The best investment for your kids

Mon Nov 8, 2010 12:46pm EST

A mother and child look at autumn leaves at The National Arboretum in Westonbirt, western England October 22, 2010. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh

A mother and child look at autumn leaves at The National Arboretum in Westonbirt, western England October 22, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Eddie Keogh

Here's a reality check for any new parent trying to do what's "best" for their child: go into a high-end baby store and ask for their best stroller. Chances are, it will cost nearly as much as your monthly mortgage payment.

When it comes to investing in your children, it's no wonder parents are confused about everything from choosing the best toys to ensuring their extra-curricular activities will give them a leg up in the real world. So what's the best way to guarantee your child's happy, healthy and prosperous future? Depends who you ask.

Janis Keyser, co-author of Becoming the Parent You Want To Be and a San Francisco Bay-area educator, says parents are under tremendous pressure to provide the best life possible for their kids, but they often overlook the basics.

"The commercial industry has jumped on top of us and shoved product after product on us, and it's exhausting, for kids and for parents," Keyser says. "People really need to take a step back."

Here are some thoughts to consider:

Spend your time (not your money): It may sound cliché, but Keyser says the soundest investment a parent can make in their children is time, especially when the child first arrives. "This is the foundation of the relationship. Observe your child: what's interesting to them? What's a struggle for them? The best thing we can give them is efficacy - knowing that when they communicate, people understand them," she explains.

Of course, new parents will be inundated with fancy baby gadgets and high-tech gear, but they should be mindful of what invariably happens when they present their child with a new toy: "Most of the time, they're more interested in the box," Keyser says.

Still tempted to splurge on the baby toy you can't quite afford? Keyser suggests asking yourself: Do I want to raise a child that's an avid consumer? If the answer is no, do your best to move on.

When it comes to school, think big picture: A quality education goes far beyond choosing between a private or public school, says Keyser. A more important question is: What kind of experience do you want for your child? Visit prospective schools and ask teachers what they would do in specific situations: What do they do when a child cries, for example? What is their relationship with parents? What activities are important? Likewise, talk to other parents about their children's experience.

"Private schools aren't always better than public school," says Keyser. "There's something to be said for a public school that exposes children to a diverse range of peers."

The Knaak family is pictured in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/HandoutStephanie Knaak, a Calgary-based author of the motherhood-café.com and mother of two, wanted to enroll her children in a school that taught half of its lessons in English and half in Mandarin. "We thought, in theory, that any second language would be a benefit, but Mandarin in particular would give them a competitive edge in this global economy," she says. In the end, Knaak and her husband decided to forego the Mandarin school when they moved, but it's a perfect example of looking for a school that caters to a family's specific goals and values.

Regardless of the type of school you choose, it's critical for parents to see themselves as part of the education process, Keyser says. Share your observations about your child's learning habits and talk to the school's administrator about the program. In other words, be an advocate without being too aggressive.

"This is a two-way relationship. Go into the school and say, ‘I have two hours a month - what can I do for the school?' " Keyser advises, adding that research shows the most effective educations occur when the parents and teachers collaborate.

Remember, not everybody is suited for Harvard. As your children get older, don't be afraid to explore alternative education programs and technical schools if academics are not their strong suits, says Peter Canniff, a father and financial planner at Advanced Portfolio Design in New Hampshire.

"Don't send an academically irresponsible child to an expensive college," he says. Help your child find their niche with the help of a career counselor. "Instead of trying to push them into a degree program somewhere, help them find something that pulls them in.

Don't forget your values: When it comes to choosing activities for your children, consider what values and priorities you're trying to instill. Some questions to ask: What skills are important for my child to learn and why? Do I want to teach my child a transferable life skill, like learning to be competitive? Or concrete skills like learning a musical instrument? The answer will vary by family.

"Sometimes identifying these priorities is easier if you ask yourself, ‘If we can only do one program, activity or lesson this year, what do we want it to be and why?'" explains Knaak.

In Knaak's family, learning to ski was a priority. Both Knaak and her husband were avid skiers, and so it made sense to encourage her children to follow suit if they were interested.

"For us, it was a sport we value a lot and it's a meaningful family activity," she says.

Don't go overboard: "We live in a society where it's the worst thing not to have your kids busy enough," says Knaak. "When a mom on the playground asks me what my kids are involved in, I better have an answer!"

There's no question extra-curricular activities go a long way in keeping children both fit and engaged, as well as giving them some ammunition when it comes to college applications and job interviews. But too many after-school activities can backfire.

"When we schedule children so tightly with classes and lessons and activities, they forget how to manage their own time and they become exhausted and stressed," says Keyser. "In some ways, they become dependent on all the activities in their life."

So how do you decide between tennis lessons versus swimming? Ballet versus the debate club? Chinese lessons versus summer camp?

"Ultimately, let them pick the one they enjoy the most," says Canniff.

Keyser's son was the type of kid who couldn't sit still for an entire meal, so it was no surprise that he became a football running back. Still, it's worth pushing your child out of his or her comfort zone on occasion to foster a "let's try it" attitude, she says. That may mean encouraging your softball-star daughter to give book club a chance, or pushing your son to put down the football for chess.

The key is to get your children flexible to change and then ask them what they like - or didn't like - about the experience.

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