A little over a year ago, Todd and I were having one of our monthly check-ins about family finances, and we came to the unfortunate realization that our family had more money going out than coming in. Ouch.
The previous month we’d targeted a number of areas in which to reduce spending (cable, some organic foods, some weekly driving), but evidently these cuts were not extensive enough. Because our financial squeeze coincided with our kids taking on and/or pleading to begin various new activities, we decided to look more closely at kid activities for potential cuts.
As we weighed these expenses, 2 activities rose to the surface, showing themselves like a child’s shaggy, summer head begging for a haircut. These were To-Shin Do and Children’s Theater. You know how, as a parent, you often have a love-hate relationship with certain kid activities? It usually has to do with how much driving you do for them, or perhaps how you feel about the coach or other participants, or maybe that particular event has always annoyed you. And although you’ve tried to hide this from your kid, it doesn’t necessarily protect it from rising to the top of family budget cuts. I personally, didn’t feel this way about To-Shin Do or Children’s Theater, but my dear partner may have. Therefore, to the financial spotlight they rose to be scrutinized.
First we decided to have a family meeting to find out how our kids currently felt about these activities. Since we’d already given this issue much thought, we sort of figured that upon offering our kids the option of taking time off, they’d concur. First we laid out the situation for our sons, Stephen, 15, and Daniel, 13, inquiring whether, after 2 and ½ years, it was time to take a break from To-Shin Do, a self-defense-oriented martial art. Emphatically they responded, “Absolutely not.”
We then told them that with the rather high price tag for 2 student memberships, we needed to make some kind of a change in our To-Shin Do regimen. For maybe 10 minutes, we began to work more like those higher-functioning families you read about in books. We put our 5 heads together and brainstormed ideas to bring the To-shin Do price down without taking time off.
A Possible Solution
Since our kids had run a “neighborhood services” business for the past 8 years, they considered offering to clean the dojo (the gym where To-Shin Do occurs) weekly in exchange for a partial scholarship. They also were doing a lot of babysitting, so they thought they could perhaps help teach the younger children’s classes. Additionally, they offered to work at the front desk of the dojo as a barter for a partial scholarship. After making sure that the boys felt comfortable with each of these options, we helped them compose an email to the To-Shin Do director.
It was hard for our sons to wait for the director’s response, but that also confirmed to us how much continuing to train in To-Shin Do meant to them. They each strongly wanted to reach the black belt level, and they were halfway there.
Not long after, we heard from the director. She generously suggested that both Stephen and Daniel could be trained to work at the front desk in exchange for partial scholarships.
Our Daughter’s Situation
Meanwhile our 10 year-old daughter, Annie, confronted a similar situation with her Children’s Theater group. Rather than take a break from theater, she dramatically (as any theater kid worth her salt) insisted that she desperately wanted to be a part of the upcoming musical. So, Annie emailed the theater director mentioning that she’d had experience working with young children since she’d begun her mother’s helper business the previous summer. Annie offered to be a teacher’s helper in the young children’s class in exchange for a partial scholarship.
In Annie’s case, the theater director was also willing to take a risk and agreed to Annie’s offer.
Todd and I were so relieved that these somewhat unorthodox solutions to our financial concerns had been arranged! Additionally, it felt right that our kids were putting in extra time and energy toward something about which they were passionate.
Not Quite as Simple as We’d Expected
My relief lasted for about a week, until my kids began the “work” part of their deals. Don’t get me wrong, it was still very positive, just not as easy and parent-free as I’d initially envisioned.
Daniel, at age 13, was a bit more challenged by working at the front desk than his older brother. He wanted to do it, but there was much to learn – from the computer system, to how to greet people on the phone, to the process for collecting payments. It took longer than I expected to help Daniel learn the ropes of his new position. I was also reminded that teenage boys don’t necessarily come out and tell you what may have gone wrong at work. (At least mine don’t. Please don’t tell me if yours do.) You have to ask the right questions to glean this information.
“Why didn’t you mention that you’d had a hard time collecting a payment last week at work?”
“You didn’t ask.”
The boys and I did quite a bit of role-playing of potential work scenarios (phone and in-person) over the first 4 months of this new work experience. If I had guessed how long I would have needed to work with my sons to help make this work-as-barter venture successful, I probably would have said 2 weeks. On the other hand, it kind of fits with my overall experience of parenting – envision how long you think something will take to teach, and multiply it by at least 5.
Children’s Theater Assistant
Annie’s work with the young kids at the Children’s Theater was only a 4 month commitment. As it turned out, her experience of bartering work for a scholarship was smoothest, likely because she wasn’t required to learn as many new skills.
Soon after Annie began her work, the director told me this was a true win-win situation since Annie, who was to be a lead role in the musical, could regularly practice the scenes she had with the young children in her class. Additionally, Annie already knew a number of the young girls in her group. And as you may be aware, little girls often semi-worship big girls. Annie was able to harness the big-girl effect to her advantage during this work experience.
A Year Later
It’s actually been over a year since we began these work-as-barter arrangements. Annie’s situation continued as smoothly as it began, with a little bit of do-I-have-to-go-in-again crabbiness on some work days. Her teacher’s assistant position ended once the performance was over. Overall, Annie was proud that she’d been able to help out in this way for herself and for our family.
Stephen and Daniel continue to work the front desk for three shifts a week, plus attend a weekly staff meeting. They are each more comfortable now with the work, though Todd and I continue to periodically check in about how it’s is going. When it’s dark or icy out, the boys can’t bike to work and it requires even more driving on our parts. On the other hand, this work has required the boys to learn a new level of responsibility, as well as some of the ins and outs of a small business.
“So we need to tell them ahead of time when we are going to be out of town?”
Additionally, Stephen and Daniel’s front desk work is definitely “work.” You’re not allowed to do your homework, or check your phone while at the desk (well, Daniel doesn’t have a phone yet, but that’s another blog post.) Basically, it’s not one of those “fun” jobs. Because of this, this experience has helped our sons better understand what work feels like, as well as make a deeper commitment to why they are doing this work in the first place – moving slowly but continually toward those To-Shin Do black belts.
Has anyone made a similar arrangement for their kids? Leave a comment!