Tag Archives: children

How much do kids cost? The first 5 years

We did an estimate on how much our first year of having a baby cost. Four years and another baby later, we decided to do an update on how much the first five years have cost.

TL;DR: Over 5 years we’ve spent about $106,760 in cash, or about $150,000 including lost earnings. By far the biggest costs for us were housing, childcare, and lost wages of a stay-at-home parent.

Related posts:
Cost comparison of childcare
How much does it cost to have a baby? (at the one-year mark)
How much does it cost to raise kids? (speculation before we did it)

Total cost over 5 years:

Ok, this graph looks ridiculous because most categories are so much smaller than housing and childcare that you can’t see them, but that’s probably the point. People talk about baby gear and diapers costing money, but they just don’t hold a candle to the big two.

And that’s just counting what we paid in dollars. Here it is with my lost wages (post-tax) included:

So overall we’re about $151,690 short of what our child-free selves might have (assuming we neither donated nor invested the money). We’re also ahead by an unknown number of kisses and games of Lily-burrito.

Monthly averages:

With the exception of buying a house, most of your costs don’t come all at once. So how to the costs actually come each month?

Some costs scale with having a second child and some didn’t. The biggest differences were 1) moving towards more paid childcare 2) moving to a house where each kid had a bedroom, instead of sharing our bedroom as Lily did for the first two years. Of course some of this is more affected by the passing time than by adding additional children — if we’d had just one child, we still would have moved her out of our bedroom around that time.

Chart with numbers

What’s in the categories:

  • Housing: this is kind of pretend, because we actually built two extra rooms onto our house, which had a high up-front cost but will be useful for years and will eventually make the house sell for more. I’m instead substituting the cost at which we currently rent our spare bedroom ($900/month times 2 bedrooms). Lily got her own room around age 2 and Anna got hers around age 1, but I’m prorating it equally between them. This is one where you’ll be able to work out pretty easily what an extra bedroom costs where you live. Remember that your housing size won’t scale with your family size unless you move to a larger place every time you have a baby, so you’ll likely have some crowded years or some spare space.
  • Childcare: payments to daycare providers, payments to nannies, au pair costs (stipend, agency fees, room, food, utilities, phone, and transit). The cost of the au pair room is estimated in the same way as the kids’ rooms above. Duplicate childcare while traveling (when either parent takes one child with them on a work trip).
  • Food: additional food while Julia was pregnant and nursing. Minimal food during child’s first year. When we split food costs with housemates, we started counting the kids at half an adult share when they turned 1. This is probably an overestimate of what they eat.
  • Health insurance: increase over what we paid for 2 of us to be on health insurance from Jeff’s work.
  • Gear/nursery: cribs, rocking chair, stroller, etc.
  • Hygiene/medical: diapers, bottle-feeding supplies, medicine, dentistry, vitamins, copays on medical appointments.
  • Other: travel, toys, books.
  • Education: books and materials for doing home preschool with Lily, and a summer program.
  • Clothes: mostly from thrift stores or Swap.com.
  • Julia: maternity and nursing clothes. The fact that I even thought this would be a significant category when we started tracking shows how vague my idea of our future expenses was.

More on lost wages:

During 2014-2017 I worked 2434 fewer hours, or about 60 fewer full weeks, than I expect I would have. After Lily’s birth I used my 13 days of vacation and sick time I’d hoarded from my social work job, and then quit and returned 5 months later. Lily lasted 3 weeks in daycare before getting kicked out because she wouldn’t drink milk for anyone but us (who knew that was a thing? To be fair, it’s unusual and your kid will probably be fine in daycare). So Jeff moved his schedule earlier, I worked evenings and weekends, and between us we took care of Lily constantly while working the equivalent of 1.6 jobs. More on that period. When she was 18 months we switched her to 4 days a week in daycare, and I worked 4 days and 2 evenings a week.

With Anna, we had a more normal setup. I took 7 weeks unpaid maternity leave, Jeff took 10 weeks paid paternity leave, and then both children were cared for by a nanny or au pair. Cost comparison of childcare arrangements we considered.

Things that may change your costs:

  • Paid parental leave: Both times Jeff got 12 weeks paid leave and I got none. This is better than what most Americans get, but not so good by world standards.
  • Opportunity cost: If a parent earning a lot takes unpaid leave or reduced hours, it’s a bigger difference from your previous income. If the parent wasn’t earning that much, it’s a smaller difference. If you’re in a field where taking extended leave will hurt your chance of promotion, etc, that’s an additional loss.
  • Cost of childcare in your area: Boston has one of the highest childcare costs in the country, which is why an au pair (with nationally standardized costs) was the cheapest option once we had two kids. I don’t really understand why it varies so much by region. Also, different types of childcare vary in cost, quality, and convenience.
  • Cost of living in your area: There are many places (including cheaper areas of our city) where a spare room costs less than $900/month, and some where it costs more.
  • Sharing rooms: We could have moved to a three-bedroom place before having kids, which would have increased our costs. Or we could have stayed in a smaller space for longer — children having their own bedrooms has been unusual historically. But extended room-sharing means extended night feedings and (at least in our experience) more disrupted sleep for everyone. That’s one thing if you don’t need to do a lot of mental work during the day, but chronic sleep deprivation is no joke if your job requires you to think clearly. There are also other ways around this (baby in the bedroom and parents sleeping in the living room seems to happen a lot in San Francisco). Having children share with each other is another common option.
  • Buying more or less stuff: We’ve kept costs pretty minimal here by buying used toys and clothes. Swap.com and similar sites are excellent for this.
  • Preschool: we opted for minimal paid preschool because we were already paying for full-time childcare. We could either have put the kids in a daycare (the more expensive of which include preschool programming) or paid for Lily to go to morning preschool on top of the childcare we already had. The difference is whether someone is basically watching the kids play, vs. leading more organized group activities and having them learn letters, basic math, prewriting skills, etc.
  • Vehicle: We have never owned a car, so kids really haven’t changed our transportation expenses. This is a cost to consider.
  • Travel: The trips we take are now more expensive, but we take fewer of them, so I think this about evens out.
  • Health insurance: Costs would be lower in a country with free health care, or higher if you don’t have an employer that covers as much of insurance costs as Jeff’s does.
  • Health needs: children with special needs (medical, emotional, behavioral) need more of your time and more money for medical copays, services that aren’t covered by insurance, childcare that can handle their needs, etc.

