I’m running an informal book club on the blog devoted to All the Money in the World. You can join at any time; there are links to previous weeks at the bottom of this post.
This week we’re discussing Chapter 6, “The Marginal Cost of Children.” If you haven’t read the book, or want a refresher, you can read my USA Today column on a similar topic, “Hey Parents, the Third Kid’s a Bargain.” The point of that column is that the marginal cost of children falls as you add more children. I think the psychic cost falls too, as I wrote in a recent NY Times Motherlode piece on “Zone Defense.” And over at Free Range Kids, I blogged that one’s per-child anxiety level may fall too.
But the chapter itself goes beyond that to ask a different question: does it matter how much money you spend on each child? Does spending more on a child (and on certain things) give the child a leg up in life? Can our money help ensure a child’s later success or happiness?
Judging by the way many parents spend money, one would think the answer is yes. There are the lessons and sports teams, the tutoring, perhaps private schools. We started college funds for all our kids. In choosing childcare options, I’ve always been very cognizant of my kids being stimulated (and enjoying themselves), in addition to the usual matters of safety, convenience, etc. We’d certainly like to be able to give our kids lots of experiences. I’m taking the week off (so you might not see me much in the comments) in part to help create some experiences which I’ll probably write about next week.
But does it matter? My husband has told me I should write one of two semi-related books. The first is called (with a nod to Jim Collins) Good to Great Kids. What can parents do to take reasonably intelligent, diligent children, and turn them into superstars? (Based on research and studies, of course). And the second book would be on what parents should tell their kids to study and professions to go into to have a good life in the next few decades.
I find myself a bit wary of both, though. First, I have been thinking a lot lately about Bryan Caplan’s book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. That’s a bad title, but the gist is that, combing through decades of twin and adoption studies, it’s pretty apparent that genetics is responsible for a lot more than parenting. Smart parents have smart kids and think it’s because they’re helping with the homework and reading to their kids, but really the kids would have done pretty well, in general, even if you’d slacked on the homework-monitoring. This argument can’t be reduced to the absurd — you can’t lock your kid in the closet and have him do OK — but within the norms of middle class parenting, we have a lot less effect, as parents, than we’d like to believe. I’m sure people have anecdotes to counter this, but anecdotes aren’t evidence, even if the human brain likes to think they are.
As for what children should study, probably math and engineering are good ideas, but not everyone is most drawn to those subjects. I think I could have done fine in STEM fields, but I prefer to write about such thing. Beyond that, predicting what will be the hot careers of the future is a fool’s game. Twenty years ago, pharma was great. Now it’s falling apart. I think the best thing you can tell kids is to learn to be entrepreneurial. If you’re in love with a field, go into it. If you’re not, choose a few you like and go into the highest paying one. As for what college to attend, I’m really glad I went to my expensive one, but there are plenty of expensive schools that don’t necessarily give you a ticket to success later on.
But I’m curious what people think. Do you think you can invest money strategically in helping your children do better in life? How? Are you doing anything with your children that you think will give them an edge later on?
photo courtesy flickr user anyjazz65