Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg - it's in the teen years that spending really takes off

Dj Taylor
Saturday 30 May 2015 19:02 BST
Today’s children are introduced early to the joys and woes of materialism.
Today’s children are introduced early to the joys and woes of materialism. (Alamy)

Scanning the insurance company Aviva’s recent computation of the cost of bringing up a child here in 2015, I found myself remembering the conversations I used to have a few years ago with my friend Jeremy. The proud father of four school-age progeny, and an MBA to boot, Jeremy had the whole thing – short of earning the actual money, that is – reduced to an exact science. Spreadsheets recorded current and projected expenditure. Devious actuarial calculations came into play. Minute adjustments were periodically introduced to take account of variables with the capacity to nudge the project off course. Occasionally, when one bumped into him in the street, he would raise his head rather gamely and say something like “I’m 52 per cent of the way there”.

If less rigorously pursued and based on much less hard data, conversations like this must go on in every other household in the UK, for, as the Aviva survey confirms in remorseless detail, the price of raising your offspring – formerly no more than an incidental expense – has rapidly metamorphosed into one of the great contemporary outlays. According to the statisticians, the average annual cost of bringing up a child beneath the age of five hovers at just over £7,000, a sum in which toys and games (£639), entertainment (£447), nappies (£572) and family trips (£674) all play their part. There is a special category reserved for “Equipment for schools” (£469), while total nationwide spending on the pre-school generation is put at an eye-watering £28bn.

And this, as the parent of older children will instantly want to remind you, is but the tip of an iceberg. It’s in the teenage years, when the classics department turns out to be touring Greece and the politics class is encouraged to visit Washington DC to further their A-level studies, that expenditure really takes off. Naturally, a fair amount of this increase is attributable to sheer modernity and the increasingly complex lifestyle and working practices of the 21st century. On the one hand, we spend more money on our children because, in the majority of cases, we have more of it to dispose of. On the other, the mothers of the pre-1970s generation went in for washable rather than disposable nappies, reducing that annual £572 to single figures. They also tended not to go out to work, which instantly removes from the bill the £1,140 Aviva has marked down for childcare.

But if, at one level, children are more expensive to nurture because we live in different ways, then, on another, there is clearly something much more elemental going on, with an impact far beyond the cost of several dozen packets of Pampers. One of the reasons, it might be argued, that children have so much more spent on them is that their parents are far more conscious of their status as individuals rather than a series of human chattels ranged around the family hearth. The fathers and mothers of the mid-20th century were not the first people to institute what might be called the cult of the child – many a Victorian, from Dickens to Lewis Carroll, had done that – but they were the first to grant them very much in the way of personal autonomy. The teenager, as Jon Savage reminds us in his excellent study Teenage: The Creation of Youth, scarcely existed until the second third of the 20th century; until as late as the Edwardian era, the majority of “children” were in work before the age of 14.

And to the newfound status of the child can be added the taking up of the child by the post-war forces of consumer materialism, the realisation that not only was more money being spent on children by other people but that they were being given more to spend themselves. All this was in sharp contrast to the cash-strapped 1930s. I remember asking my father (born 1921) what items he could be said to “own” as a teenager, and the answer was not much more than a few books, a solitary football, one or two board games and some back numbers of The Hotspur. Clothing tended to be handed down or run up on a sewing machine, a tradition that endured into the late 1960s, when it wasn’t uncommon to see children playing in the streets in customised versions of adult gear.

But at least as important as status – the relatively new idea that children were important enough to have material resources lavished on them – and the post-war affluence that abetted it, was a fairly recent development in our collective psychology: the final abandonment of that residual native puritanism which derives its greatest satisfaction from not spending money on itself, and reached a high-water mark during the privations of the Second World War. My own childhood, for example, though thoroughly middle class, seems in retrospect to have been determinedly frugal, a matter of Sunday’s joints of meat stretched out into Monday and Tuesday’s high teas and cheap biscuits which lay in the tin for weeks because no child wanted to eat them.

My mother was always commendably upfront about these exercises in what the early Victorian ladies in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford would have called “genteel economy”, which turned out to be a question of upbringing. She was, she always explained, a child of the 1939-45 home front, with its raspberry jam made out of tinted turnip and wooden pips and the miracle of that first post-war banana, and a meal of the kind that people routinely tuck into these days was, to her, the equivalent of the elderly diners grouped wonderingly around the table in Babette’s Feast. But the consequences of this temperamental fear of squandering precious resources never survived the generational transit. Just as I spent my first term at university breakfasting off the hitherto unimaginable luxury of chocolate biscuits, so my own children are the repository of endlessly fisted £10 notes and music magazines, my only excuse for this free-handedness being that it’s a natural reaction to how I myself was brought up.

And if the early 21st century enthusiastically colludes in the cult of the child, so it – perhaps necessarily – colludes in the cult of parenting, a very serious business in which the slightest failings are instantly punished, and fathers and mothers torture themselves over perceived inadequacies in a way that the average Victorian paterfamilias would have thought unutterably bizarre. My colleague Rosie Millard wrote a wonderfully elegiac piece in The Independent last week remembering the day in 1978 when the Lower IVth form at Wimbledon High School were rebuked for dressing up in punk gear for a day trip to Folkestone.

Ms Millard noted that her own children “simply cannot comprehend” how, at the age of 13, their mother was allowed to leave the house adorned with 100 safety pins, a bath plug and accessories borrowed from the family pet. For her own part, she decided that her parents weren’t unusual; it was just how the older generation were in those days. Her conclusion was that “maybe the answer for parents is to be much less bothered about parenting”. But, as the Aviva survey pitilessly reminds us, the cost of parenting is simply too much for any parent to take his, or her, eye off the ball. Curiously enough, we would probably all be better parents if the whole business were cheaper. Meanwhile, Yvette Cooper, with her promise of double the amount of free childcare per week, is definitely on to something. Perhaps she should throw in the spreadsheets as well.

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