Instead of feeling guilty that you're not a good enough provider, spend more time playing with your children. Picture: SIMTEMBILE MGIDI
Instead of feeling guilty that you're not a good enough provider, spend more time playing with your children. Picture: SIMTEMBILE MGIDI

My son's not yet three, and I'm already grappling with the cost of extramural activities. A few weeks into the year, he started coming home with pamphlets. There was Little Dragon Karate, Junior Jive, Monkeynastix, Soccercise Starz, Let's Talk and Computers 4 Kids. Each of these costs between R310 and R450 a term.

Who knew kids so young could be involved in so much? At first, I was dismissive: he doesn't need these things, I reckoned. But having read all the pamphlets , I realised he could benefit from every one of them.

Before I knew it, I was doing the sums. If he were to participate in all these activities, it would cost a one-off R555 in annual "registration fees" and add 33% to his monthly school fees. Can you afford that? I can't.

He already goes for swimming lessons, which cost almost R1000 a term. But swimming's a life skill, and the ability to swim is a prerequisite to acceptance in many primary schools. Wouldn't it be great, I imagined, if he could learn a martial art, play soccer and use a computer?

Of course, it would - if I could afford it. But I can't. And with that acknowledgement came an awful sense of guilt. Because of me, my little boy will feel excluded when his friends take part in these fun activities. Not only will he be left out, he'll be left behind, developmentally. Then came inadequacy: I'm not a good enough provider.

How did the cost of extramural activities become about parental guilt?

If parenting is about modelling the behaviour and habits you want for your children, you definitely don't want them seeing you wallow in self-pity because of what you can't afford to give them. You probably also don't want them thinking that everything in life comes easy, either. You want them to see you making the most of what you do have; to see you making good choices, working hard and using money wisely.

Gerda van der Linde, an expert in behavioural finance, says family finances and family values are inextricably linked.

Parents need to be "extremely honest" with their children from a young age about what they can and can't afford, and how expenditure ties into family values, she says.

"For example, I used to tell my daughter: 'It's important for you to get a good education - that's why you go to a private school. I work hard so that you can go to your school. That's my sacrifice. Yours is to give it your best shot.'"

It communicates to a child that education, hard work and teamwork are family values.

She says families should discuss money decisions, such as not to waste money, to keep to the budget and to commit to save.

If the family can't afford something they want, such as new bicycles, you need to decide where to sacrifice and cut back to save towards that goal.

Van der Linde says she knew an actuary who had five children and yet rented a cottage. He wanted his children to experience the world, so instead of spending money on a big family home, they travelled.

"But everyone in the family played a musical instrument, which was another indication of what they valued. It's about defining what's important to you as a family."

I come from a big family. My parents struggled financially. We never took holidays, but regularly shared meals with friends and family in their homes and in ours. We did everything together. Watched movies off a hired projector, went for long walks and regularly went for "drives". I suppose we valued togetherness and sharing and good food, and so we all turned out to be highly relational and hospitable. I learnt from my parents that we love people and use money, rather than use people and love money.

But they never actually taught us how to use money. They never gave us money to manage and never shared how they were managing the budget (if there was one).

My son will learn how to use money by observing how I use it. For now, I'm arresting the guilt and making small sacrifices so that he can do two of the six activities on offer at school. In time, we'll talk about that.

I'm also rethinking what it means to give a child "the best".

My sister told me how the principal of her child's school recently challenged parents: "Some of you are getting into debt and working yourselves to death trying to give your kids 'the best'," she said. "You think giving them the best means forking out, when maybe the best is you being around more, turning your phone off and showing them you're there for them."

There were plenty of wet eyes in the room as many parents let go of guilt and striving.

What if "the best" was more about raising independent, self-sufficient children who have self-worth and empathy, and the skills to manage money?