July 30, 2004
Human Capital: The ROI of a Kid

Yesterday, I received an email from my mother that was rather poignant yet disturbingly offensive, all at the same time. She discussed the return on investment of children and her disappointment with its current dividends. "ROI" is a concept we use a lot in the business world, but perhaps I'd never considered it quite the way she expressed. I am not now nor have I ever been a parent, so I don't presume to know the type of emotions involved in watching your offspring head a different direction than you'd originally planned, but I can only imagine, it's no walk in the park.

By now, many of you know my story of educational rebellion. All my life, I was "set-up" to become a [insert cliche lucrative profession] of sorts. I never really had the heart for anything traditional or pre-formulated, but being in college only reinforced the fact that I was indeed on academic, analytical, and high-expectations overload. The thing I usually fail to mention in "my story" is the absolute fear I felt when I had to make that frightful decision to leave my "prestigious" college for a world of uncertainty. As I sat in my obsessively organized dorm room, I was unable to appreciate the beautiful Connecticut Springtime because I knew the mountain before me. When I picked up the phone to dial the dreaded number of my parents back in Seattle, I felt like Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking. I knew I wasn't coming out of the conversation alive, so I said my last prayers and was read my last rights. Around that time, I could have desperately used a Susan Sarandon in my life. The burden to make one's parents proud can be incredibly motivating. The burden to make one's parents proud can be incredibly oppressive.

To understand the graveness of my decision to quit school prior to even declaring a major, you'd have to understand my educational background and the expectations placed on me since birth. For whatever reason (wisdom I presume), our parents made the decision early on that their children would never set foot in the doors of a public school. This wasn't a judgment against public schooling, but they were insightful enough to see that Seattle Public Schools were not particularly the best back in 1981. Instead of your run-of-the-mill private school, my parents opted for the most rigorous college preperatory education they could find. Throughout our lives, there was a clear educational target put into place for all of us. College was the rule and graduate school was the exception.

Keeping us in private school was a struggle, and we were by no means upper-class. Upper-class is when your money works for you. Upper-class is when you can choose to work. Upper-class is when relationships and affiliations are currency. Upper-class folks didn't need a major scholarship to attend our very expensive private schools. Aside from a solid education, the thing I most enjoyed about private school was rubbing elbows with the oldest of money-makers. I had the privilege of attending school with children of great means from famous and influential families. I was no fool. I took notes every chance I got. Although there are times when public school had something to offer, the reality is, my family sacrificed greatly to afford myself and my siblings the education we received. I know we received a good education and that's not something we take lightly or trounce upon as though we were ungrateful.

Then comes me, the eldest daughter, "irreverent", "unappreciative," and "indignant". Actually, not really, but having been groomed for higher education all my life, I think my parents feel I did them a disservice by forfeiting college altogether. I believe the figure in my mother's email was $1,352,000.56 that she believes they've spent on the private education of my three-siblings to prepare us for success in college (and you thought I was an overexaggerater). Clearly, that's very inaccurate, but I see what she's getting at. She jumped to an extreme to prove a point. After all, it was a lot of money when they could have opted for a "free" education.

[ I'm having flashbacks to the famous Cosby Show episode where Sandra and Elvin announce they're not going to law school and medical school respectively, and instead want to start a wilderness store. A declaration to which Clair Huxtable demands $75,350.92 in Princeton University tuition paid back to her immediately. ]
So what is the ROI on a child? Was that time and money invested into my brain or was it invested into me as a person? Which is more important, my ability to think intelligently and independently, or my ability to succeed in the workforce and academia? Are they mutually exlusive characteristics? So was it all a waste of money? I suppose only time will tell. These are questions I'm slowly having answered. Everyday that I wake up and realize I have more common sense and headway than many of my peers, my immediate reaction is to say, "Yes, it was worth it". College is fantastic, but it wasn't for me. One would hope that your education is worth more than what college you go to and which profession you choose. I'm certain most sane parents would just be happy with a child who grows up to be an integrous, productive, contributing, and leading member of society. Thus far, I don't think I have failed in any of the aforementioned but there are miles to go. The ROI of children is multi-facetedly more than just a professional destination. When my parents eventually head into the latter portion of their lives, part of that return will be us taking care of them the same way they took care of us. The years to follow will be revelatory for me as I gain clarity on what exactly it is my parents "deserve" in payment for all they've given me.

I don't necessarily blame my parents for being disappointed. After all, they got shafted in their expectations that I'd fulfill my end of the bargain. Expectations are a funny thing. When they're unmet, we immediately consider it a horrible thing instead of doing what we should do which is re-examine the fairness and honesty of what was expected in the first place. To be honest, a child's life is never owned by the parents to begin with. It's more like a loan situation where they're given the awesome privilege and responsibility of steering its direction. That desire to make my parents proud has not disappeared, it's just changed manifestations. I want to make them proud in my obedience to who I'm supposed to be and not what they expect me to be. And if the clarity of my words are any indication, I think I'm on the right track.

Posted by Ambra at July 30, 2004 03:16 AM

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