day because I couldn’t haul 2 kids, a stroller and all that gear up and down subway stairs myself. I think the city is great with school age kids, but it can be logistically tougher with babies and toddlers. It’s not impossible, of course, to live in a walk up with a baby and it’s not impossible to go grocery shopping with a baby in tow either, but sometimes the little, every day things can be tough to deal with when you’re living in a big city and walking everywhere. As much as I love babies – and I really do love the baby phase – I don’t miss those days.
I sometimes think that we’re in this “golden” period of parenting. You know, those years when the kids are bigger, but still small, and before you are dealing with tween and teenage issues and flashing through all those scenes from the movie “Thirteen” (that film is now 10 years old, btw). The girls at ages 6 and 9 are still all about legos, reading books, role playing imaginary games and drawing pictures. It still all seems innocent, for now. We have yet to enter into pop culture-obsessed mania or peer pressure cliques but I’m sure all that stuff is right around the corner. Right now, however, we’re enjoying the kids as true companions as we explore all there is to do in the city and beyond. Family outings are actually fun, and for the most part, turn out the way I envision them – you know “fun!” rather than “arrrghh! Must run away as soon as I get home and hide in the bathroom by myself”. It’s even a pleasure to have the girls as companions at Flea Markets now, as evidenced by Mia’s most recent all day visit with Mark on Saturday. She was there early in the morning from set up to break down. During the long day, she read her book, she bought food at various booths by herself, played with the ipad, and she talked to people. Such a far cry from the early days when I couldn’t think of a worse hell than having to chase 2 children running in opposite directions from grabbing everything from another vendor’s booth.
Yes, we’re looking forward to a whole summer of fun and activities, trips to the beach, the pool, city festivals and our annual trip to the Northwest. Summer is grand.
PS. To the family from the Netherlands who came to visit us at the Flea Saturday with a gorgeous tin of stoopwafels…THANK YOU for such a thoughtful gift. So sorry that Mark was so swamped at that moment because he would have loved to give you a gift as well. How great is it that we get visits from blog readers all over the world??!
PPS. Photos are from Planting Fieds at Coe Hall. That painting is a small part of a mural that covers all 4 walls of Mrs. Coe’s bedroom. Intense.
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This week was a blur. Not enough productivity, too much sliding down the wormhole to the past. Some days the lack of focus is so hard to overcome that you might as well pack it in. Eat another muffin, watch another concert video on Youtube. This is one of those days when the rain and the return to cold is dragging me down (and I’m actually considering retiring in Seattle one day? Hmmm). I’m not feeling this day.
Claudine and I have been having a regular exchange almost weekly where she goes to put her dirty clothes in the laundry basket and upon discovering that it’s full, walks up to me all huffy, but in a totally deadpan way says, “you’re really bad at doing laundry.” And then we go back and forth for a few minutes of banter, her stare almost challenging me. When she walks away rolling her eyes, I question whether or not that conversation actually took place, mostly because I stooped to the level of a 6 year old with my immature retorts back to her. Sadly, she is right. I hate doing laundry with a thousand passions so it often does pile up. I’m staring at the laundry right now, in fact. I was thinking recently how true it is that being a parent keeps us accountable in so many ways. The kids keep us in check and their school schedule is the rhythm that provides the structure to our days. If I didn’t have to walk them to school every morning, I probably wouldn’t leave the house or get to sleep at any reasonable hour that makes it possible to interact with humans in the rest of the working world. Meals too. They’re probably the reason we even have food in the fridge.
So thanks girls, for saving me from a life of take-out and TV dinners and vampire hours. You make me laugh when you make my bed for me, even better than how I make it, but leave me a post-it note on the pillow reminding me to thank you. You make me smile when you offer to give me a foot massage, squeezing my feet with little fingers for all of 2 minutes before dropping my foot like a hot potato and running off when your sister wants to play with you. You make me look forward to birthday week with your schemes and whispers behind my back even if I’d rather forget the fact that I’ll be turning another year older. Your enthusiasm for even the mundane things in life is the spark that keeps me going on days like this.
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Retirement. I know…that word.
Doesn’t seem like this impossibly far away thing anymore and I woke up one day rather consumed by it as if a switch went off overnight, much like when I knew I wanted to have a baby.
I wasn’t taught as a kid about money and saving, though I wish I had been. I don’t blame my parents; it wasn’t in their culture or upbringing to know about things like retirement accounts or even savings accounts for that matter – not when you come from a poor, wartime childhood. I also think in traditional Asian cultures, children are expected to take care of the elderly so retirement planning isn’t quite what it’s like here, though that may be changing. My mom used to stubbornly tell me that we wouldn’t be left with the burden of taking care of her in retirement and that she wouldn’t want to live with us if that time ever came. Well, that remains to be seen, but it certainly signals a shift in her part from generations before her.
