Parents are not happy buying their children a black and white television today. —Bryan Caplan
SANDY — Valerie Simpson picks up her three children from school, all bundled in winter coats, on a biting winter afternoon in Sandy and begins her weekly rally of parental effort known to many as raising kids.
On Wednesdays she must drop off two of her sons, 8 and 10, at Boy Scouts, then take the six-year-old to piano lessons. After piano lessons the youngest goes to a Jr. Jazz basketball league, maybe stopping off at Wendy's for a quick and cheap dinner, while the middle child goes to violin lessons.
It's a frenzied rush many parents are familiar with. Simpson's dedication to her children is typical of parents across the country, and especially in the family orientated demographic found in the Salt Lake valley, but for many, it's a dedication that can be limited by money and time.
While Simpson and her husband are lawyers, they have felt the downturn in the economy. And it hasn't helped their finances that the children have chosen to play the costlier sport of lacrosse.
One reason many decide against having more children, or having children in the first place, is that they are seen as too expensive. Americans spend a lot of time and money on their children and, according to recent data, they are spending more.
A middle-income two-parent American family spends more than $40,000 more on raising their children today than they did in 1960, according to a 2011 report by the Department of Agriculture. Parents can expect to spend $226,920 to raise a child to the age of 17, the study found — and that doesn't include college.
What's more is that for many parents, raising children can take up more time than it once did. A 2004 American Journal of Sociology paper showed, using time diary data, that both mothers and fathers reported spending more time in taking care of their child in the late 1990s than parents did on average in the 1960s. Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University and blogger at the popular site Econlog, notes that "[t]oday's mom spends more time taking care of children than she did in the heyday of the stay-at-home mom" era.
But does raising kids really have to be so much more expensive than it was a few generations ago? Caplan argues that children can be cheaper than you think. In his new book, "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think," parents can find ways to cut back on unnecessary money, time and stress that can come with raising children.
He suggests, for example, that activities that both children and parents hate doing may have little effect on long-term development and can therefore be dropped guiltlessly.
Think painful and costly private school and tutoring is a waste of time? It probably is. Does your child hate being dragged to karate class? Stop doing it.
"[Activities you and your child hate] are big wastes of money and not doing much good," Caplan says.
His book is based off research from twin and adoption studies which, by looking at twins or siblings split at birth and adopted to different parents, can isolate the parent's effect on the child's development — as opposed to the effect of genetics. And the results are surprising.
For a quick rundown, according to these studies, parents have little to no effect on a child's overall health to the sort of school they'll get in to.
Caplan allows that there is a difference between raising your child in Salt Lake City and a war zone. But the studies hold for children raised in rich Western countries like the United States or Sweden. While parental involvement often has short-term effects, they fade over time. In the long-run nature often outpreforms nurture.
That may be tough for some parents to accept, even if it might be true. All of Simpson's children, for example, have experienced private schools in Utah through kindergarten. She considered continuing private school with her youngest but in the end decided it wasn't worth it. Tuition was $400 per month for a half-day of kindergarten and, more importantly she said, her youngest child hated it. Her oldest still complains the intense learning program at private school and shorter recess. Now none of her kids are in private school.
"One must ask what is the goal? If I'm going to fork out hundreds of thousands of dollars and I want to know that my child gets a scholarship to Stanford, or becomes the next Isaac Newton or some other such return. I'm saving my pennies for college rather than spending them on primary education," Simpson says. According to Caplan's book, Simpson likely made the right choice.
When digging more into the data, the increasing expediture on children might be less worrying for those considering more children. Jessie Fan, a professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, says that part of the reason parents spend more on their children now then they did in 1960 is because they have more money. In 1960, the median income for a family in the United States was $36,208 (in 2010 dollars) according to the Census. Today it is $60,395.
Caplan also notes that standards for goods have gone up. "Parents are not happy buying their children a black and white television today."
This "income effect" is further evidenced by the Department of Agriculture reporting wealthier parents spend relatively more on their children. A family earning less than $57,600 can expect to spend $163,940 raising their child, while a family that makes more $99,730 a year can expect to spend $377,040.
Fan says another consideration for explaining increased child care costs — which take up 17 percent of total spending on children today compared to only 2 percent in 1960 — is the greater number of women working outside the home. The Department of Agriculture notes that since 1960 "the labor force participation of women has greatly increased, leading to the need for more child care."
Caplan's advice — which includes plenty of that "vital component of cultural literacy," television watching — might be especially relieving for parents in a time of tiger moms.
Last year the successful book "Battle Hymns of the Tiger Mother," written by Amy Chua, a law professor at Yale, extolled the virtues of "Chinese" strict and unsentimental parenting techniques. For example, hours of daily forced piano and violin practicing.
Although Chua notes in the Wall Street Journal, her book is "not a how-to guide; it's a memoir, the story of our family's journey in two cultures", the book and its anecdotal evidence of her children's success at least reaffirmed some more enterprising parent's views on raising children.
Caplan stresses that he is not arguing parents should spend less time with their children, but rather choose less "costly" activities. After all, children can, and should be, fun to raise.
Caplan has three boys — twin 9-year-olds and a 2-year-old. One can't help but notice a giddy excitement in Caplan's voice when he talks about spending time with his children. After his day ends at the university and the twins are finished at the local public school he spend time with them doing things that they all enjoy — like playing board games like Dungeons and Dragons or watching the Simpsons. He will walk outside with the two-year-old or chase him around the house playing hide and seek.
Caplan and his wife tried karate and soccer camp but noticed that the kids didn't enjoy it, so they dropped it.
Caplan's having so much fun raising kids that he's not done: his wife is expecting a girl in April and he is ecstatic.