Oh, the Places They'll Go—If You Let Go

An economist's guide to happier, more relaxed parenting


My 7-year-old son asked me recently if I remembered a camping trip we took years ago. I felt guilty, realizing that I hadn't taken him since. "I know, buddy," I said. "We should do that again this year."

Then he said, "Can we have that chicken again?"

I asked what he meant. He explained: "The chicken in a paper bucket."

I laughed as I realized that the highlight of the trip for him had been eating KFC by the fire. My guilt had me ready to spend hundreds of dollars and hours in the car on another trip to the mountains. With just a few dollars and a couple of hours, we could relive the memory in our backyard.

Kids are a lot of work. But often, especially for those of us who read books and articles on parenting, we make much of that work for ourselves. We spend hours reading to our children, supervising their homework, setting play dates, enrolling them in organized sports and pay-to-play hobbies. And then we spend nearly as much time dressing them and driving them to and from these obligations that we made for them and ourselves.

We also spend a great deal of money. According to the Department of Agriculture, the average middle-income family shells out more than $233,000 per child before age 18, without counting costs for college. Roughly half of that (47 percent) is food and housing, with child care, education, and transportation adding up to another third (31 percent).

These numbers are intimidating for couples contemplating their first child. But while children do require food, housing, care, and transportation, the total cost of raising any given child is mostly determined by how much her parents choose to spend. And most parents—and most kids—would be just as well off spending much less. Indeed, many parents are putting needless stress on themselves and their families by emphasizing organized activities over unstructured play and simple family time—time spent watching a movie, say, or eating fried chicken on the patio.

Cut Yourself Some Slack

Less effort does not mean zero effort. Zero effort would harm your children. Near-zero effort would harm your children. Genuinely neglected kids can wind up malnourished, illiterate, and emotionally stunted. But if you're a parent reading this, chances are that you are giving your children far more than the minimal amount of attention.

You don't just feed your children; you probably accept their input on what they'd like to eat, even if your parents didn't do the same for you. You worry about how healthy the food is and whether it's enough or too much. You worry about your children's educational opportunities, and you look for ways to give them more. You worry about your children having too much "screen time" and not reading enough. Maybe you worry about how it would look to others if you fell short in any of these areas.

Most children (57 percent, according to the Census Bureau) are engaged in at least one extracurricular activity. Among families with annual incomes above $75,000, according to a 2015 Pew Research survey, 84 percent have children enrolled in athletics, 64 percent have children who have done volunteer work, and 62 percent have children taking lessons in music, dance, or art. I'm sitting here suggesting that parents do too much, yet even I have two children enrolled in soccer, one in softball, one in baseball, and one in ballet. I'm not in the 15 percent of parents who say their kids' lives are too hectic, but when multiple lessons, practices, and games fall on a single evening and I have work deadlines looming, I'd say my life is a bit hectic.

Are these commitments worth the time and expense? On the margin, almost certainly not. If you cut back on your worry over nutrition or academics by, say, 10 percent, you're not likely to materially reduce the prospects for your child's education, health, and future. Intuitively, parents imagine that results are proportional to effort. But the uncomfortable truth is that your child's future is largely determined by things that are out of your control. Your most lasting impact on health, athletic achievement, and even basic personality ended roughly nine months before birth. At some point, perhaps earlier than we imagine, our children's choices, interests, and mistakes become their own.

There are diminishing returns to parental effort. And your time is scarce and valuable. You too need to work, sleep, exercise, eat well, learn, and relax. A 1999 survey by the Families and Work Institute found that while children value family time, their top wish was that their parents would be "less tired and stressed." Being the best possible parent doesn't always require more of something. For already conscientious parents, it may require less.

You Worry Too Much

When children are very young, worrying is normal. Luckily, children mature and constant care is no longer required. Parenting changes from intense and direct nurturing to providing safety, stability, and opportunity.