How I want you to use this information:
To think about how much it may cost you or others to raise children. I particularly advise saving money before you have kids.

How I do not want you to use this information:
To criticize my family for our lifestyle or financial choices.

Hardly anyone publishes their budget. Please don’t disincentivize that.

Parenting philosophy

Jeff’s been talking about predictable parenting on his blog. This is probably the parenting principle that’s most important to him. I decided to write down the principles that I find most important.

Biodeterminism

I’ve been influenced a lot by the research that short-term gains in children usually come out in the wash by the time they’re adults — e.g. that identical twins raised separately will respond to different environments as children, but will basically converge on things like IQ and other characteristics as adults. So I try to focus on what makes life better in the short and medium term rather than trying to mold my children’s personalities or futures. Most of that is already done by genetics.

This has meant we’ve prioritized having a relaxed schedule over educational activities. I’m not so sure that the evidence on education later on matches up with this approach, but at least in the preschool years I think basically doing what’s easiest for the family is best.

Influences:

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

Emotions

My strategy involves a lot of acknowledging the child’s emotions. This is both from working as a therapist, and from How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk.

I also try to acknowledge my own emotions. If I’m sad, I cry in front of them. If I get hurt, I yell in pain and accept cuddles to feel better. I also try to emphasize the continuity of love (I still love you even when I’m tired and grumpy, even when I’m mad about something you did.)

I get a lot of mileage out of the “engage with desires and fantasies” tactic:

Lily: I want to be a ballerina.
Me (inside voice): Send you into that nest of perfectionism and eating disorders? Like hell I will.
Me (outside voice): It’s fun to think about being a ballerina, huh?
Lily: Yeah!

Influences:

Happiest Toddler on the Block: Not worth reading the full book. The summary is that toddlers tantrum largely because they can’t verbally express their emotions, and if they feel understood (by you verbalizing the strong emotions they’re feeling, or giving them another way to express emotion like scribbling) they can often calm down.

How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk: This one is worth reading in full, but you could get a lot of the benefit just from paging through the cartoons that illustrate the principles.

Mr Roger’s Neighborhood and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: this stuff is straight out of person-centered therapy, emphasizing empathy and unconditional positive regard. Rather than being knowledge-focused like other kids’ shows, they focus on social and emotional skills, emphasizing that children’s emotions are acceptable and that they can learn ways to manage them.

Discipline

The backbone of this is what Jeff wrote about being predictable and consistent. The kids generally know what to expect from us and I think are better-behaved in general as a result (e.g. they don’t do much whining after we’ve said no to something, because we try to say yes a lot, and when we say no they know we mean it.) I’ll repeat Jeff’s point that this pays off, but takes an ongoing investment of willpower from the parents, and is generally harder when you don’t have the time or energy.

As far as what to do when that doesn’t work, this is one that I think varies a lot by the kids’ needs and caregivers’ needs. We use timeouts anywhere from a few times a week to every couple of weeks, depending on how things are going. The kids know what it means when we start to count to three, and usually do what we’re asking without it coming to a timeout.

I see one purpose of discipline as anger management for the parent. Timeout is not just for the child — it’s also so the parent who just got bitten has three minutes away from the child to get a grip on their anger. I like the philosophy behind non-coercive methods, but the reality is that since we started using timeout, I basically don’t yell at the kids anymore and don’t feel frightened that I’m going to physically yank them around. It helps me be in control of myself, and I think that’s ultimately better for all of us.

I also think that a lot of people who had bad experiences as children with coercive discipline were subjected to discipline that was unpredictable or cruel, or who generally didn’t feel secure in their parents’ love. I think the occasional timeout doesn’t do that kind of damage to our relationship because it’s fairly applied, and because the kids have a secure attachment and are sure of our love.

Resources:

1-2-3 Magic, about how to implement a timeout method

Responsibility:

I was influenced by this piece by an anarchist mother. I was expecting anarchist parenting to be about total freedom, but her approach is more about teaching children to contribute: “Interdependence, not independence. We all need each other, in society and in a family, and we all play very important roles. We remind the kids all the time that they are very important members of our family “community” and that they are necessary for our family to function. . . . One of my greatest fears is that my kids grow up to be one of those people who live in community houses and don’t do their dishes! Kidding. (Not kidding.)”

I think this is more salient to us because we’ve always raised our kids in households with other adults. We’ve tried to teach them early that other people’s needs must be considered. You cannot shout at 7 am not because I set an arbitrary rule, but because Ange is sleeping in the next room.

Influences:

Parenting, Anti-Capitalist Style

Discrimination

My understanding is that 1) while families of color need to talk about racism, white families prefer to not talk about race at all, or if so to only use a colorblind approach, emphasizing that everyone is the same. 2) This approach does not work. It results in white children concluding that differences do exist, and that the differences must be bad.

I try to talk (at least with my older child) about how some people are mean to others because they look different, and this is bad. She’s heard from her au pair about some ways people have treated her unkindly because she comes from another country. We’ve started to talk about our country’s history of slavery and racism. At the library, I try to pick out books that show children of color just being kids (a favorite is When’s My Birthday?) rather than being victims of racism. Later on we’ll read books like Amazing Grace that address discrimination and show children transcending it.

