Let's face it. Kids are expensive. On average, it costs Australian parents $557,013 to raise a child to age 24, according to 2011 figures from McCrindle Research. (In 2009, the federal government estimated it cost $384,543 to raise a child to age 18.)
The amounts are astounding considering that until not long ago, children were expected to contribute to the household and were not, generally, a financial drain on it. "From a young age, for much of human history, they would do household labour, whether gathering berries or getting water and bringing it back," says Dalton Conley, a data-loving sociologist, New York University professor and author of Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children but Were Too Exhausted to Ask.
"From ages five and up, kids had an economic role to play in the household," he adds. "Today, as [Princeton University] sociologist Viviana Zelizer says, kids are emotionally priceless and economically worthless. They're just a big sinkhole of our time, attention and money, and yet at the same time, we think of them as our most important life project."
Why the shift? It boils down to the fact the economy now requires more technical knowledge, so children need more education than before. "[Kids] require a huge parental investment, particularly in this kind of economy where the stakes are high," says Conley.
"There are incredible rewards for those at the top, and life is stagnant at best or economically challenging for those below the top, and that also drives this fervour of investment in kids. We can't expect schools to impute all this knowledge. We know from the research that investments at home in time, energy and from birth and before are what actually develop kids who are successful in terms of this knowledge economy."
Conley took a scientist's approach to raising his children to make the most of his investment. As he describes in his book, he studied up on most major parenting decisions.
When should you have children?
Have your child in autumn and when birth rates are low. Studies have shown that children born in autumn live the longest, in both the southern and northern hemispheres.
Traditionally, mothers who gave birth in autumn had plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables throughout most of their pregnancy; another reason could also be that winter/spring babies are generally exposed to more germs. While Conley isn't sure if the logic still applies in an age when we import fresh fruit year-round, the benefit is too strong – the effect of birth season can still be seen at age 50 – to ignore.
And the other element of his advice?
Children from small birth cohorts tend to have more opportunities in life due to less competition. (The jury is out on the benefits of a child being one of the oldest in their class. While initially thought to give an edge, other research posits that it only provides a benefit during the early years, and that those who are young for their grade benefit from being around older peers.)
How many kids should you have?
"One of the most robust findings in sociology is the inverse relationship between quality and quantity of kids. That's a little harsh, but having more kids makes each kid, on average, worse off health-wise and academically," says Conley. "Everything a parent has to offer a kid is a fixed pie, despite what people say about how 'My love is not a pie' or 'It expands for each kid.' But homework checks and bedtime reading and emotional aid and regulation and all the things that matter in this economy are time-limited."
So, if Emma needs a maths tutor, that's a different equation than if Emma needs a maths tutor, Owen must take a course, Joe's school fees are due and Ava wants money for camp. But, says Conley, the number of children you have is one of many factors: "If you want four kids, go ahead. They're not going to be doomed, but we do know it's not costless."
How far apart should you have them?
The effects of spacing are less clear than the number of kids, but the general guideline is: further, rather than closer. "Here's an example where I did the wrong thing," says Conley. "My kids are 18 months apart." The closer they are, the worse they do educationally and economically later in life. If you have kids six, seven or more years apart, the attention and financial resources you can devote to each one are greater.
What should you name them?
"We named our kids very unusual names," says Conley, who named his daughter E (which was supposed to allow her to choose any "E" name that she liked, such as Emily or Ellen) and his son Yo (this name was meant to confound expectations since it is a Chinese name for a white boy whose full name, Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles, set a record for the longest in New York City files).
"Early research thought that was a bad idea, that people with unusual names were disproportionately over-represented in mental institutions and prisons. But later research showed that among well-off families, people with unusual names were more likely to be in Who's Who."
While Conley surmises that a child's name is one of the smallest factors influencing future success, he does say that in the US, children with African-American-sounding names are disadvantaged due to racism, and that boys with feminine names tend to have problems in school once they hit puberty.
"Giving your kid an unusual name is like putting it all on one horse or one roulette number – it's a more risky strategy," says Conley. "It could pay off in that they learn more impulse control, or people remember their name easier. Or it could lead them to feel different and unaccepted in a bad way."
Should Mum work?
Yes, it's annoying that this question still, in this day and age, focuses on Mum and not Dad. But, that aside, the short answer is, it depends.
"The net effect for lower socio-economic families of putting a kid in early education programs, in quality daycare, is that it's better for the kid and more cognitively stimulating," says Conley. But if the mother is highly educated, then giving the kid to a babysitter who's less educated, or putting them in a group-care setting, is less advantageous. The catch-22, he says, is that if you're highly educated you have more job opportunities, so it may not make financial sense for you to stop working to raise your child.
Some studies show that when both parents work, the offspring have more gender-equal outcomes economically, says Conley. But, he adds, "What's good for your kids at a young age may be quite different to what's good for your kid 10 years later ... and having two role models may be better than having somebody at home all the time."
As this question involves economic pressures particular to each family, Conley says there isn't one right answer.
Private or public school?
It doesn't matter. Some studies do show that class size and student-teacher ratio are important – the lower the better, says Conley. But studies of children randomly assigned to private schools through lotteries showed no benefit after the first year.
"Literally, families will move to a better school district or prep their kids – and I did this – to get into a 'magnet school', or they'll shell out a lot of money for their kids to go to private school, but I really believe it's like Pascal's wager: 'I'm going to believe in God just in case.' The research really doesn't show that reorganising our lives around what school our kid goes to matters all that much, but we do it just in case."
Should you bribe your children?
Maybe. Conley bribed his, but selectively. He paid his kids in gummy bears and video-game-playing time when they did maths problems. The risk was that he might have been eroding their "intrinsic motivation", but Conley decided that since he began with this system, he couldn't risk abandoning it. He also felt their intrinsic motivation to do maths was so low anyway that he needn't worry about eroding what hardly existed in the first place. In contrast, he would never offer them incentives to read more because they were already avid readers.
Research shows that when kids given cash payments had them removed, their academic motivation didn't dip. But that didn't make Conley feel comfortable enough to stop the maths bribes.
How should you handle attention deficit disorders?
Medication should be a last resort, which, for Conley, meant trying incentives, bribes and a placebo instead. "You could say, yes, the whole system is screwed up," says Conley, "and boys are over-represented in the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder group, and the educational system is not meant for boys who have more fidgety energy, and we'd need to have PE twice a day so they could burn off energy, we could have standing desks – you could change the whole system.
"When it was an industrial economy and you could make a living in a factory, education wasn't that important. But today, even if you work in a factory, you have to know how to do a lot of maths. So, there's more that kids need to learn and more that they cram into their heads every day for the first 18 or more years of their lives. And we need them to sit still for that."
Of his son, Conley says, "I resisted [giving him medication] as long as I could, but when he was going to be thrown out of his school, you buckle." Other families might make a different choice, as Conley's own mother did when he was diagnosed with ADHD as a child and she refused him medication.
Should you get divorced?
While the answer probably resides in your relationship, many couples do worry about the impact of divorce on the children. Conley writes that studies show the "eldest female child was the most disadvantaged kid in the aftermath of a divorce because of the added, adult roles she tended to take on". Also, that the children of divorcees are more likely to marry earlier and to pursue less education than if their parents had stayed together.
Conley decided that since he and his wife were getting divorced, all he could do was actively intervene, ensuring his daughter didn't take on too many household responsibilities, and that his kids stay in school as long as possible.
Still, when it comes down to it, he says, none of the above matters that much. The most important guideline is to make actions speak louder than words – to engage with your children in ways that show them you love them.