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The Cost of Intensive Parenting Is Crippling the Middle Class

Parents looking to give their child an edge have started investing more time in their education and extracurricular activities, but it’s an approach that leads to a serious bill.

Parenting is expensive. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the cost to raise a single child to the age of 17 is around $233,000. Housing and food account for much of that cost at 29 percent and 18 percent respectively. Childcare and education take up 16 percent, while transportation accounts for 15 percent, and health care for nine.

This, however, outlines the cost for the average middle American family, most of whom would prefer not to remain average. The base cost of raising a child does not guarantee the kid’s success. There’s a huge difference between educating, feeding, and keeping a kid healthy and giving them the best possible chance to excel in adulthood. And if a parent wants to ensure a kid’s success the answer feels all too clear: They need to work harder and, ultimately, pay more.

For much of the 20th Century, middle-class parents had assurance, and their children believed, that every generation would grow in wealth and prosperity. Kids were expected to be better off than their parents, and for the most part, they were until the turn of the 21st Century. Gen X, it turned out, was not going to be much better off than the Boomers, and by the time the Millenials hit the scene, forward generational progress had been arrested.

But while middle-class wages remained relatively flat, the top 20 percent of earners saw their income increase by more than 90 percent. And as the economic inequality grew, so too did parental anxiety about childhood achievement.

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“We love our children and our wish is for our children to be happy and to do well,” explains Matthias Doepke, Professor of Economics at Northwestern University and co-author of Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids. “And not just today not just today. So much what we do is about trying to get them ready for the long run.”

But the problem is when economic inequality changes the stakes. It means that the middle class has to work harder to keep up with the upper class.

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“When economic inequality is high, only those who really excel in schooling, who go to the best colleges, get the most remunerative degrees,” Doepke says. “If only those people do well then parents will perceive a lot of very high stakes and be much more stressed.”

That stress has lead to the emergence of a much more intensive style of parenting. Parents who understand that their actions can affect their kid’s achievement are investing much more into their children. It feels very much like it’s the only way to even the odds.

More and more parents are seeking opportunities to get children ahead. That might mean enrolling kids in high-quality schools or hiring private tutors. Some parents are investing in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) toys to teach programming skills. Other parents look to extracurricular activities that might lead to scholarships or pad out college applications, like sports or music or specialized clubs.

The upshot is that middle-class parents are highly engaged and kids are over-scheduled. And what’s more the $233,000 price tag for raising kids becomes inflated. The increased cost isn’t due to the child is living in a better house, eating better food, or getting better healthcare. These factors remain the same. Instead, the cost is due to what’s added to the child’s life.

One of the earliest cost for intensive parents is likely to be playgroups and classes for babies that are meant to boost early learning. An outdoor baby class for children as young as 18-months at an early learning program like Tinkergarten, for instance, will cost around $100 for six sessions. A foundational music class at Kindermusik for babies up to a year and a half old can cost $68 per session with an addition $20 registration fee.

Some parents will look to toys to give a kid an edge. Consider the cost of Little Tykes STEM Jr. Wonder Lab Toy with Experiments for Kids, running about $97. Comparable non-STEM activity tables cost about half that. And the toys do not get any less expensive as children age. The Wonder Workshop Dash Coding Robot for Kids retails for about $150. A Lego Mindstorms Robot Kit will cost a cool $340.

Some parents may opt to hire help for their children. Private music instructors will run about $50 an hour, while academic tutors can charge upwards of $80 for specialized subjects. For athletic kids, professional coaches can cost up to $100 an hour.

Team sports are an investment in themselves. Parents in the United States are spending around $5 billion every year on organized extracurricular sports. And that’s not even counting travel costs. Per family that can amount to several thousand dollars per year.

But on top of all of it is the investment a parent makes in the time they spend. One recent survey by Salary.com suggested that stay-at-home parents would earn around $160,000 a year for their work. That would be an hourly rate of about $76 an hour, roughly consistent with the rates of a coach and a tutor. If that is truly how much a parent’s time is worth, then it’s very easy to see how the price can add up for intensive parents.

All in, it’s easy to see that intensive parenting will ultimately add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost of raising kids. But unfortunately, there is no real evidence that all of this investment will pay off. That’s particularly true when considering that intensive parenting robs kids of unstructured time that allows for independent exploration and relationship building — activities that build social skills and curiosity crucial to many fields of employment.

But, barring some major change, it’s unlikely that the pressure on middle-class parents will ease. There are too few paths to success for too few people. And until American parents demand economic equality they will be paying dearly for the few paths they have.