I’m currently not introducing the kids to materials explicitly about sexism. There are a ton of children’s stories out there about princesses rebelling from expectations that they be pretty and quiet. I avoid these because I basically want my girls to go as long as possible without understanding these stereotypes.

I try to expose Lily to examples of things women can do without hanging a lampshade on the fact that they’re women. E.g. when she was interested in being a “rocket girl,” we looked at this website and talked through the different careers in the space industry without calling attention to the fact that all the examples were women.

I’m not 100% sure about this strategy, but I’m planning to wait on inoculation until closer to when I think they’re starting to hear sexist messages (basically when they go to kindergarten). Inoculation being stuff like, “Some people think girls can’t do X. Isn’t that ridiculous?”

Resources:
Nurtureshock, chapter on “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race”
The Longest Shortest Time podcast on “How to not (accidentally) raise a racist“, largely drawing on the same research.

Autonomy
We let the kids try things that are at the edge of their abilities, including finding things to do when they are bored. We tend toward more free-range parenting than is typical, though we keep a close eye on them around roads and water. Jeff writes about training he did with the kids about staying out of the street. I expect mileage varies a lot here depending on the kid.

This is often more work in the short term, but I hope leads to the kids being better able to solve their own problems.

When they’ve given it a try and genuinely can’t solve the problem, I try to do it in a way that gives them tools they’ll eventually be able to use.

Given the larger-than-expected number of cartoons from “How to Talk so Kids will Listen”, I think you can see how much it influenced me (or spelled out things I already believed.)

How we’re explaining Jesus and Santa Claus

These both seem like hard ones to tackle, so I’m writing down what we’re doing in case it’s helpful to other families.

I’ve told Lily that at Christmas people tell a story about a baby being born. My plan is to continue presenting religious traditions as stories, which she can then choose to get into or not, sort of like some children get really interested in Cinderella and some older people get really interested in the Lord of the Rings.

With two babies in the household, Lily’s naturally interested in stories about babies, particularly when animals are also involved. She’s particularly interested in umbilical cords, so we’ve discussed Jesus’s umbilical cord quite a bit. I made her a pregnant Mary doll, with the baby being presented on Christmas Eve. Lily currently likes to carry him around in her pocket.

dolls

In some ways, explaining Santa was even trickier because other adults really don’t want you to mess up their kids’ belief (whereas people accept that not everybody’s on board with Jesus). I wasn’t interested in deceiving my kids for several reasons:

  • It messes with their sense of reality, particularly when they get old enough to notice some discrepancies and adults are gaslighting them by pretending the evidence they’re noticing is wrong
  • A lot of kids are disappointed when they find out
  • It takes away the credit from those who deserve it. These gifts didn’t come from a far-away stranger, they were made or bought by your own family.
  • It means the child can’t fully participate in gift-giving until they’re let in on the secret. In our large family gatherings, stockings are how we give any presents to anyone outside each nuclear family (so we don’t all need to come up with 27 presents).

So after the older cousins who believe in Santa Claus had gone home, we strung up the stockings (pillowcases pinned to a clothesline across the house, which is the only practical way to do it for all 27 people visiting). I showed Lily the presents I had for other people, and she helped me put them into their stockings.

Yesterday when she asked for a story, I told her the story of St. Nicholas. Well, a simplified version without mentioning dowries or prostitution as in the original.

A long time ago in Turkey there was a kind man named Nicholas. There was a family nearby who had three daughters, and they were very poor and didn’t have enough money for the things they needed. Nicholas wanted to help them, but he wanted to keep it a secret. So one night Nicholas threw a bag of gold down the chimney for the oldest daughter, and it landed in her stocking that was hung up by the fire to dry. The next night he threw a second bag of gold down the chimney for the second daughter. By now the family was very curious about who had been helping them, so the father hid outside the house to see who kept dropping money into the chimney. Sure enough, Nicholas came with a bag of gold for the third daughter, and the family said, “It’s you! Thank you, kind Nicholas, for helping us!” People thought he was so good that they called him a saint, and they called him by the nickname Santa Claus, which means Holy Nicholas. And that’s why we give each other presents in stockings at Christmastime.

Of course, Lily’s primary interest in all this was still in finding and opening her own stocking. found-it

Recognizing problems as temporary

Sometimes a situation becomes worse because you interpret your inclination to do a bad thing as a prediction that you will actually do it. Realizing that it’s possible to successfully get past this feeling has been helpful to me. Three examples I’ve noticed:

  • Several older women in my family speak openly about the times they felt like hurting their babies. It’s been really helpful to hear them—successful matriarchs who have loving relationships with their adult children—say this, and know that wanting to throw your baby at 3 am after six months of sleep deprivation is normal and doesn’t mean you are actually going to do it. It’s reassuring to have the interpretation “I am going to get through this somehow, and in thirty years we’ll all laugh about it” rather than “I am a terrible mother who is actually going to throw this baby.”

    Of course, you also have to take steps to not hurt the baby! Lily’s great-grandmother, when raising kids on an isolated farm, would put the baby in the baby carriage and wheel it out into the field until she couldn’t hear the crying anymore from the house. When she could see the carriage stop shaking, she knew the baby was asleep and would wheel it back within earshot. This is the kind of thing the health pamphlets tell you to do (“step away right away”), but it’s more reassuring to know that your husband’s beloved grandmother did it and not something that only bad parents in pamphlets need to do.

