Politics & Policy

Stop Stressing About the Kids

Just have more. They’ll be all right.

Bryan Caplan is the anti–Tiger Mom. “Calm down and have more kids” is his message. A professor of economics at George Mason University and a contributor to the EconLog, Caplan is author of the book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. He talks about the kids and the book with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: A child is like a rubber band? That hurts.

BRYAN CAPLAN: Many people take it that way, but I say the glass is half full. Once you accept your limited long-run influence on your child, you can focus on enjoying your journey and living every day together to the fullest.

LOPEZ: How can selfishness ever be good?

CAPLAN: As Adam Smith showed over two centuries ago, selfish behavior often makes the world a better place. My claim is that having more kids is good for you, good for your extra kids, and good for the world. So why not go for it?

LOPEZ: Being a parent is work. Isn’t it just irresponsible to insist otherwise?

CAPLAN: I don’t deny that being a good parent is work. I just say that it’s less work than most people think.

LOPEZ: Is it because we don’t talk about the “fun” aspects of parenting that young people walking the streets of SoHo seem to be much more comfortable not getting married and committing at most to a dog?

CAPLAN: Maybe. Of course, many of these young people are just delaying marriage and children rather than deciding against them.

LOPEZ: You recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “twin research has another far more amazing lesson: With a few exceptions, the effect of parenting on adult outcomes ranges from small to zero.” Surely you exaggerate.

CAPLAN: I do not exaggerate. But don’t take my word for it. With GoogleScholar, you can check most of my references from your home computer. My summary is not controversial among people familiar with the data; the problem is just that people familiar with the data rarely communicate with the broader public.

LOPEZ: Does that mean people need to stop blaming their parents in therapy for all their mistakes and bad habits?

CAPLAN: Absolutely. Parents do have a substantial effect on the parent-child relationship — how their kids feel about and remember them. But parents have little or no effect on overall happiness or personality. If people in therapy had grown up with very different families, they would probably be blaming that family for all their mistakes and bad habits,too.

This is actually widely recognized in modern therapy. There’s been a big shift away from “Tell me about your childhood” to “Tell me about the problems you face right now.”

LOPEZ: Are we not having more kids because we’re stressed by them or because we still think the world is overpopulated? Have you seen New York, Washington, or Los Angeles traffic?

CAPLAN: The stress is the main reason, but some people do feel guilty about contributing to overpopulation. I argue that parents should feel proud, not guilty. The benefits of population far outweigh the costs. And many of these costs are due to bad incentives, not population per se. When you’re stuck in a traffic jam, you shouldn’t think, “There are too many people.” You should think, “Driving during rush hour shouldn’t be free.”

LOPEZ: Dude, having kids is expensive. Even de-stressing. Inflation and all. Still need some basics. That can get pricey.

CAPLAN: I try to tell people things they don’t already know. Everyone already knows that kids cost money; what many don’t know is that a lot of parental spending is a waste of money.

LOPEZ: You write: “Costs fall: The older kids get, the easier they are to care for.” But clothes and a phone and a car and college . . . are you saying we give our kids too much?

CAPLAN: I was mostly thinking of the time commitment. But you don’t need to feel guilty about failing to shower your kids with luxuries. Life itself is your greatest gift to your children. And mild deprivation is no big deal. Kids adopted by rich families are as successful in school and career as kids adopted by lower-middle-class families.

LOPEZ: Why do we do that?

CAPLAN: It’s mostly love — we want our darlings to have the best. But exaggerated fears such as “What if my kid is the only one without a car?” matter, too.

LOPEZ: If we all have more kids . . . can we give them to you when they are teens?

CAPLAN: Sorry, I offer no guarantees.

LOPEZ: Speaking of which: Giving high-school students an egg to carry around is all wrong, isn’t it?

CAPLAN: Probably. The lesson’s supposed to be, “Wait until you’re ready.” But isn’t the deeper message, “Kids will ruin your life”?

LOPEZ: Did the pill similarly mess us up here? Taking kids away from the fertility and relationships equation?

CAPLAN: Fertility started falling long before modern contraception was widely available, and the Baby Boom began the decade after the government gave condoms to G.I.s. So I don’t think so. But in any case, the direct benefits of contraception are enormous. I’d much rather persuade people to want more kids than blame technology for giving people a choice.

LOPEZ: Are genius toys dumb?

CAPLAN: They almost certainly won’t raise adult I.Q. But they might be fun.

LOPEZ: And crying is good?

CAPLAN: No, but it’s not the end of the world, either. If you have to let your kid cry every night for a week to get him to sleep through the night for years, do it.

LOPEZ: And playpens aren’t evil?

CAPLAN: No, but they can get boring.

LOPEZ: And I can take my unborn son off the prep-school waiting list?

CAPLAN: Yes. As I said, kids adopted by rich families don’t do better as adults. So stop stressing about getting an edge on the competition.

LOPEZ: You say that parents have an effect on what religion their kids say they are. But wouldn’t really, truly living moral values and other principles have a profound effect on anyone?

CAPLAN: However profound the effect, it doesn’t last long. Kids, like people in general, are hard to durably change.

LOPEZ: So we should all be the Dugars? Or . . . Jon and Kate, before the minus?

CAPLAN: No. The book’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, not Selfish Reasons to Have Many Kids. I’m not pushing one lifestyle onto everyone, just pointing out overlooked opportunities.

LOPEZ: What is the fascination with big families? Is it the exotic or a secret cultural longing?

CAPLAN: For most people, the former.

LOPEZ: Have you given Brad and Angelina advice?

CAPLAN: No, but I’m available.

LOPEZ: That raises a serious question though: There are kids who need parents. Your book does take a great deal of fear away from adopting, doesn’t it?

CAPLAN: It should. Providing a stable, loving home makes a big difference in a child’s life — especially orphans in the Third World. But the details of how you raise your kids just aren’t that important.

LOPEZ: Are you the anti–Tiger mom?

CAPLAN: Yes. See our exchange in The Guardian.

LOPEZ: Related to the very first question: Considering all you say, is it selfish not to have children, and many of them?

CAPLAN: Both economics and evolutionary psychology tell us to expect everyone to be selfish. It’s human nature, and I see no reason to make an issue out of it. I’d rather provide evidence about smarter ways to pursue your self-interest.

LOPEZ: What made you a twin expert before you ever knew you and your wife would be having a set?

CAPLAN: Idle curiosity.

LOPEZ: What’s the coolest part of having twins?

CAPLAN: Getting to raise two best friends.

LOPEZ: What have you learned since writing the book?

CAPLAN: People are nicer than I expected. I thought there’d be more character assassination and abuse.

LOPEZ: What’s been the most interesting feedback?

CAPLAN: The patterns of resistance interest me the most. The only really hostile critics are (a) the child-free and (b) philosophic anti-natalists (people who think creating life is wrong). Environmentalists have mostly ignored me, and feminists have been fairly supportive — as I think they should be. After all, moms pay most of the cost of over-parenting.

LOPEZ: Your best advice to the parent reading this right now at wit’s end, however many children?

CAPLAN: Step 1: Stop doing activities than neither you nor your children enjoy. Step 2: Use the energy you’ve freed up to impose clear, consistent, mild discipline to make your kids treat you like a human being. It will more than pay for itself.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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