Despite our worries, kids have never been safer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, child mortality keeps falling: There were 25.3 deaths per 100,000 people ages 1–4 in 2016, compared to 29.4 in 2005. For 5- to 14-year-olds, the mortality rate was 13.4 deaths per 100,000 in 2016, compared with 16.3 in 2005. Kids have gotten 18 percent safer since my oldest child was born and 67 percent safer since I was born. The reason is simple: Deaths from disease and accidents have been plummeting for decades.

Children are also relatively safe from crime. Although thousands of missing children are reported every year, very few are abducted by strangers—less than a one-hundredth of 1 percent. Most are instead are runaways or with a family member who doesn't have custody. And the FBI reports that missing persons cases are decreasing markedly, in part because of cellphones. When children are reported missing, it's often because of a miscommunication or, in very scary situations, when they are lost. The ability to call for help makes an important difference.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, juveniles are less likely to be victims of violence than are young adults. And when children are victims, they are typically victims of someone they live with. One of the best things parents can do to keep their children safe is to provide a safe household. The greatest risks to children are in the home, not at the big-box store or at school.

So children are increasingly safe. But what about the worry that a kid will miss out on important opportunities, opportunities that could dramatically improve her future? Isn't one reason that children cost so much the fact that a quality education is so expensive?

In terms of explicit costs that you have receipts for, that's absolutely true. But it's surprising how many parents fail to do the math on the return to elite schooling vs. more affordable options. Does the typical graduate from an elite private college earn enough more than her counterparts elsewhere to justify the expense? The answer is no.

While the rate of return on college is high, it's actually higher for state schools than it is for private universities. In 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average yearly tuition for a private, nonprofit four-year college was just over $31,000. The average tuition at a four-year public college was just over $9,000. The private school graduates do earn more, on average—a roughly 10 percent difference when projecting lifetime earnings from the data in the PayScale College Salary Report. If a state college graduate earns $2 million over her life (or about 56 times as much as she paid in tuition), a comparable private school graduate would earn $2.2 million (or about 18 times as much as she paid in tuition). That's a much lower return on investment. Even at a third of the sticker price for private college, the state grad comes out ahead.

The story is similar for elite schools, although the differences are bigger. Graduates of one of the top 20 private colleges in the U.S. News & World Report rankings can expect to earn significantly more than their counterparts at the top 20 state schools. The average Duke University graduate, for example, makes 35 percent more than the average University of North Carolina graduate. That could easily be more than a million more dollars in lifetime income.

This does not mean, however, that attending an elite school causes higher income. A 2011 study by economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger showed that students who are accepted into elite private schools but who choose to attend less prestigious schools earn just as much as their elite-school counterparts. In fact, there was no earnings difference between elite college graduates and graduates of other colleges who merely applied to an elite college.

If the costs are similar because of financial aid, then a case can be made for the private school. But if attending the private school would involve taking on substantially more student loan debt, then the return on investment is much worse—well past the point of diminishing returns. Since elite private universities can also cost up to five times as much to attend as highly rated public universities, this will very often be the case. Six-figure student loan balances are stubborn things, even with a six-figure income.

Once a parent is willing to consider paying for something less than the most prestigious degree, much of the justification for other costly parenting decisions collapses. Does your child need to be involved in sports or other extracurricular activities? Only if there's a good reason, such as fostering a genuine interest. Should you pay for multiple SAT or ACT prep courses? Only if it helps get scholarships.

What exactly do you hope to get out of your investments in your kid? Is the goal to make her into an elite adult, or one with fond memories of childhood? The latter is less costly than the former. It's more realistic, too, because it turns out parents have only a limited ability to mold their children's futures.

Your Impact Is Overrated

Extremely poor parenting can certainly have an impact on a kid. Neglect and abuse aren't good for anyone. But beyond that, parents have surprisingly little influence on how their children turn out. The chief reason our kids end up so much like us is that they have our genes.

How can we separate the effects of nature and nurture? Normally it's impossible. But studies of adopted children can help answer that question. Children who share no genes with their parents allow us to see which traits are affected more by how kids are raised and which traits are inherited from their birth parents. Twin studies also can shed light. Identical twins share all of their genes, while fraternal twins share half of their genes. If pairs of identical twins are roughly as similar as pairs of fraternal twins, then nature wouldn't seem very powerful. But if identical twins are substantially more alike than fraternal twins, that reduces our estimate of the home environment's influence.