  • Many of the older dancers in my folk dance group have been part of the team since the 1970s or early 80s. Some of them brought their little kids to every event, but others took time off and one central member took about a decade off when she had a child. These days I’d often rather fall into bed as soon as possible than go to practice, and I don’t go to most of the gigs because traveling with baby in tow feels like more trouble than it’s worth. If this were a group with less institutional memory, I’d assume this meant I was drifting away from the team and that it soon wouldn’t be a part of my life anymore. But because I have the model of people rejoining the team after early parenthood, I see this as a temporary and not a permanent separation.
  • A friend noted that sometimes when he feels he wants to sleep forever, he worries a lot about the fact that he’s feeling suicidal. He found that if he takes a nap he usually feels much better, and that the problem is temporary exhaustion more than ongoing suicidality. So now he doesn’t assign much importance to the feeling when it happens.

Cost comparison of childcare

Now that we have two children, the cheapest form of childcare has changed. Double daycare didn’t sound appealing, so we did the math and decided that an au pair was cheapest (see tables below). Jeff’s family used au pairs and were happy with the arrangement. So we’re planning to go ahead with that this coming year.

Au pairs have a connotation of being something only posh people have, perhaps because having live-in help seems like having servants. But the state department is very clear about them not working extra hours or taking on housework beyond what’s child-related, and they’re supposed to be like a family member (“au pair” literally meaning “on par” or “on equal terms” with the family). Jeff’s sister was an au pair and it was something I considered after college, so it’s not as if it’s a one-way stream either.

Pros:

Cultural exchange. The whole reason au pairs don’t make minimum wage is that they are technically having a cultural experience rather than being employees. If you’d like to expose your children to another language and hang out with someone from another country, this might be a nice way to do it. Caveats: the kids I see with Spanish-speaking au pairs or nannies seem to understand Spanish but don’t speak it themselves (they respond in English). Jeff’s father said they preferred au pairs who spoke English as a first language because it made communication easier. I also think childrearing methods vary quite a bit by culture, and there are some cultures that seem pretty low-interaction, which is not what I would want.

Flexibility: An au pair works up to 45 hours a week, and you can schedule the hours anytime during the week (with a max of 10 hours/day and with at least one weekend a month fully off). Because we both travel for work, the ability to have someone watch our children at odd hours as we’re coming and going from the airport sounds good.

You can also have your au pair travel with you (so if I were at a conference for a week, I could potentially bring the kids and the au pair, which would certainly be nicer than being away from my baby for that long. But the cost of extra airfare and lodging means we’ll probably use this very sparingly).

You also don’t have to cram your child into a daycare’s timeframes: no need to drag them out of bed in time for you to leave for work, or to keep them awake or make them lie down because that’s the group schedule. There’s no panic if they’re not potty trained and won’t be allowed into the three-year-old classroom.

Sick days: An au pair doesn’t work when they’re sick, but they can work when the kids are sick. (With a daycare, the kid can’t be there when they’re sick or for 24 hours afterward.) Since little kids get sick more often than adults, we expect this will mean we miss less work caring for a sick child. Also, snow days, which we have a reasonable number of in Boston.

No commute: having care in our own home is huge for us. When we took Lily to daycare every day, it added about 90 minutes to our days (because you have to manage a child’s commute in addition to your own).

Less stress for children: At home, young children’s level of cortisol (a stress hormone) peaks in the morning and falls throughout the day. At daycare, many children’s levels rise again during the middle of the day. (Caveat: I couldn’t find out whether in-home care with a non-family caregiver matches the home pattern or the daycare pattern, but I’m assuming it’s closer to being home with your family on a weekend.) It’s not clear that this has any long-term effects, but it seems plausible to me that it does.

Cons:

Socialization: It takes extra effort to get socialization for the children because they’re not already in a group setting. For a baby or young toddler, I don’t think this is a problem, but for older kids you could potentially be looking at the cost of preschool on top of an au pair. But I think it’s possible to supplement with visits to library story hours, play groups, etc. Certainly most children throughout humanity have been reared primarily in their own (extended) families rather than in a classroom-type setting.

Privacy: An extra person in your household brings more possibility of conflict and awkwardness.

Inexperience: I know 19-year-olds can be clueless, because I cringe at some of the mistakes I made at that age working in daycares or as a babysitter.

Year-long schedule: If you end up with someone who’s a bad fit for your family, you’re kind of stuck unless you want to pay the fee to re-match. Also if you no longer need childcare (say one parent is unemployed for a few months) you’re still paying for it. But this is true in the better daycares, too.

Unpredictability: The au pair can decide to buy a flight home any time (edit January 2017: ours did this with less than a week’s notice). Young adults who have never lived away from home before are not known for their consistency. There are also factors beyond their control: their visa application could be delayed. They could have a family emergency and need to return home. Trump has mentioned getting rid of the J-1 visa that au pairs use, so who knows whether he’ll follow through on that.
A daycare could also close or lose its license, particularly if it’s a home daycare that relies on a single person, but I’m guessing it’s less likely.

Housing: You need an extra bedroom. If you have the flexibility to rent a larger space this may be fine, but for people who own condos or houses it may not work. In our case, it was possible to build an extra bedroom, which we’re happy to do because we’d like to have a spare room after we’re done having au pairs.

Transportation: If the au pair will need to drive, adding them to your car insurance (and getting another car, as some families do) would add extra cost. In our case, we’re near the subway and don’t own a car, so the transportation cost is just a public transit pass.

Monthly costs in Boston area using public transit:

Au pair

Au pair stipend and agency fees: $1620
Rent: $770 (based on renting a four-bedroom vs. a three-bedroom apartment in my neighborhood)
Utilities (including cell phone): $65
Food: $200
Worker’s comp: $30
Misc spending (museum admissions, public transit pass, etc.): $100
Total $2785

Daycare (this varies a lot but is based on the daycare Lily went to)

Infant in daycare with sibling discount $1794
Toddler in daycare $1885
Total $3679

Nanny 

$20/hour (more if withholding tax and social security), 45 hours/week $3900
Worker’s comp: $30
Food, museum passes, etc. $100
Total $4030

Babywearing around the world

My new daughter, Anna, is one month old. I may have acquired a few too many baby carriers last time (six), but I’m enjoying them now. After babywearing went out of fashion in the western world, I’m glad to be living in a time when it’s back. I can’t imagine getting stuff done without it, particularly when your child is sick and wants to be held all the time.

