Jayne: Cute quips from expensive-to-raise children: priceless

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

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photoGreg Jayne, Opinion page editor

Ahhh, this is the life.

The vacations in New York, the month at the villa in Tuscany, the new deck on the house, the Mercedes in the garage, the wife and I living the high life … oops, sorry, I must have been daydreaming for a moment. I must have been pondering what life would be like without our three children. What life would be like without our three money pits. What life would be like with a two-income household and just two people to spend it on.

You see, kids are expensive — in case you didn't know. A report last week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests that raising a child born in 2013 through the age of 17 will cost $245,340 in housing, clothing, education, food, etc. And that doesn't include college.

Now, reports such as this should be ingested with a whole handful of salt. Estimating costs and inflation for the next 17 years is a rather speculative endeavor, and those who can accurately predict the future are probably playing the tables in Vegas rather than compiling reports for the government. But, as Jordan Weissmann wrote for Slate.com, the report is "full of all sorts of statistics to make you think long and hard about adopting a dog instead."

Certainly, a husky would be less expensive, and it could provide an occasional lick on the cheek. But a dog can't offer the kind of chuckles that our 5-year-old can, like when he recently told his brother and I, "All you guys do is talk about sports. You should talk about how awesome I am." OK, so it's cuter when it comes from your own kid, but I thought it was rather adorable, so I think we'll keep him. Besides, I'm more of a cat person.

Still, when pondering adding a child vs. adding a dog to your household, the Department of Agriculture report does provide some food for thought. Among the morsels is this: For a child born in 1960, adjusted to 2013 dollars, the cost was $198,560; now it's nearly $250,000 — an increase of 24 percent. And Megan McArdle of Bloomberg News has some insight for that phenomenon.

"The last 50 years have seen a massive shift away from the basic expenses of keeping your kid alive and toward competitive expenses," she wrote. "It's no longer enough to make sure they're fed and clothed; you also have to make sure they can beat the other kids in the education race."

This logic is unassailable. While childhood once meant going to the park for unsupervised play, today it means organized leagues and traveling teams and specialized lessons. Today it means dance classes starting at age 3. Today it means educational computer games. Because if your kids don't have access to such amenities, they will be "behind" when it comes time to compete against those who do.

"What we have," McArdle wrote, "is a collective-action problem that is steadily ratcheting up the amount we spend on our kids. … As long as it's possible to spend money to give their kids a leg up, people will do just that."

Changes in parenting

That's not necessarily good nor bad. It's just the way it is. Parents today are much more involved in their children's daily activities than they were in the past, providing structure often at the expense of exploration, curiosity, and independence.

Not that my wife and I are immune to this. Much of our days, it seems, are filled with driving the 16-year-old to volleyball practice and the 11-year-old to football practice, and the 5-year-old to swim lessons. Much of our finances, it seems, are dedicated to helping them develop the kinds of skills they will need to successfully compete in the world.

But along the way, we often are reminded that the best moments are free. That the laughs don't cost anything. That the joy of having children is a bargain at any cost. Those lessons are more valuable than anything money can buy, as parents through the millennia have discovered.

Still, that month in Tuscany with just my wife sure sounds appealing.