Both nature and nurture can matter. Genetics clearly plays a role when it comes to height, for example—and height is correlated with higher income. (A 2004 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology estimated that a 6-foot-tall person earns $166,000 more over a 30-year career than someone who is 5-foot-5, even when accounting for gender, age, and weight.) Similarly, the evidence is very strong that children who are malnourished, abused, or even ignored struggle to become healthy and happy adults, no matter what their genetic makeup is. So the focus of the adoption and twin studies is on how much a child's environment and genes matter within the range of what anyone reading this would consider normal.

It's easy to imagine, for example, how both nature and nurture could affect life expectancy. Children could live a long time because of a lack of genetic predisposition to life-threatening illnesses, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, or certain cancers. Or children could live a long time because of the healthy example, teaching, and habits of their parents. So which is it?

In 1994, a study of Danish twins born between 1870 and 1900 showed no evidence that a shared family environment affects life spans, though it also only showed a small impact for genetics. A larger study of Swedish twins born between 1886 and 1925 found strong genetic effects on longevity and no effect from family environment. Similar studies of Swedish, Finnish, and Danish twins have shown similar results: little to no effect of parenting on overall health. Even when it comes to making your kids brush their teeth—which, just to be clear, I think we should all do—the evidence from a 2005 Swedish twin study suggests that genetics matter more than parenting except in extreme cases.

The evidence on alcohol and tobacco use is mixed; some adoption studies show that the family environment matters for drinking (although the adopted siblings may matter more than the adopted parents). But a 2006 twin study of Virginia families suggests that children raised by smokers may actually be slightly less likely to smoke. While I'm not personally ready to start using tobacco with the hope that my children will rebel against me, the result is intriguing.

Beyond health, most of us have big dreams for our children's future success and happiness. When it comes to educational accomplishments, a 2001 comparison of Australian siblings showed that identical twins have more similar outcomes than fraternal twins. And a 1989 study of American World War II veterans and their children showed that separated identical twins had strong similarities in educational success. Some studies do show that adopted siblings have similar levels of educational success, but other twin research argues that due to assortative mating, or the tendency of people with similar preferences and interests to marry each other, fraternal twins are more similar than we'd expect because so many parents share similar genetic traits. When studies account for assortative mating, the effect of the home environment on educational outcome in many of these studies disappears.

How a person was raised appears to have even less impact on income than it does on education. A 2004–2005 Korean adoption study showed that while biological children from more well-off families had higher incomes, adopted children from the same families did not. As the George Mason economist Bryan Caplan summarizes it in his 2011 book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, "adoptees raised by the poorest families have the same average income as adoptees raised by the richest families." Identical twins' incomes are also shown to be much closer than fraternal twins', according to the data from Swedish and Australian studies.

And happiness? Several studies in Minnesota found that twins raised apart were actually closer in happiness survey results than twins raised together. One of the studies, which measured happiness levels at two points in time, found that identical twins were as close to each other's results at the later date as they were close to their own results from 10 years prior.

Twin and adoption studies show similar results for children's intelligence, values, and even future childbearing. The consistent result is that parents' child-rearing choices have surprisingly little long-run effect on their kids' behavior. That's why this body of research is so counterintuitive. Parents know that their words and actions impact their kids' choices. Yet the twin and adoption studies look for lasting household effects, and by and large they don't find them.

The key word is lasting. The short-term effects are powerful. When parents read to their kids, their kids end up reading better. When parents emphasize good hygiene and healthy eating, their kids take better care of themselves. The effects are real—they just fade away as children grow up, especially when compared to their peers. As they mature, kids interact more with friends or classmates and less with their parents. They come to resemble other kids more as time goes on.

There's another possible dynamic at play: rebellion. One possible explanation for weak long-run parental impact is that parents are, in a sense, always successful in their efforts to change their kids' futures, but those efforts backfire so frequently that the average result looks much like no impact.