I love seeing different ways people wear children:

ethiopia

Ethiopia

1940s, Greenland. Inuit women have used an amauti, a parka with a pouch in back for the baby.

Cameroon

Cameroon

hmong vietnam

Children can wear babies, too. Hmong siblings, Vietnam.

hockey

Jack Wembly of the Wembley Monarchs ice hockey team, in 1937 with a very uncomfortable-looking sling he and his wife invented to carry their baby onto the ice.

java

Java

United States

mali

Mali

sacagawea

The US is the only nation to depict babywearing on its currency.

double

Two at once

mexico

Mexico – she can feed her baby on the go!

Wales, c. 1905.

Wales, c. 1905.

rabbit

Lily using a ring sling for rabbitwearing.

Gift ideas for young children

If you’re the kind of person who already has toys and outfits picked out that you want to give your friends who have babies, you don’t need this post. This is for people who have no idea what a one-year-old likes and need to give their nephew something.

There are some kinds of presents I think you should avoid unless parents request them:

  1. Presents that imply a particular parenting strategy—the baby carrier you loved may not work for parents who want to use a stroller, or vice versa, and then they’ll feel weird for not using it.
  2. Presents that make electronic noises, because the child will find them fascinating long after the parents have lost their minds. (Jeff has been known to cut the wires in such cases.)
  3. Toys that take up a lot of space.

So here are some ideas:

0-1:

  • Really, presents at this age are mostly for the parents, so pretty much get them anything they requested.
  • Default for baby shower: A gift certificate to Target, Amazon, or whatever the big-box store is near you. My sister said she was apprehensive about giving a gift card to a friend, until the friend breathed, “Oh my God, thank you, we’re so broke.”
  • Clothes for 9-month-olds. Everyone gives you 0-6 month clothes when your baby is born and after that you’re on your own. Think ahead to what the weather will be like in 9 months.
  • Balls of various kinds
  • Rattle
  • Grabby things

1-2 years:

  • Stacking rings
  • Pull toy (alligator, caterpillarsnake)  for when they’re walking.
  • Bath toys: I really like these whale scoops and duck scoops.
  • Sidewalk chalk
  • Large rubber balls like they sell at the dollar store
  • Blocks
  • Books: Kids this age aren’t so good at following a storyline, particularly if the pictures are of the same characters talking to each other over and over. Lily has loved books with pictures of different objects, pictures of babies, and pictures of animals. Goodnight Gorilla has enough animals to be interesting to kids with no understanding of plot, and a plot illustrated rather than told so Lily can follow it at 19 months – “Night night. Key! Open!” (Of course, she also considers the banana integral to the plot, which it is not.) At 20 months she got into Richard Scarry and Sandra Boynton.
  • Some kind of soft animal or doll – lots of kids seem to latch onto a toy they got for their first birthday (Jeff still has his much-repaired polar bear).

After about age 2, I can’t help you yet, but I like the ideas here and here. Also liked these STEM presents for ages 4-12.

Note that we don’t need any of these things because we already have them.

Preventing child sexual abuse

Content: nothing graphic. Discussion of adults not believing children.
I think this is a good thing for non-parents to read too, since neighbors, teachers, and family friends may be in a position to notice something is happening.

Edited to add: I later found the site “Mama Bear Effect” which I think is a good, evidence-based guide to practical actions to reduce risk.

A while ago a relative expressed worry about the possibility that her child might be sexually abused in the future. Other adults in the family assured her that children are very safe nowadays and that there was almost no risk.

As someone who works with sex offenders, and as the parent of a little girl, this question interests me a lot.

I think it’s important to know the actual risks, because in the past programs have been aimed at preventing risks that weren’t particularly likely: stranger rapes by “predators.” You don’t want to frighten people about events that are very unlikely, but you also don’t want to ignore more likely risks.

How common is it?

  • It’s notoriously hard to collect good data on this, but a metastudy concluded that the sexual abuse prevalence rate for girls in the US is 10.7% to 17.4% and the rate for boys is 3.8% to 4.6%. This is for contact abuse only (abuse that involved touching, not something like an adult showing their genitals to a child).
  • Sexual abuse rates seem to be declining, probably because of greater public awareness and less tolerance of abuse.

Characteristics of children at risk:

  • Risk factors, in order of magnitude: being a girl, having low socioeconomic status, and not living with both biological parents (foster children are most at risk). There are racial differences but they all disappear when you control for class and family structure (source). Other risk factors include being socially isolated, not having someone to confide in, having a mother who is dead or mentally ill, and having parents with alcoholism (source).
  • Boys are most at risk as very young children (peaking around age 4), and less at risk as they get older. Girls’ risk peaks once around 4 but rises to a higher peak around 14. Screenshot 2015-07-26 at 11.23.25 AM(source)

Characteristics of perpetrators:

  • Perpetrators are usually a family friend, neighbor, or babysitter. Family members are next most likely, with strangers being fairly unlikely (14%).
  • Different sources estimate that 87% to 95% of perpetrators are male. (source, other source)
  • About a quarter of the time, the perpetrator is under age 18. 14 again seems to be a particularly risky age. I’m not sure how much of this pattern is 14-year-olds assaulting other 14-year-olds (or how much the 14-year-olds would consider consensual, or how much a 14-year-old can consent).

