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The Globe and Mail

How society glosses over the real cost of raising kids

Father Playing with Son

Fuse/Getty Images/Fuse

Yesterday, I received the $6,000 bill for my son's braces. (The news was broken gently by an assistant in a softly-lit side room, as if a spa setting might reduce the sticker shock. I'm told there's valet parking at a Toronto orthodontist's office, because somehow that makes it better.)

And here I was thinking, after all those years of daycare, kids would get cheaper, at least until university. I am now assured, by parents in the know, that this is not the case. The food! The clothes! The piano lessons!

But braces are a pittance in the big picture. According to American statistics, a child born in 2011 will cost his parents $234,900 by the age of 18, which presumably doesn't even include university. (Or $390,000, if your household income is more than $100,000.)

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This number is smugly quoted by Lauren Sandler, who is making the rounds with a new book that states the case for having one child. She's called it "One and Only: the Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One." And given her piece this week on, her thesis is pretty clear: while the rest of us are foolishly saddled with a duo or trio of kids, she'll be touring the word with her delightfully enriched singleton, the savings in the bank. The sub-head of the piece is "a smaller family means all the joy, less of the crap."

It's not hard to see where she's coming from: she gets told all the time that it's important for kids to have siblings, as if she's selfishly denied her daughter a privilege even more important than riding lessons and world travel.

But when she hammers home the economic argument for having one kid – and it's a strong one, though presumably the financial case for having no kids is even stronger – parental feathers are ruffled. The decision to have kids (and for the record I have two) is a loving endeavour, not a cost-benefit analysis.

It should be both. After all, kids aren't getting cheaper, and the cost still falls hardest on mothers, with clear implications for their own career aspirations and financial independence. There's also the time crunch that a bigger brood creates – namely, in domestic labour, the toll of which was documented recently in a Globe and Mail series.

And, Sandler's right, society does gloss over the cost of kids. (And then, dumps the bulk of those costs on young parents, while fretting about low fertility rates.) Newlyweds negotiate how many children to have and when to have them, but not how to pay for them. "If you express concern about how much children cost," argues Sandler, "then you've clearly got your priorities wrong. You'll make it work, they tell you. Don't be selfish."

She goes on: "What's wrong with devoting your energy to one wonderful kid while sparing some time to travel, maintain friendships, read a novel, and be a more engaged citizen, not to mention not stretching yourself until you snap just to get your work done each week?"

Actually, there's nothing wrong with that. (And, just to be clear, I know a lot of moms with multiple children who are both engaged citizens and read novels.) Unfortunately, Sandler makes her case by taking shots at parents who have more than one kid. This is counterproductive, particularly when she's another eloquent challenge to the archaic notion that there is one ideal kind of family.

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And it misses the bigger picture (bigger than braces, piano lessons, and kid-friendly travel), which is how society, and not just prospective parents, supports the cost and complications borne by families, especially low-income families and single moms, to create the next generation of skilled workers and leaders. So let's talk about how much kids cost. And stop critiquing each other, for when and how we choose to have them.

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