Throughout the developed world, birth rates are cratering. Many countries are well below the replacement rate. There are many explanations for this trend, but the most basic is sheer selfishness: Now that women can have satisfying careers, contraception is cheap and effective, and it’s easy to spend all your money on yourself, why bother with kids? Children are, after all, expensive, obnoxious, and labor-intensive; if anything, it’s a miracle that even in the countries with the lowest birth rates, the average couple puts up with at least one rugrat.
To economist Bryan Caplan, however, a lot of these parents are simply miscalculating. In this new book, he argues that most people overestimate how hard parenting needs to be, and thus underestimate the number of kids they should have.
Parenting can indeed be an all-consuming and exhausting activity — just ask the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua. Or, for that matter, ask any parent on the street: In 2000, the average working mother devoted as much time specifically to child care as the average stay-at-home mother did in 1975, even as dads were helping out more. Many modern parents run themselves ragged ferrying their kids from activity to activity (many of which the kids themselves don’t even enjoy) and taking hardly any time for themselves.
But is this worth it? What long-term impact do parents really have on their kids? For answers, Caplan turns to a body of research that has been accumulating for several decades: twin and adoption studies, in which scientists compare children with their identical and fraternal siblings, and with their biological and adoptive parents. This tells us which has a bigger effect: the parent who raises the child, or the child’s genetic makeup.
These studies have often been trotted out in the more general “genes vs. environment” debate, and for that purpose they have some serious shortcomings. Most of them concentrate on middle-class families in the First World — they cannot tell us how a child will turn out if he’s raised in Afghanistan as opposed to Columbus, Ohio, or even Harlem as opposed to the Upper West Side. They also don’t foreclose the possibility that some extremely unusual parents — child abusers, for example — might have more of an effect than the rest of us. Put differently, the word “environment” is meaningless until you define a specific range of environments, and most of these studies have looked at a narrow range indeed.
Concerning middle-class First World parents, however, these studies are quite useful. (Caplan is unapologetic in targeting his advice toward well-to-do readers — in fact, he seems to know hardly anything about childbearing in the lower classes. For example, he repeats as fact the common but false assumption that births to young, unmarried women are typically unplanned.) As Caplan notes, very few middle-class parents consider raising their children in dire poverty or locking them in a closet until they turn 18. What these parents do have to decide is how demanding or relaxed to be within the range of normal parenting — exactly the range that twin and adoption studies capture.
And overwhelmingly, these studies find that parents have almost no impact on their kids’ core qualities. As adults, in the areas of health, intelligence, happiness, success, and character, adopted children tend to be far more like their biological parents than like their adoptive ones. Some studies fail to uncover any influence by adoptive parents at all.
In a sense, these findings are deeply depressing — and even insulting to the many loving and dedicated parents who sacrifice their time and well-being for the future of their children. At the same time, however, they give new parents an excuse to relax — Caplan says that if your parenting passes the “laugh test,” your kids will be fine — and focus on areas where they really can make a difference.
Caplan’s advice for loosening up will be difficult for the more uptight of us to follow, but most of it is reasonable enough. For example, if your child doesn’t like an activity, you don’t like taking him to the activity, and the activity promises no long-run benefit, cut the activity. With surly teenagers, make family vacations short and go light on the museums, or do a parents-only getaway. If both parents work and you can afford to hire a nanny, go for it, if it will mean you’re less worn out around your kids.
You can also take steps to make your kids less of an intrusion, secure in the knowledge you’re not doing long-term damage. When infants cry, use the “Ferber method” (that is, “let the child cry for a few minutes, comfort him, repeat”; this has been shown to discourage kids from crying in the first place). Don’t fret about the fact that childhood punishments seem to change kids’ behavior only when the parents are around, and have no long-run effect; well-behaved children around the house are a good in themselves.
As for what does make a difference, parents are a major determinant of their children’s religious denomination (though not their religiosity). Parents also influence kids’ political self-identification (though not so much their overall worldview). Further, a parent needs to watch out for his child’s safety (though kids are much safer today than they’ve ever been before, and it’s fine to give them a fair amount of freedom). Parents can also have a short-run effect on some of the bigger things such as intelligence (though the emphasis is on “short-run”; these effects usually fade to virtually nil over time).
Perhaps the most important thing a parent provides, however, is childhood. Today, for the most driven parents, the kind who worry about getting their little brats into the best possible kindergarten, the ages of zero through 18 are often seen as little more than an investment — their sole purpose is to create a high-performing adult. But in fact, those years constitute a significant portion of the average lifetime, and kids will always carry with them memories of the time they spent with their parents and in the town where their parents chose to live.
When Caplan first began floating his thesis a year or so ago, one of his leading critics was libertarian commentator Will Wilkinson, who pointed out that in surveys, parents tend to say they are less happy than non-parents. Here Caplan responds in two ways: One, the happiness gap is small, and if you follow his advice and relax a bit, you might not suffer it yourself. Two, older people who’ve had kids tend to be happier than their childless peers, and the childless tend to regret their decision; perhaps that’s because grandchildren come with many of the advantages of children and none of the disadvantages. Today’s young people would do well to give this some thought when they’re planning their families.
More recently, though, Wilkinson presented a new line of attack: If Caplan’s point is that people should have a higher number of children than they planned to, he has to raise their ideal number from 0 to 1, from 1 to 2, and so on — from 1.1 to 1.3 won’t do the trick. Are the arguments here really that powerful?
He has a point. If you’re hesitant to have more kids for a variety of reasons — the expense; the damage to the mother’s body; the lack of privacy; the difficulty of going on vacation or even out for the night; the worry, however irrational, that a child will be hurt; the potential that a child could be born with a severe disability, or even just a real penchant for troublemaking — does it really make that much of a difference to hear that you can loosen up on supervision, hire a maid if you can afford it, and cut a few activities from the schedule?
Probably not. But even if Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids won’t actually convince people to have more kids, it serves as both a brief and remarkably well-written introduction to genetic research, and a guide book for easier parenting. The Tiger Mothers of the world would be well served by reading it.