Kids today: “emotionally priceless and economically worthless”

Sociologist Dalton Conley talks about how the role of children has changed in recent centuries:

A child born in 2012 will cost his parents $241,080 in 2012 dollars, on average, over his lifetime. And children of higher-earning families drain the bank account more: Families earning more than $105,000 annually can expect to spend $399,780 per child.

The “price tag” is astounding, considering that until not long ago, kids were expected to contribute to the household and were not generally a financial drain on it. “From a young age, for much of human history, they would do household labor, whether gather berries or get water and bring it back. From ages 5 and up, kids had an economic role to play in the household,” says Dalton Conley, sociologist, NYU professor and author of “Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Science of Raising Children But Were Too Exhausted to Ask.”

“Today, as sociologist Viviana Zelizer says, kids are emotionally priceless and economically worthless. They’re just a big sinkhole of our time, attention and money, and yet at the same time, we think of them as our most important life project,” says Conley. This idea that parents must invest in their kids for years is now even codified into law. For instance, while traditional markers of adulthood were set at 18 or 21, the Affordable Care Act has now extended the age limit for children to be on their parents’ health insurance to 26.

Why the shift? It boils down to the fact the economy now requires more technical knowledge, so children need more education than before.

The rest of the article then goes on to describe how Dalton uses data to tackle 10 important parenting issues. But, this early part highlights the changing nature of childhood, from an age where children could contribute economically to the family (and many children did not survive because of poor health) to an era where wealthier families have fewer children and parents pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into each child.

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