The letter was complimentary. At first read, I couldn’t help but feel my parental pride swell a little. It praised my son on his athletic achievements. Then it offered a string of ego strokes with words like “qualified” and “selected” spread liberally throughout the page, like too much frosting on a piece of cake.
He was supposedly one of only 300 or so athletes across the country to be invited to join a national team of high school runners who would travel to compete next summer against other accomplished athletes their age on the other side of the globe.
Woo hoo. The accompanying marketing material might as well been a pair of pom poms waving about the thrill, status and memory-making experience of international competition.
We laughed and tossed it straight into the recycling bin. Two points for the Barvilles.
In three pages it somehow missed answering a crucial question. How much does it cost? Of course, any credit card company would have us believe answering an invitation like that would prove to be priceless.
While we think international travel is a wonderful thing and were completely supportive of our daughter spending her junior year of high school studying abroad, the cost of her year was clear from the beginning.
After some online digging I discovered the dollar signs. We congratulated our son for running fast enough to make the sucker list for a travel company with an athletic theme trip.
It’s almost ironic that this particular international experience was marketed in such an American way: to the ego.
It reminded me of a letter I received my senior year of high school. For $20 I could receive a copy of a catalog of the best, brightest and most talented students. My relatives could order a copy as well, if they wanted to see my name in print.
Against my parents’ better judgment, I believed the butter-up that asserted I was a stellar student worthy of recognition. In reality, I wasn’t quite so stellar to wear cords at graduation, or smart enough to read past the compliments to spy a money making scheme.
Since then the attempts to cajole money by flattery have become more sophisticated. Now you can apply for a poetry scholarship where only one kid gets the coveted money but all the applicants are “published,” and you can buy the book for only four times the cost it took to print. Gotta keep that scholarship fund going. If I didn’t have any ethics, I might start a scholarship of my own. Or sponsor a team.
Nothing beats athletics at appealing to the ego. An entire industry of athletic apparel has honed its ability to take our money the same way our top athletes have honed their ability to run, throw and jump faster, farther and higher than most mere mortals.
We fork over twice as much money to wear the brand worn by a professional player we admire, even though it’s always exempt from coupons. We also pay many pretty pennies for the privilege of having our kids placed on a premier team.
I think we do it because the marketing has just enough truth to pique our interest and just enough ego to keep us going.
As a family that’s been immersed in youth sports for years, I’ll readily admit that when one of my children receives an email invitation to an “elite” training opportunity I want to say, “yes.”
Of course I want my kid to be as competitive as he can in the sport he loves. Of course, I want him to train with other athletes of similar ability and work ethic with a coach who knows his stuff.
But I’ve found that the “limited” and “exclusive” opportunities are actually as plentiful as your pocketbook. Sometimes those elite teams aren’t actually the best athletes. They’re the best athletes whose parents happened to have the money at hand and were willing to spend it.
You can travel to the other side of the state to train. You can travel across the country to try out. And you can travel around the world to compete. That’s if you’re willing to foot the bill and line someone’s pocket at the same time.
Undeniably, these opportunities can be a great experience, ego aside. I’ve seen firsthand how writing a check can be the first step to watching a child grow in ways I’d never imagined. I don’t regret those expenditures.
But I also don’t regret the times we’ve decided against them, because the opportunity isn’t always worth the cost.
Jill Barville will write twice a month about families, life and everything else. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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