Screenshot 2015-07-26 at 11.28.51 AM(source)

How do you find out?

  • Sexually abused children usually don’t tell anyone during childhood (source).
  •  If children disclose abuse, they are most likely to tell their mothers and adolescents are most likely to tell a friend. Teachers are third most likely. (source) To me, this points to the importance of having a relationship where your children trust you. I’ve heard horror stories from clients about not being believed, or even being beaten, when they told their parents they were being molested. This made no sense to me until I reflected that the abuser was usually a respected person like the mother’s brother or the parish priest. I also think parents are sometimes so overwhelmed by horror at the thought of this happening to their child that they refuse to believe it.
  • Rather than giving one complete disclosure, children often drop a hint, see what the reaction is, and then decide whether to drop more hints. To me, this again underscores the importance of paying attention to what children say and responding sensitively.
  • It’s fairly common for children to recant or change stories after disclosing abuse, presumably because the memories are difficult to deal with or because it’s causing a stressful situation. (Imagine a child who discloses first to a sibling, then to her mother, then to the child protective worker, then to the police investigator, then a taped deposition for the court—she may recant just to make it all stop. Some families choose not to press charges for this reason.) Memory lapses are also a post-traumatic symptom, and it’s possible some children genuinely don’t remember. I have no idea how you tell the difference between the retraction of a false story and a true one, but it’s considered very unlikely that a child would make this up.
  • Sexual drawings and age-inappropriate sexual behavior may be an indication that something has happened.

Protecting children:

These are my personal guesses, not proven strategies. Some other ideas here.

  • Listen to children. Pay attention to their fears and concerns.
  • Drop in unexpectedly when children are alone with an adult or an older child. Offenders are rarely caught in the act but are often caught pushing boundaries.
  • Notice your child’s mood after they have been alone with an adult or older child.
  • If your child seems uncomfortable around someone, err on the side of keeping them apart even if you haven’t gotten to the bottom of the situation.
  • Make clear to children that they will not be blamed for disclosing and that sexual abuse is never children’s fault.
  • Respond with support and love if they disclose something. Let the child know you appreciate their bravery in telling, and that it is now your job to handle the situation. More good tips here and here.
  • If you hear a disclosure, you will probably experience shock, rage, and sadness. Try to stay calm around the child—let them see that you can handle hearing this. Find an adult you can vent to, so the child does not have to take care of your emotions.
  • Respect children’s boundaries. Don’t make them hug or kiss people they don’t want to, even if grandma is expecting it. In a discussion on boundaries at a Quaker community where I lived, one woman recounted that when she asked a six-year-old girl in the community for a hug, the girl answered, “I only hug people in my family.” The woman held this up as healthy development to be celebrated. Teaching children phrases like this, or a simple “No, thanks,” teaches children that it’s fine to refuse unwanted attention.
  • Unfortunately it’s unclear how well any of this works.

Thoughts on parenting, as we begin again

Jeff and I are expecting another baby in February. We expect two children in two years to be a lot of work, but something that we will enjoy in the long run.

A German study on parenting came out recently, which was headlined as “Parenthood is worse than divorce, unemployment — even the death of a partner” despite the study not addressing any of those comparisons. The study actually said that parents who were most unhappy after the birth of their first child were less likely to have a second child, which isn’t exactly surprising. Overall, the research on parenting and happiness is mixed, and I think it makes more sense to focus on factors that make parenting better or worse than to average all parenting experiences into a lump.

My favorite response, by a Swiss woman writing about why Germany is particularly likely to have unhappy parents:

“The German style of parenting is very much still infected with old prussian virtues. The children are supposed to be silent, obedient, perfect mannered and docile which is completely against the nature of babies/toddlers/preschoolers. And if they misbehave it’s always the mothers fault. . . . I am a mother of a lively three year old boy and not one day passes without us facing public hostility. . . . The German mother loses all her social prestige as a mother. Even if she is a double PHD finding a cure for cancer she’s now supposed to stay at home, be content with it and produce high Quality Germans measured on their “Abiturnote”(uni entry exam score). Very similar to Japanese mothers.”

We don’t seem to have come up with a solution to sleep deprivation, which many agree is the worst part of having a baby. There’s a reason it’s used as a torture technique. But social expectations around parenting can certainly make it better or worse. This isn’t the first time I had heard that mothering standards tend to be insanely high in countries with low birthrates (witness the bento box).

Where I live standards aren’t too unreasonable, but I do think we could use less emphasis on cleanliness. Little kids get dirty all the time. It doesn’t bother them. They don’t like to be washed. It doesn’t cause any kind of problem except for their parents. It would save everyone a lot of trouble if we just accepted grubbiness as children’s natural state.

Thinking back on whether Lily has made me more or less happy, I’m not really sure. The extremes are more extreme. I’m dissatisfied with parts of my life and miss things about not being a parent, but before Lily I was dissatisfied with different parts of my life and wanted to have a baby. I think my happiness setpoint just includes some dissatisfaction, and I’ll always find something to be dissatisfied about.

I do think parenting strongly affected my sense of meaning. I remember, in the midst of Boston’s interminable 9-feet-of-snow winter, reading a blog with pictures of the snow combined with Samuel Beckett quotes.

beckett

beckett3

I remember feeling both that the combinations were perfectly apt, and that they had no meaning to me. Those feelings of futility, of pointlessness — they had once been familiar, and now were completely alien. My life, even when unpleasant, always and unquestionably has purpose. Lily’s well-being isn’t my only goal, but it’s the most obvious and ever-present one.

How much should you protect your child?

Before I got pregnant, I read Scott Alexander’s excellent Biodeterminist’s Guide to Parenting and was so excited to have this knowledge. I thought how lucky my child would be to have parents who knew and cared about how to protect her from things that would damage her brain.

