MY 7-YEAR-OLD SON asked me recently if I remembered a camping trip we took years ago. I felt guilty, realizing that I hadn't taken him since. "I know, buddy," I said. "We should do that again this year."
Then he said, "Can we have that chicken again?"
I asked what he meant. He explained: "The chicken in a paper bucket."
I laughed as I realized that the highlight of the trip for him had been eating KFC by the fire. My guilt had me ready to spend hundreds of dollars and hours in the car on another trip to the mountains. With just a few dollars and a couple of hours, we could relive the memory in our backyard.
Kids are a lot of work. But often, especially for those of us who read books and articles on parenting, we make much of that work for ourselves. We spend hours reading to our children, supervising their homework, setting play dates, enrolling them in organized sports and pay-to-play hobbies. And then we spend nearly as much time dressing them and driving them to and from these obligations that we made for them and ourselves.
We also spend a great deal of money. According to the Department of Agriculture, the average middle-income family shells out more than $233,000 per child before age 18, without counting costs for college. Roughly half of that (47 percent) is food and housing, with child care, education, and transportation adding up to another third (31 percent).
These numbers are intimidating for couples contemplating their first child. But while children do require food, housing, care, and transportation, the total cost of raising any given child is mostly determined by how much her parents choose to spend. And most parents--and most kids--would be just as well off spending much less. Indeed, many parents are putting needless stress on themselves and their families by emphasizing organized activities over unstructured play and simple family time--time spent watching a movie, say, or eating fried chicken on the patio.
CUT YOURSELF SOME SLACK
LESS EFFORT DOES not mean zero effort. Zero effort would harm your children. Near-zero effort would harm your children. Genuinely neglected kids can wind up malnourished, illiterate, and emotionally stunted. But if you're a parent reading this, chances are that you are giving your children far more than the minimal amount of attention.
You don't just feed your children; you probably accept their input on what they'd like to eat, even if your parents didn't do the same for you. You worry about how healthy the food is and whether it's enough or too much. You worry about your children's educational opportunities, and you look for ways to give them more. You worry about your children having too much "screen time" and not reading enough. Maybe you worry about how it would look to others if you fell short in any of these areas.
Most children (57 percent, according to the Census Bureau) are engaged in at least one extracurricular activity. Among families with annual incomes above $75,000, according to a 2015 Pew Research survey, 84 percent have children enrolled in athletics, 64 percent have children who have done volunteer work, and 62 percent have children taking lessons in music, dance, or art. I'm sitting here suggesting that parents do too much, yet even I have two children enrolled in soccer, one in softball, one in baseball, and one in ballet. I'm not in the 15 percent of parents who say their kids' lives are too hectic, but when multiple lessons, practices, and games fall on a single evening and I have work deadlines looming, I'd say my life is a bit hectic.
Are these commitments worth the time and expense? On the margin, almost certainly not. If you cut back on your worry over nutrition or academics by, say, 10 percent, you're not likely to materially reduce the prospects for your child's education, health, and future. Intuitively, parents imagine that results are proportional to effort. But the uncomfortable truth is that your child's future is largely determined by things that are out of your control. Your most lasting impact on health, athletic achievement, and even basic personality ended roughly nine months before birth. At some point, perhaps earlier than we imagine, our children's choices, interests, and mistakes become their own.
There are diminishing returns to parental effort. And your time is scarce and valuable. You too need to work, sleep, exercise, eat well, learn, and relax. A 1999 survey by the Families and Work Institute found that while children value family time, their top wish was that their parents would be "less tired and stressed." Being the best possible parent doesn't always require more of something. For already conscientious...