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Parenting: Attention vs Money

By Harald Breiding-Buss

Parenting requires money. Rather a lot of it, and increasingly so as the children grow older.

I am not even talking about buying food, renting/buying a big enough house and the other necessities of life. I am talking about childcare and school fees, sports equipment and membership fees, private sports coaching or music lessons, school or holiday camps, doctors, orthodontists etc, cellphones, probably computers and other things the kids can’t do without anymore if they want to keep up at school, and so on.

Having two teenagers at home, I am simply in awe about the amount of money that keeps disappearing from our bank accounts in pursuit of their health, welfare and career options. And I have no idea what happened to my ideas about the simple life being the best.

Father & Child’s recent study on solo dads rammed the message home again on just how important it is for dads to have the funds to provide their children with options. Just ‘being there’ doesn’t cut it. Too many of them felt that their kids are missing out because of dad’s dismal financial status.
So do they?

On the face of it it’s obvious: rich parents have more successful kids, the poor have the ones getting into trouble all the time. There is some evidence, however, that it is not quite as clear cut as that.

For one, children from two-parent homes outperform children from one-parent homes in any given social class by quite a margin on both educational and social indicators. This is not to say that some children from one-parent homes aren’t rather successful, or that some children from ‘intact’ families end up in the dumps. But as a statistical trend it’s a convincing one, and much social research and policy is trying to find out why exactly that is and what we can do about it.

‘Rich’ families tend to be two-parent homes, which is no surprise: the juggling act between kids and money is a lot easier if you can share it around at least two people.

A few years ago the Consumer Institute did a study on how much difference it makes the school we send our children to makes. How much do those expensive private schools outperform the cheap state ones? Answer: not at all.

When comparing children from families with equivalent social background (income, exposure to violence etc) their educational achievements were identical regardless of what school they went to. The message was: your home environment is more important for what you become in life than any institutions you may send them to.

We also know that providing kids with everything money can buy can be counterproductive as they never have to figure out for themselves what’s important to them.
However, it is dangerous to draw the conclusion from this that money does not matter at all in raising children. To a certain degree, money can buy happiness!
Lack of money creates a lot of stress and has a big impact on your home environment. A situation where you have to stay home because your child is sick and forfeit your income for that day, for example, makes for an unhappy choice no matter which way you go. Likewise it’s hard not to feel like a failure if you can’t afford sending your child to school camp or to pay for the membership in a soccer club.

Stress is generally bad for parenting. It makes you think less about what parenting is all about and how you should do things, and instead manage things on the fly with possibly little consistency. If you’re under stress, you’re trying to minimise your exposure to the things that cause you stress. One of the easiest things to minimise is your involvement with your kid. You can’t easily tell your employer, the bank or a number of other people to leave you alone, but you can tell your child. If you’re under stress, your children drop down your priority list, whether you like it or not. Keeping calm is another thing that is much harder under stress, and children sure do know how to push your buttons. Having a brimming full bank account doesn’t immunise against snapping or doing something rash, but it sure helps in maintaining a positive attitude.

So money doesn’t buy your child’s happiness, but to a certain degree it buys yours, which in turn helps you keep the family happy and parent more consciously.
Fathers are still told to work less and spend more time with their children, even though there is no real evidence that at the moment fathers aren’t. It is easy for a celebrity to say such things, but the choice between time and money becomes much harder if you’re working close to the minimum wage and your job is not all that secure.

Some people have quite successfully refocused and are living very happily on a very small income, being very aware of the things that really matter to them. But even this lifestyle is often backed up by a certain cushion of savings which gives a certain peace of mind.

However, sometimes money is not about making ends meet but about showing off. Sure, your children will love being driven to school in a showy BMW and to be able to invite their friends into a lavish home overlooking the sea, but if these things replace quality time with your children you’re in trouble. Whether you can have a day out with your child at Rainbow’s End, or whether the swings at the local park have to suffice does not matter at all. What matters is that they are there with you, and that you participate and respond.

Next: Forgotten Families

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