The Competition to Give Our Kids Picture-Perfect Lives Is Ruining Our Own

It seems like the same pressure women experienced as teenagers to be thin and perfect hasn’t gone away; it’s morphed into a pressure to be rich and perfect as mothers. And it’s coming at a much higher price than most realize. Kids feel the financial and emotional strain that the pursuit of perfection is putting on their families.

Most mothers blame social media as the root of the parenting competition. Witnessing family life under a microscope, mothers feel the need to make the perfect lunches, throw the best birthday parties, and send their kids to the most enriching after-school programs — no matter the price.

According to a BabyCenter survey, a staggering 46 percent admit they’ve gone into debt to pay for organic food and extracurricular activities. I’m not sure how this makes sense. Going into debt to send little Janie to cello lessons at the age of 7 is only the right choice if she’s planning to be the first female Yo-Yo Ma. And while we all want our kids to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, trekking Suzie to coding class an hour away seems extreme. That’s simply a lot of stress to put on families, financially and emotionally.

Mothers surveyed see the cracks already. According to the report, half of the parents report fighting with their spouses about the cost of child-rearing extras, and 47 percent of children whose parents have finance-related friction reporting feeling affected by these issues.

For the sake of our kids and our marriages, and presumably our own happiness, can we stop letting the media (whether it be traditional advertising or social sites) undermine our self-worth? I think back to my own childhood whenever I’m struggling with whether to add another expensive activity to my kids’ schedule. I remember that my favorite times were those spent in my own house, playing pretend, dressing up in my mother’s clothes or simply watching a movie with my parents.

I often see articles lamenting the simpler days of our own childhoods, but there is little movement to actually replicate it. Why not let kids play in the yard after watching two hours of cartoons on Saturday mornings rather than carting them to soccer and T-ball year round? Why not set up a blanket fort and pull up a movie on Netflix rather than paying $100 on a restaurant and the newest theater release? These are things we can do now, even in 2015. But only if we stop trying to keep up with the Joneses.

I’m not sure even if I had all the money in the world that I’d use it to pack my kids’ lives with every possible advantage in life. Part of individual success comes from internal motivation. I let my kids explore what interests them, even though every year that passes where my son doesn’t pick up a golf club on his own means he will never be the next Jordan Spieth. I admit it’s hard not to lament those losses because I want the world to believe he’s as amazing as I do. But that’s not my responsibility as a parent. And if it’s coming at the cost of a strained relationship with my husband or at the price of spending money that could go toward our current mortgage payments or be saved for his future college tuition, it becomes counter-intuitive, if not downright toxic.

I won’t let go of the big picture and forget that quality time with family is more important than a résumé of outrageous privilege. Instead, I’ll vow to take Instagram for what it is — a bunch of pretty pictures and not a life.

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