Thursday, November 10, 2011

The American Dream and Education: My Plans as a Parent

I don’t believe that bigger, or better is truly better. I think it’s deceptive and doesn’t really fulfill us. So I’m not pushing my kids to live a “better” life than I have, at least not in terms of material accomplishments. Instead, I’m pushing my kids to learn about themselves, to learn about the world, to learn about service to others and to learn about hard work.

And – I have a plan!

My kids (ages 12, 10 and 4) are already learning to work hard. They have homework and chores. They are learning to cook and to do their own laundry. They are learning to manage their money. I take them with me to volunteer because I want to instill that value in them, and I want them to be comfortable with people in need. I want them to get to know what causes people to be in need and I want them to understand that it is a normal experience. EVERYONE needs something or someone and I don’t want my kids to look down on someone else for being in need. I also don’t want my kids to feel bad about themselves when they are in need.

As they get older, they will have to get jobs. They might start out with something like babysitting, but before they leave high school they need to have worked someplace where they have taxes deducted from their paycheck. I will encourage them to work in food service. I will send them to temp agencies so they get a variety of work experiences and so they can receive job training. I will take them to work with me and have them help me with filing and other office tasks. I can’t tell you how valuable office experience was to me in finding better-paying jobs than my peers during college! I want my kids to have manual labor jobs, too. Landscaping, construction, hospitality, cleaning, etc. I want my kids to learn how to WORK. They need to experience crappy bosses and crappy pay and crappy work conditions. They need to learn how to not give up just because their work sucks. Because guess what – all those things exist even when you work in prestigious, high-paying jobs. Those things exist whether you work in a traditional industry or when your work is on the cutting edge.

We will push them to get very good grades and to be involved in a variety of activities, not so they can get into the best school – so they can get money for school! They will apply for as many scholarships and grants as possible. I hope that we can finance their entire college education that way, but if those things don’t happen, then my kids will work to pay for their schooling. If they need to go to school part-time so they can work more hours or to accommodate a better-paying job, then that’s what they’ll do. If they need to work for a year or two after high school before starting college, fine. They will hopefully enter college more mature and with a better idea of what they want out of college. We will consider letting them live at home to offset their expense, but they will work and they will contribute at home. Sure – 4 years away at a great school would be a fun and enriching experience for them. But that is NOT the only way to “do” college, and it’s not the only way to have fun or to be enriched.

The things I’ve described aren’t outlandish. You know what they are? They’re what working class and poor people do to survive and to attain success. More and more, these are the things middle-class people are going to have to do. And I think there is a lot of value in those experiences. I want my kids to learn how to live on less, to value experience over things and to be able to handle difficult circumstances without crumbling. So I don’t buy the American Dream anymore (at least I’m trying very hard not to) and I’m trying not to teach it to my kids. Our culture will teach it to them plenty, but my kids will at least have been armed with the ability to survive and thrive when the bottom falls out of the dream for most others. Here’s hoping, anyway.

Read the first two posts in this series:

The American Dream and Education: Wanting Better For Our Children

The American Dream and Education: College Without Debt

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