Stop wasting your money on your kids

Trying to make your kids happy by spending money on them will leave both of you worse off, writes Sarah Coles

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Title:    Elevated view of a girl (6-8) dressed as a fairy and blowing out candles on birthday cake  Image #:    57301917  Lic

The annual figures on the cost of raising a child came out this week: each child apparently costs us £229,251 before they leave home.

Your reaction to the news depends on roughly where you are in the lifecycle of parenting. For new parents, and those yet to take the plunge, there's a sense of "£229,251? That's ludicrous. Nobody would have kids if they really cost so much.

They're just exaggerating to scare us". For those exhausted and penniless parents nearing the end of the process, it's more a case of "£229,251? And the rest."

Those who have spent the best part of two decades handing over roughly a third of everything they earn per child, may count themselves as having earned the right to world-weariness. They might watch every passing parent cooing over an infant in a buggy thinking, "Just you wait." But they're wrong.

It's not their fault: they have spent every day since their children were born being led astray by their emotional spending decisions, and as a result have wasted tens of thousands of pounds on their children. I should know. I'm one of them.

Every year, when we're drawing up the household budget, there are certain things that are written in stone: clearly we can't scrimp on the mortgage, we've already shopped around for utilities, and we're going to have to eat. However, this year it finally dawned on me that all sorts of child-related expenses had found themselves into the 'written in stone ' category, which had no earthy reason for being there.

The sums of cash leaking from the household budget are extraordinary - running to thousands of pounds a year. And the psychologists say it's because parents spend far too much of their budget following their heart rather than their head.

Why do we do it?

The desire to do the best for our children is deeply engrained in our psychology. From the cave, when we were out hunting and gathering, we'd feed the kids first, so that one day they would grow big enough and strong enough to ensure the continuation of the species. The same goes for parents budgeting now; we want the most enriching activities, the best opportunities, and the most varied lifestyles for our children, so they can go onto bigger and better things. And as a result there are parents paying through the nose to put their child on a tennis court at the age of four, into French lessons from the age of five, and spend a small fortune ferrying them around museums from the day they open their eyes.

At the same time, we're caught up in the herd mentality. If all their school friends are attending drama club, and starting piano lessons, we worry that we're doing the wrong thing if we don't fork out too. This is only natural: nobody ever provided us with the manual when we had kids, so we don't know the right thing to do for them at any age - following the examples of those around us is all we have to go on.

Meanwhile, we're under irrational pressure to buy a never-ending pile of stuff for the kids. Loni Coombs, author of "You're Perfect, and other Lies Parents Tell", says this is partly because we want our children to be happy, and giving them something they want provides immediate feedback that we have achieved our aim. However, over time the act of giving kids things and making them happy become intrinsically linked in our minds, so we start to think that in order for our children to be happy and feel loved, we have to give them what they want - rather than finding other (cheaper) ways to achieve the same goal.

For an increasing number of parents, guilt also plays a part. Dr Amanda Gummer, a child psychologist, says that working parents subconsciously feel the need to justify spending so much time away from the family, so will spend too much on presents for the children in order to have a physical demonstration of what they can provide by working so hard.

Stay-at-home parents, meanwhile, are slaves to the fear that they can't provide as much for their children because of their decision not to work, and so spend a fortune on them in order to make them feel their kids aren't missing out.

The waste

Yet there's very little evidence that this spending does any good for the kids. Children become ready to learn at different ages - it's why there is a body of evidence suggesting it's a waste of time to try to teach children anything before the age of seven.

Even after this point, they may or may not take in information as you trawl round museums, because there's every chance they are passing the time by trying to work out who would win a battle between Spiderman and Superman. Again there's plenty of evidence to suggest that they'd be better off at home making their own entertainment, exercising their imagination, and recharging their batteries for school.

For sport, meanwhile, there is a tiny minority of children who take to sport early, and an even tinier minority who go on to become professionals. For the vast majority, their hand/eye co-ordination is a long way off, and a kick-about in the park, or knocking a tennis ball against the wall, is as much as they need before school introduces the sports.

Spoiling kids

In fact, rather than all this spending helping our kids, we could be causing problems. Dan Kindlon, a research psychologist at Harvard University, says that if we give our kids too much too early in life, they'll never be satisfied with anything. We're not teaching them the value of earnings things, waiting for them, or trying to prioritise what they want most: we're teaching them that they'll always get what they want.

By never refusing on the grounds of expense, we are also showing children that when they are older they can buy whatever they like, whenever they want, and so we're teaching them to overspend.

The expense involved also means we're increasingly likely to raise only children. Recent figures from ONS predict that by the year 2022, half of all UK families will have just one child. And while there are any number of perfectly well-balanced and functional only-children, do we really want to be raising a nation of people who never learned to get along with other people, and have a long history of getting their own way?

If we continue to let our lives be ruled by our wrong-headed instincts, we're going to end up spoiling our kids: we're also going to end up very short of cash. The cost of a child study shows that the costs associated with raising children have increased at almost twice the rate of annual inflation over the last 12 years. Unless we put a stop to things now, it's only going to get much, much worse.

So let's stop spoiling our kids right now. Only you go first... because I'm not sure my kids are going to be hugely impressed when I tell them they can't go to gymnastics anymore, because it's not good for their emotional development.

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