Making a (mis-spent?) buck out of parental guilt

We all want “the best” for our children. From their birth, we hold firm to beliefs and promises that it is our job to provide our children with “the best”. But “the best” in what way?
A common interpretation seems to be “the best” in terms of early exposure to “enrichment activities” that will stimulate their development and give them some kind of intellectual edge. This decade has seen an explosion in parents enrolling young children in various types of early learning programs and activities. They are marketed as ways to enhance brain development (whilst having fun) in order to set kids up to succeed later in life intellectually, which, in turn has implications for their careers and financial security (all that we as parents wish for our children). Programs and activities we might not have participated in until we were well into our primary school years (e.g., music, art, drama, dancing, soccer, swimming to name just a few) are now offered to children as young as 6-12 months of age. Parents are feeling pressured or guilt driven by the notion that if they don’t spend their time and money “enriching” their child’s early development, then they might miss the boat of successful child rearing and fail as a parent. Anyone want to be the parent that let’s their child “fall behind” by not attending? Of course not! So, these subtle, sometimes semi-conscious worries we have are live game for marketing slogans like those in the activity cost tally below:

A sample term’s tally of enrichment activities for a 2 year old

Slogan Approximate activity cost per term
“Enrich your child’s early learning experiences” $230 per term at a Kindy-Gym
“Help your child develop a healthier brain ready for school learning” $250 per term at a music group
“Stimulate your child’s early motor development and co ordination” $190 per term in toddler soccer or dancing classes
“Enhance your child’s confidence and self esteem” $175 per term in drama groups.
“Facilitate your child’s creativity, which is a pre-cursor to later cognitive development” $145 per term in art classes
TOTAL $990 per term

Even the process of purchasing first toys for a baby has become a critical decision that we can agonise over in case it has life-long impact. E.g., Buy this wiz-bang musical toy that lights up and tells you the alphabet in 5 languages and you might be helping your child’s brain connectivity, a sure way to help with their University entrance marks in 18 years’ time!
The real question is, do our children for whom we are exhausting our time and finances trying to provide “the best”, also think that these experiences are what is “best for them?” And, do they matter in terms of their long-term happiness and resilience?
Well, here are two interesting facts that shed light on what our kids really want and think:

Fact one:

A study this year from the London School of Economics has indicated that what best predicts our children’s satisfaction (i.e., happiness) as adults is their emotional health not academic success or wealth. The study’s lead author, Lord Richard Layard, Emeritus Professor and his colleagues found, “By far the most important predictor of adult life-satisfaction is emotional health, both in childhood and subsequently.” “We find that the intellectual performance of a child is the least important childhood predictor of life-satisfaction as an adult.” stated Lord Layard (Doward, 2014; Layard et al., 2014).
Yes, you read that right. The LEAST important predictor was intellectual performance! So much for all the neural connections I have been spending time and money trying to stimulate in my 4 year old and 15 month old!

Fact two:

A report on 13th June 2014 from Kids Helpline, Australia’s only 24/7 counselling and support service for children and young people, revealed a nearly 10% increase in calls in the past 2 years. Mental health was the number one difficulty cited among callers ranging in age from 5-18. Yes, children as young as 5 are suffering with mental health difficulties! The top four issues (in order) amongst the callers were:

  • Mental health concerns
  • Family relationships
  • Emotional wellbeing
  • Suicide-related concerns

43% of children and young people who received counselling from the service last year were experiencing suicidality. Almost one in five counselling contacts were with children and young people seeking help about family relationships (Kids Helpline Media Release, 2014).
Putting it simply, fact two above tells us that, basically, our children are feeling less connected to us/ their family and this is contributing to greater mental health concerns. Again, what about the time I am spending with my children taking them to all of the activities they engage in?
If we consider facts one and two together, then it sounds like our children are telling us what is “best” for them is that we spend time with them and, our connection with them is enough enrichment! Low and behold, time spent ferrying them around from one early learning activity to the next; possibly mis-spending our money out of guilt; and certainly exhausting ourselves as parents is not doing it for our kids.
Yet, let’s be honest. If tomorrow, we read in a top children’s magazine that there is a new super-duper enrichment program for children called, “Spend Time with Your Kids” would we spend our time and energy in the same way we have been enrolling them in other activities and programs?
I know I was definitely convinced by the idea that spending my time and money on my eldest son’s soccer sessions (from before 2 years of age!) and a music exposure group (from before 3 years of age!) would be stimulating him and “good for his development”. Even though I know he enjoyed all of those “enriching experiences” I also know that between ferrying him to all of them, my own work commitments and the daily grind of running a household, I have had most of my conversations with him through the rear view mirror of our car.
It made me wonder, (not that I want to add further to our sense of guilt):
How often do I engage my children in face to face conversation?
When was the last time we ate dinner together as a family?
When did I last read to my children giving them undivided attention rather than doing so on auto-pilot whilst I thought about the household tasks I had to complete once they are asleep?
When do I spend 10 to 15 minutes of one-on-one, UNDIVIDED attention with my children?
Well, my son answered one of those questions for me when he said two weeks ago, “Mummy, I have a great idea! Let’s eat together tonight as a family, I love it when we do that.”
Then, an even greater reminder came two nights ago while putting the same child to bed (aka trying to get him to fall asleep as fast as possible so I can get back to checking my emails or complete house chores done for the day). He’d been in and out of bed a couple of times with the usual list of excuses to stay up and spend more time with me like “I need water” and “My toe nail seems to be hurting”. Eventually, I gave up on sending him back to bed from my position at the computer and actually walked back in with him. When he got into bed he said, Mummy, you forgot to sing my bed time song tonight. I want to sing this one:
“I love you.
You love me.
We’re a happy family.
With a great big hug and a kiss from me to you.
Won’t you say you love me too?”
Hmmmm, out of the mouths of babes…
So, will I continue to take my son to his soccer group with his friends at the park next term? Probably. But, I might not agonise so much over what toys I buy my kids for Christmas for fear that I might fail them intellectually. I might not find new enrichment activities for my children during the school holidays. And, instead, with their emotional health in mind, and the knowledge that the time I spend with them is even more important for their emotional wellbeing than any program I have paid for to date, I might plan to take them to the park myself on the weekend and kick the ball around, just me and them.


  • Dward, J. (2014, November 09). Emotional health in childhood ‘is the key to future happiness’. Retrieved from:
  • Kids Helpline (2014, June 13). Kids Helpline reveals mental health concerns as number one issue amongst children and young people. Retrieved from
  • Layard, R., Clark, A. E., Cornaglia, F., Powdthavee, N. & Vernoit, J. (2014). What predicts a successful life? A life-course model of well-being. The Economic Journal. 124, 720-738.