Are parents getting their money’s worth? The desire to give one’s child every advantage is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. And as our confidence that our children will have a higher standard of living than we do has dropped, investing in our kids seems more important than ever. For affluent parents, full-time nannies, $600 gymnastics programs, $1,500 strollers or $30,000-a-year preschools can seem like part of the deal.
Some of these purchases undoubtedly are more about parental status than a desire to turn toddlers into achievers. But many well-meaning families grapple with personal parenting choices that have big economic consequences: nanny vs. daycare, public school vs. private, enrichment courses vs. free time. And while solid research on these subjects is often inconclusive, there’s very little evidence that the best childhood money can buy is worth the expence.
Yet much of what kids need to thrive doesn’t require hefty expenditures, according to child development experts. “Parents are throwing resources at their kids and getting caught up in ‘everybody else is doing it,’” says Po Bronson, author of NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. “We’re not talking about rich parents, we’re talking about regular people who otherwise wouldn’t be spending this kind of money on themselves and didn’t spend this kind of money before they had kids, and now they’re milking their bank accounts and saving nothing to do all these things for their kids”.
Simply teaching kids the importance of hard work trumps even innate intelligence in predicting their success, according to Carol S. Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford and author of The Secrets to Raising Smart Children. Children who live in homes filled with books, regardless of the parents’ educational background or occupation, do much better in school, according to a 2010 study by researchers from the University of Nevada. “You can get a lot of bang for your book,” said author Mariah Evans, a sociologist. “It’s quite a good return on investment in a time of scarce resources.”