Real life, of course, got more complicated. It’s one thing to intend to avoid neurotoxins, but another to arrive at the grandparents’ house and find they’ve just had ant poison sprayed. What do you do then?

Here are some tradeoffs Jeff and I have made between things that are good for children in one way but bad in another, or things that are good for children but really difficult or expensive.

Germs and parasites

The hygiene hypothesis states that lack of exposure to germs and parasites increases risk of auto-immune disease. Our pediatrician recommended letting Lily playing in the dirt for this reason.

While exposure to animal dander and pollution increase asthma later in life, it seems that being exposed to these in the first year of life actually protects against asthma. Apparently if you’re going to live in a house with roaches, you should do it in the first year or not at all.

Except some stuff in dirt is actually bad for you.

Scott writes:

Parasite-infestedness of an area correlates with national IQ at about r = -0.82. The same is true of US states, with a slightly reduced correlation coefficient of -0.67 (p<0.0001). . . . When an area eliminates parasites (like the US did for malaria and hookworm in the early 1900s) the IQ for the area goes up at about the right time.

Living with cats as a child seems to increase risk of schizophrenia, apparently via toxoplasmosis. But in order to catch toxoplasmosis from a cat, you have to eat its feces during the two weeks after it first becomes infected (which it’s most likely to do by eating birds or rodents carrying the disease). This makes me guess that most kids get it through tasting a handful of cat litter, dirt from the yard, or sand from the sandbox rather than simply through cat ownership. We live with indoor cats who don’t seem to be mousers, so I’m not concerned about them giving anyone toxoplasmosis. If we build Lily a sandbox, we’ll keep it covered when not in use.

The evidence is mixed about whether infections like colds during the first year of life increase or decrease your risk of asthma later. After the newborn period, we defaulted to being pretty casual about germ exposure.

Toxins in buildings

Our experiences with lead (and lessons learned about how to reduce risk). Our experiences with mercury.

In some areas, it’s not that feasible to live in a house with zero lead. We live in Boston, where 87% of the housing was built before lead paint was banned. Even in a new building, we’d need to go far out of town before reaching soil that wasn’t near where a lead-painted building had been.

It is possible to do some renovations without exposing kids to lead. Jeff recently did some demolition of walls with lead paint, very carefully sealed off and cleaned up, while Lily and I spent the day elsewhere. Afterwards her lead level was no higher than it had been.

But Jeff got serious lead poisoning as a toddler while his parents did major renovations on their old house. If I didn’t think I could keep the child away from the dust, I wouldn’t renovate.

Recently a house across the street from us was gutted, with workers throwing debris out the windows and creating big plumes of dust (presumably lead-laden) that blew all down the street. Later I realized I should have called city building inspection services, which would have at least made them carry the debris into the dumpster instead of throwing it from the second story.

Floor varnish releases formaldehyde and other nasties as it cures. We kept Lily out of the house for a few weeks after Jeff redid the floors. We found it worthwhile to pay rent at our previous house in order to not have to live in the new house while this kind of work was happening.

Pressure-treated wood was treated with arsenic and chromium until around 2004 in the US. It often has a greenish tint, though it may not be obvious after fading or staining. Playing on playsets or decks made of such wood increases children’s cancer risk. It should not be used for furniture (I thought this would be obvious, but apparently it wasn’t to some of my handyman relatives).

I found it difficult to know how to deal with fresh paint and other fumes in my building at work while I was pregnant. Women of reproductive age have a heightened sense of smell, and many pregnant women have heightened aversion to smells, so you can literally smell things some of your coworkers can’t (or don’t mind). The most critical period of development is during the first trimester, when most women aren’t telling the world they’re pregnant (because it’s also the time when a miscarriage is most likely, and if you do lose the pregnancy you might not want to have to tell everyone). During that period, I found it difficult to explain why I was concerned about the fumes from the roofing adhesive being used in our building. I didn’t want to seem like a princess who thought she was too good to work in conditions that everybody else found acceptable. (After I told them I was pregnant, my coworkers were very understanding about such things.)

Food

Recommendations usually focus on what you should eat during pregnancy, but obviously children’s brain development doesn’t stop there. I’ve opted to take precautions with the food Lily and I eat for as long as I’m nursing her.

Claims that pesticide residues are poisoning children scare me, although most scientists seem to think the paper cited is overblown. Other sources say the levels of pesticides in conventionally grown produce are fine. We buy organic produce at home but eat whatever we’re served elsewhere. [edit: we eventually stopped bothering]

I would love to see a study with families randomly selected to receive organic produce for the first 8 years of the kids’ lives, then looking at IQ and hyperactivity. But no one’s going to do that study because of how expensive 8 years of organic produce would be.
The Biodeterminist’s Guide doesn’t mention PCBs in the section on fish, but fish (particularly farmed salmon) are a major source of these pollutants. They don’t seem to be as bad as mercury, but are neurotoxic. Unfortunately their half-life in the body is around 14 years, so if you have even a vague idea of getting pregnant ever in your life you shouldn’t be eating much farmed salmon (or Atlantic/farmed salmon, bluefish, wild striped bass, white and Atlantic croaker, blackback or winter flounder, summer flounder, or blue crab).

I had the best intentions of eating lots of the right kind of high-omega-3, low-pollutant fish during and after pregnancy. Unfortunately, fish was the only food I developed an aversion to. Now that Lily is eating food on her own, we tried several sources of omega-3 and found that kippered herring was the only success. Lesson: it’s hard to predict what foods kids will eat, so keep trying.
Postscript, 2016: Based on this review, we’ve been giving her a fish-oil supplement which she loves (“More fishy pill!”)

