This is the time of year second only to December, maybe when we're reminded how much kids cost. It's nice when states suspend their sales tax for a week of back-to-school shopping, but it doesn't change the fact that somehow we have to start over in September: new sneakers, new notebooks, maybe a new lunch box, because SpongeBob is so last season. Even in hard times, economists have found, children are "recession resistant." As investments, they are living proof of irrational exuberance, a leading indicator of our loss of fiscal discipline.
BabyCenter.com offers a calculator to help determine the cost of raising a child; I wonder how great a deterrent this represents. It uses figures from an annual report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which I suppose would be the expert in growing corn or kids. This year's report says a typical family will spend about $221,000 raising a child through age 17; that's 21% more than families spent the year I was born. Food and clothing are cheaper now, but housing and health care cost more. Turns out parents get a bulk discount: people with only one child spend 25% more per child than families with two, and by the time you have three or more, you are spending 22% less on each one.
The government can't begin to measure the hidden costs, of course, of sleep or sanity or solitude. It fails to factor in marginal expenditures on window-repairing, rug-cleaning, photo-processing, cell phones, sedatives. I'm thinking the bureaucrats have not been to a mall lately, since their tables allow about $60 a month for kids' shoes and clothes. It is true that globalization has driven apparel prices down over the years, but if you have daughters, you confront the annual phenomenon whereby the clothes shrink as the prices rise, leaving you wildly grateful for a school dress code requiring that shoulders and navels be covered.
And then, of course, there is the time spent, whose dollar figure is incalculable, though one study says it's worth more than the cash laid out. Parenthood means never really being alone, until the day the kids leave home and you're left with no idea what to do with all the time and energy you used to spend chasing after them. Maybe I'll finally learn to knit. Or cook something with more than three ingredients. Or slide the years of accumulated photographs into fresh, matching albums, the images incubating as memory to hatch as history.
The economist behind this year's report is used to hearing people marvel at how much kids cost. "I tell them children also have many benefits," he says, "so you have to keep that in mind." There are, for instance, all the things parents probably don't do as often when the kids are grown. Will we still make bonfires on the beach, collect driftwood and fairy glass, make s'mores even though no one really likes them, since marshmallows surpass superglue for stickiness? Will we still carve jack-o'-lanterns, color Easter eggs or will holidays feel like formalities? I wonder if I'll miss Cheez Doodles and Jelly Bellies. I'm pretty sure I won't be buying them anymore.
Children cost a lot up front, but with the right management strategies, you can get a decent return on investment. Helping with homework lets you learn all the math now that you never learned then. Kids give you an excuse to work on your fastball. They're excellent bed warmers, and small fingers can untie hopeless knots. They remind you to be brave and trusting, and that few things worth accomplishing are ever achieved without making a mess first. They often say better prayers than you could ever think to. They smell really good, at least when they're clean.
And yes, they are reminders of our mortality in fact, I know I'm going gray a lot faster than I would have had I been childless, especially now that I have a teenager. But it's a cosmic gift that, in letting us grow up with them, they keep us young, so that sometime maybe we pass each other, the student becoming the teacher, the parent the child, and we will sit back and marvel at who they've become, knowing they are now smarter and stronger than we are. We'll savor their company and feel safe in their hands. Care to put a price on that?