Drop Something

In light of such research, the best parenting strategy is to focus less on long-term goals for your child's future as an adult and more on short-term goals for the kid you live with right now.

If you take this approach, you'll often be not so much changing what you're doing as changing your mindset about it. You will no longer imagine that you're denying your child a chance at being a world-class gymnast if you let her take a few months off from her classes to play softball instead. Most of us—all but a minuscule minority—should try to be comfortable with the reality that our children were never going to be elite athletes anyway. The bigger question should be: What does the child enjoy? My son has never been the best baseball player on the field, or even the third-best. But he enjoys it. He loves the game, and he's excited to play.

Still, under this strategy some of your parenting choices probably will change. This is especially true when you re-evaluate those activities with the highest opportunity cost—the ones where the sacrifice is the biggest. The regular Little League season is good fun, it lasts eight weeks, and all of the games are at a park just a few miles from our house. Travel ball would require frequent trips to other cities and would extend the baseball season by months. Even if my son wanted to do it, we'd likely say no: The travel would make it harder for me to accept opportunities to travel for work, reduce our number of family dinners together, and make our lives considerably more hectic in general—and for how much extra benefit? Remember, parents' time matters too.

There's a good chance you're doing too much, even if you're wondering whether you do enough. Here's a key sign: You're exhausted, and so is your kid. Both of you need downtime.

One of the few things on which parenting choices do have a long-term impact is the appreciation a person feels for her mom and dad. In those twin and adoption studies, siblings in the same household gave similar answers to questions about how well their parents communicated with them, how much their parents loved them, and how involved their parents were in their lives. Biology was not a strong factor; the answers were more similar for children raised by the same parents than for children with the same genes. But there's no evidence that organized sports, dance, or music lessons drive those results.

The Families and Work Institute's surveys suggest that what adults remember and appreciate most from their childhoods isn't the amount of time spent with their parents but their parents' mood when they did spend time together. Happier, less stressed mothers and fathers produced fonder memories. The catch is that one of the main sources of parental stress, according to the same surveys, is taking care of one's children.

So how can parents do better? They can start by cutting back on structured, scheduled responsibilities and allowing more low-key time together with their kids.

When cutting things from your schedule, the first consideration should be whether your child enjoys the activity. This isn't hard to determine. Just pay attention to her mood. Is she excited to go? Is she interested while it's happening? Does she talk about it when she gets home? Kids' interests change, and that's normal. Equally important is the cost to you, in terms of what you must give up in order to get your kid to the games, practices, rehearsals, and recitals. If an activity is a pain for you and your child resents being forced to participate, cut it.

Even if your kid does enjoy the activity, you should still consider the price. In a relatively low-cost-of-living part of the country, for example, baseball and softball are about $100 per season per child, plus the cost of equipment, which can easily run another $100 per person. My kids' local soccer league costs the same—$100 per child for registration—but it has significantly lower equipment costs. Gymnastics has a $50 registration fee and costs $50 per month for classes. Ballet costs $125 per month. Each may be reasonable in itself, but you can't do everything, especially if you have multiple children who are close in age. In my family, this could add up to several hundred dollars a month if we didn't say no once in a while. And the time commitment would border on impossible.

My oldest daughter wants to take golf lessons at the local country club. The lessons themselves are inexpensive, but we'd have to join the club for her to be eligible. As much as I support her interest in golf, I'm not interested in throwing many thousands of dollars at it.

I doubt I'm damaging her future by refusing this particular request. Heredity matters, and if my own talent counts for anything, none of my children will be candidates for golf scholarships. It's one thing to make sacrifices for your kids, which you likely have already done many times. It's another to rationalize the most costly option as a long-term investment in their future. Joy matters, but we should be mindful of the joy-to-cost ratio.

Of course your kids will remember a trip to Disney World, but what will they remember? One parent in the Families and Work Institute survey said, "I often think about the memories that stick, and they certainly aren't the moments my parents might have anticipated. Like I remember driving in the car to a family vacation, not the vacation itself."

My own kids likewise remember simple but nonroutine things, like eating pizza in a motel room or fried chicken by a campfire. But those memories are good memories, and we strive to make many more.