In terms of hassle, I underestimated how long I would be “eating for two” in the sense that anything I put in my body ends up in my child’s body. Counting pre-pregnancy (because mercury has a half-life of around 50 days in the body, so sushi you eat before getting pregnant could still affect your child), pregnancy, breastfeeding, and presuming a second pregnancy, I’ll probably spend about 5 solid years feeding another person via my body, sometimes two children at once. That’s a long time in which you have to consider the effect of every medication, every cup of coffee, every glass of wine on your child. There are hardly any medications considered completely safe during pregnancy and lactation—most things are in Category C, meaning there’s some evidence from animal trials that they may be bad for human children.

Fluoride

Too much fluoride is bad for children’s brains. The CDC recently recommended lowering fluoride levels in municipal water (though apparently because of concerns about tooth discoloration more than neurotoxicity). Around the same time, the American Dental Association began recommending the use of fluoride toothpaste as soon as babies have teeth, rather than waiting until they can rinse and spit.

Cavities are actually a serious problem even in baby teeth, because of the pain and possible infection they cause children. Pulling them messes up the alignment of adult teeth. Drilling on children too young to hold still requires full anesthesia, which is dangerous itself.

But Lily isn’t particularly at risk for cavities. 20% of children get a cavity by age six, and they are disproportionately poor, African-American, and particularly Mexican-American children (presumably because of different diet and less ability to afford dentists). 75% of cavities in children under 5 occur in 8% of the population.

We decided to have Lily brush without toothpaste, avoid juice and other sugary drinks, and see the dentist regularly. We also use a $20 water filter that removes fluoride (we verified with lab tests; I recommend the Maine state lab if you need this kind of thing). Fluoride basically doesn’t pass into breastmilk, but I used it while I was pregnant and will use it when the kids start drinking water instead of mostly milk. [edit, later: I forgot to start doing this once the kids were older]

Home pesticides

One of the most commonly applied insecticides makes kids less smart. This isn’t too surprising, given that it kills insects by disabling their nervous system. But it’s not something you can observe on a small scale, so it’s not surprising that the exterminator I talked to brushed off my questions with “I’ve never heard of a problem!”

If you get carpenter ants in your house, you basically have to choose between poisoning them or letting them structurally damage the house. We’ve only seen a few so far, but if the problem progresses, we plan to:

1) remove any rotting wood in the yard where they could be nesting

2) have the perimeter of the building sprayed

3) place gel bait in areas kids can’t access

4) only then spray poison inside the house.

If we have mice we’ll plan to use mechanical traps rather than poison.

Flame retardants

Since the 1970s, California required a high degree of flame-resistance from furniture. This basically meant that US manufacturers sprayed flame retardant chemicals on anything made of polyurethane foam, such as sofas, rug pads, nursing pillows, and baby mattresses.

The law recently changed, due to growing acknowledgement that the carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals were more dangerous than the fires they were supposed to be preventing. Even firefighters opposed the use of the flame retardants, because when people die in fires it’s usually from smoke inhalation rather than burns, and firefighters don’t want to breathe the smoke from your toxic sofa (which will eventually catch fire even with the flame retardants).

We’ve opted to use furniture from companies that have stopped using flame retardants (like Ikea and others listed here). Apparently futons are okay if they’re stuffed with cotton rather than foam. We also have some pre-1970s furniture that tested clean for flame retardants. You can get foam samples tested for free.

The main vehicle for children ingesting the flame retardants is that it settles into dust on the floor, and children crawl around in the dust. If you don’t want to get rid of your furniture, frequent damp-mopping would probably help.

The standards for mattresses are so stringent that the chemical sprays aren’t generally used, and instead most mattresses are wrapped in a flame-resistant barrier which apparently isn’t toxic. I contacted the companies that made our mattresses, and they’re fine.

Ratings for chemical safety of children’s car seats here.

Thoughts on IQ

A lot of people, when I start talking like this, say things like “Well, I lived in a house with lead paint/played with mercury/etc. and I’m still alive.” And yes, I played with mercury as a child, and Jeff is still one of the smartest people I know even after getting acute lead poisoning as a child.

But I do wonder if my mind would work a little better without the mercury exposure, and if Jeff would have had an easier time in school without the hyperactivity (a symptom of lead exposure). Given the choice between a brain that works a little better and one that works a little worse, who wouldn’t choose the one that works better?

We’ll never know how an individual’s nervous system might have been different with a different childhood. But we can see population-level effects. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, is fine with calculating the expected benefit of making coal plants stop releasing mercury by looking at the expected gains in terms of children’s IQ and increased earnings.

Scott writes:

A 15 to 20 point rise in IQ, which is a little more than you get from supplementing iodine in an iodine-deficient region, is associated with half the chance of living in poverty, going to prison, or being on welfare, and with only one-fifth the chance of dropping out of high-school (“associated with” does not mean “causes”).

Salkever concludes that for each lost IQ point, males experience a 1.93% decrease in lifetime earnings and females experience a 3.23% decrease. If Lily would earn about what I do, saving her one IQ point would save her $1600 a year or $64000 over her career. (And that’s not counting the other benefits she and others will reap from her having a better-functioning mind!) I use that for perspective when making decisions. $64000 would buy a lot of the posh prenatal vitamins that actually contain iodine, or organic food, or alternate housing while we’re fixing up the new house.

Conclusion

There are times when Jeff and I prioritize social relationships over protecting Lily from everything that might harm her physical development. It’s awkward to refuse to go to someone’s house because of the chemicals they use, or to refuse to eat food we’re offered. Social interactions are good for children’s development, and we value those as well as physical safety. And there are times when I’ve had to stop being so careful because I was getting paralyzed by anxiety (literally perched in the rocker with the baby trying not to touch anything after my in-laws scraped lead paint off the outside of the house).

But we also prioritize neurological development more than most parents, and we hope that will have good outcomes for Lily.