I’ll also divulge this, which is (or maybe was?) another cultural thing that I would later realize was not necessarily a given among my peers: it was always assumed that college would be paid for by my parents so I didn’t come out of school with student loan debt. Going to a scholarship based school certainly helped (though because of mounting financial deficits, Cooper Union is controversially considering charging students tuition for the first time, which would challenge its defining philosophy of free education when it was founded in the 1850s). My parents paid for everything. Maybe this sounds incredibly privileged, but I didn’t know any differently. All of this, however, made me fairly naive about money until I got my first job. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the value of money and I suppose I was fiscally responsible enough to never go into credit card debt, but I didn’t learn the importance of saving until I was 30 and at that age I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do.
That said, I don’t know if it would have been possible for me to start saving for retirement before I started at 30. I spent much of the 90s in school, stretching out my undergraduate studies to 6 years when I switched majors and schools, and then going to grad school which I did take out loans for – a whopping 60k debt which I was determined – and did – pay off within 8 years. But when I read articles of how compound interest works, it makes me wish that I had started saving earlier, that someone had pulled me aside and showed me a picture of the future and how saving even a little bit every month could change what we could be sitting on today. As it turned out, my long time accountant who retired last year, was the first adult in my life who urged me to open an IRA at 30 and for that I will be forever grateful.
I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately about how our generation is screwed mostly because of the timing of the housing and market crashes, not to mention the whole social security debacle. It’s likely that many of us will never accumulate the wealth that the baby boomers have been able to build (though interestingly enough, this article suggest that the picture for 20-somethings might actually be better than those in their 30s). If you ever want to give yourself anxiety, just read any article on retirement. Guaranteed to make you depressed instantly! Despite the fact that I don’t feel prepared for retirement with what we have saved so far (and I recognize that everyone’s comfort level is relative and personal) I also know that we’re doing better than a good percentage of Americans. Sometimes it takes a real scare to put things into motion and as counterproductive as it sounds, I’ve been reading these articles to scare myself into being more proactive about retirement planning and learning all I can about investing. I’ve not much of a big consumer, though I certainly like to buy things and do prioritize our spending, but no material purchase will ever feel greater than being able to sock away that money instead. So starting this year I have new goals: max out retirement, but continue to save for family vacations even if that means buying less stuff. That ugly ceiling light in our room that I’ve been dying to replace can wait a little longer, I guess. “Buy experiences and not things” is still a philosophy that is really holding true for me.
Ironically, I don’t have a clear vision of what the future holds for us in 2, 5 or 10 years, but I can visualize a 20 year plan now that has strangely calmed my nerves. In between now and then, however, remains a big question mark. Job stability and career longevity seem like a thing of the past and we have college to deal with in only 9 years. If private colleges are already costing 40k in tuition a year, what will it be in 9 years? All of this is scary stuff.
I keep coming full circle to the fact that it’s really important to teach our kids about saving money and the value of compound interest. Who knows what the world will be when they become adults? The education about money has to start at home. I don’t know if I can give my girls the gift of debt-free undergraduate education like my parents gave me, but what I can give them that my parents weren’t able to is an earlier start by teaching them about money while they’re still young. I also plan to open a Roth IRA for each of the girls as soon as they graduate from college to get their start in retirement early. I do believe it’s one of the most valuable gifts you can give your kids.
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We had parent teacher conferences last week and as I was waiting for my turn and looking around at all the artwork in the hallway, I noticed the “kindness wall” created by C’s class. It was filled with annotated drawings by the kids that demonstrated various acts of kindness as conceived and interpreted by 6 year olds. It made me think how interesting it is that we need to reinforce and teach kindness, selflessness and compassion to children. Aren’t these traits already inherent in human nature? Or is our natural instinct to protect our own best interest? I don’t really know the answer, but I do know that I sometimes need to gently nudge the girls towards the more selfless path when given a choice or faced with a decision. The younger one sometimes has a hard time understanding this, and this was fairly evident when we talked recently about donating some of her toys to kids who lost everything during the storm. She agreed after some resistance to the idea, but I’m not sure she really “got it”. This is probably a typical response from any little kid so it makes me think, is compassion and selflessness something that needs to be taught and nurtured?
I’ve seen a lot of acts of kindness throughout the city the last few weeks. It’s unthinkable to even consider where we’d be if people didn’t step up to volunteer and help their fellow citizens. Kind of gives you hope for the world. But I think I’m most impressed by the dedication demonstrated by those people who gave their time and energy even while dealing with their own losses from the storm. This includes people that I know, many of whom are fellow small food business owners. I don’t know what motivates some people to roll up their sleeves and jump in. Maybe you draw on some past experience and know what it’s like to go through hard times yourself. Or maybe you were raised with these values and had exceptional role models. To feel compassion but to actually act upon those feelings are 2 slightly different things. I look at that “kindness wall” and realize that it’s not enough to talk. It’s probably best to lead by example and not just make it part of your vocabulary, but part of your way of life. I may not always succeed at this, but like any parent, you hope that some of this gets absorbed by your children so that they can grow up to be compassionate adults.
Posted by Jenna | 13 Comments