I read recently that the average cost of raising a child in America is now about $234,000, an increase of nearly 40 percent since 2000. As anyone vacuuming animal cracker crumbs out of the backseat of their minivan can tell you, raising kids in the modern world isn’t just financially expensive, it’s physically demanding. Consider a recent study tracking the significant uptick in the amount of time American parents are spending with (and on) their children in comparison to previous generations. In 1965 mothers spent an average of 10 hours a week “caring for children” (fathers put in roughly 4 hours a week), whereas in 2015 mothers spent an average of 15 hours a week, with fathers putting in 9 hours weekly.
When you couple this with the fact that most of those 1965 families were single income, while the majority of families in 2015 have two working parents at home, it’s hard to imagine when modern parents are finding the time to regularly use the restroom, let alone care for themselves in ways we all need.
Which is why they don’t. And why you and I don’t.
In a world whose morality is tethered to the capricious whims of the gods of commerce and endless production, the only answer greeting our fleeting efforts at keeping our own and the heads of our children above water is to keep anxiously “investing” in their education, future prospects and ability to earn more and own more than we did at their age. (A side note: Millennials will be the first generation following the Great Depression to earn less than their parents did.)
“In my experience, kids can always tell when parents are expecting a significant return on their rather sizable investment.”
“Investing” is the answer we give when explaining why we’ve just written a check with three zeros in it for our daughter’s traveling soccer team.
“Investing” is the way we describe the experience of paying $20,000 for our daughter’s 9th-grade year at a school where everyone wears the same nervous smile and oxford button down.
“Investing” is the reason we yelled at the school counselor because our son’s anxiety is preventing him from acing all four of his AP classes this semester. She wants him to drop down to college prep geometry! Over my dead body!
In a world dominated by scarcity, fear and decreasing opportunities for all God’s children who aren’t interested in developing apps, or protecting the rich in tax filings or court proceedings, or billing health insurance companies because you sport a stethoscope and a white coat, investing in our children with every dollar, every day and every public denouncement of the referee who refuses to call fouls “evenly” isn’t just for helicopter parents in 2018, it’s a cultural mandate for all of us parents.
As both a dad and a youth pastor (who moonlights as a therapist), I encourage you to stop “investing” in your children. It’s killing them, and as your primary health care practitioner can attest, it’s not doing your blood pressure any favors either. One of the things the increased attention to the behaviors of modern parents has uncovered is that while our monetary and chronological spending has increased exponentially, the positive impact of these increases on the quality of life and self-worth of our children continues to lag. Scholars note that while spending more time with our children can be linked to their later flourishing as adolescents and adults, this is only true if the time we are spending with them could be referred to as “quality time.”
The National Association for the Education of Young Children defines quality time generally as a preponderance of non-anxious, empathic, patient and warm interactions between caregiver and child. Quality time provides space for parents and children to “be” together without having to accomplish or produce something. What these findings teach us is that kids have a pretty advanced ability to notice when we’re faking it, or when all our spending and demanding and “loving” have strings attached to children’s current (and future) performance. In my experience, kids can always tell when parents are expecting a significant return on their rather sizable investment.
“Maybe kids don’t need stock brokers for parents after all. Maybe they just need someone to partner with them, non-anxiously and non-expectantly.”
In the particular school of marriage and family therapy that I practice, a phrase we use to describe these kinds of self-interested, parent-child interactions is “destructive entitlement.” Whenever parents find themselves demanding things from their children that they rarely or never received from their own parents, who rarely or never received what they needed from their parents, this “destructive entitlement” can maim families for generations.
Restoration therapy argues that children didn’t choose to enter the world, they were chosen by their mothers and fathers, and because of that, they don’t owe anything for their existence. In fact, they are owed love and trust independent of what they do and give and earn for their parents. In this framework, the only way parents experience a return on their “investment” of love and trust is when their children choose to keep pumping sacrificial love and bold trust into the world for future generations
When the world gets better for the people after you, and those after them, you can know that your life was well spent. And, contrastingly, when the world gets worse for the people after you, and those after them, you can know that your life was spent poorly.
When we look at the numbers of children in poverty, those without quality health insurance, those with chronic anxiety and depression, those failed by our crumbling system of public education and those who begin careers with crippling student loan debt, I dare say our “investment” in our kids has come up short.
Maybe kids don’t need stock brokers for parents after all. Maybe they just need someone to partner with them, non-anxiously and non-expectantly. Maybe they need parents – and teachers, pastors, mentors, partners and churches – who understand that kids don’t owe anyone (but those coming after them) for all the support, energy, tears, trust, prayers and love they have received.
When we freely give away our money, time and possessions, rather than considering them as “investments” with an expected “return,” we might discover that we’re terribly proud of the people (and the communities of faith and nation) we’ve helped bring into being. Maybe we will see our children mature into adults who follow in the way of Jesus, living selflessly and generously, refusing to believe that life is about what you own rather than who you are and who you help others to become.
If not, we can always go back to our disgruntled rants over breakfast at the neighborhood diner or on our Facebook page about “kids these days.”