More Children. To Have or Have Not?
A friend of mine once said jokingly, “The best way to discipline your children is to make the first one a throwaway. If you murder the oldest one for misbehavior, the others are sure to toe the line.”
It was a crass remark, but according to economist Bryan Caplan’s recent article in<a href=”online.wsj.com/article/5810001424052748704289504575313201221533826.html#printMode”> The Wall Street Journal, the first baby “does almost all the damage” to your happiness. He cites The National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey which found that people with one child instead of none are 5.6 percentage points less likely to be very happy than their childless counterparts. Each child after the first reduces the probability of being very happy by a mere .6 percentage points. Caplan states that “beyond the first child, additional children are almost a happiness free lunch.” This is one of the many arguments he delivers in his soon-to-be-published book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.
It’s the old nature-nurture debate dressed up for the new millennium. The debate has heretofore taken place in psychological circles, but lately the economists are weighing in. Caplan refers to numerous studies conducted on twins and adoptees to support his argument that what you do as a parent is less important than who you are. He concludes from several twins studies that genes play a larger role in development than does parenting. Identical twins are far more similar than fraternal twins, and identical twins raised apart are remarkably similar. Motoko Rich, in a New York Times rebuttal to Caplan’s article, claims that other scholars looked at the same twin studies and found that “even identical twins have differences that are accounted for by the way parents treat them.”
Caplan further argues that today’s parents sacrifice far more than we need to in the name of good parenting. The research he presents suggests that all the worrying and planning, all the shlepping to extracurricular activities, all the homework help and college prep, all the television monitoring and bedtime story reading is insignificant in comparison to the genetic traits we pass on to our children simply by having some fun in our bedrooms.
He says, “If you think that your kids’ future rests in your hands, you’ll probably make many painful ‘investments’ and feel guilty that you didn’t do more. Once you realize that your kids’ future largely rests in their own hands, you can give yourself a guilt-free break.”
Caplan concludes that once parents stop overcharging themselves for every child, “The next step is straight out of Econ 101. Buy more. When you raise your child the easy way, another child is more likely to pass the cost-benefit test. The science of nature versus nurture tilts the scales in favor of fertility. Instead of trying to mold your children into perfect adults you can safely kick back, relax, and enjoy your journey together–and seriously consider adding another passenger.”
Woah there, fella. First, there is the issue of low income parents to consider. As Rich states in his New York Times piece, “Paradoxically, the parents who follow parenting debates–typically the more affluent and educated–are those who may have the least to worry about.”
Differences in parenting can mean a lot to low income parents who lack the resources and skills of their economically advantaged counterparts. Jane Currie, an economist at Columbia University says, “If you look at people in bad situations who aren’t able to be good parents, then improvements in parenting would make a huge difference.”
Second, I wonder how an economics professor could fail to mention current projections which indicate that the cost of a college degree at a private university in the year 2029, when babies born this year will turn 18, could be as much as half a million dollars. It will cost a cool million to put two children through school, a staggering amount that most hardworking people cannot hope to pay back in a lifetime. Now, there’s a selfish reason for NOT increasing the size of your family simply because parenting is so much fun.
And what about taking the long view of our life on this planet? If all the parents who feel they are let off the hook by Caplan’s argument begin to double or triple the size of their families, how will Mother Earth ever provide for them? She’s dancing as fast as she can already. My third child is a blessing beyond measure, but it has occurred to me, because I search for guilt wherever I can find it, that I shouldn’t let him drink as much water as the other two.
Finally, Caplan assumes that having children is a rational decision. There is nothing rational about it. I think choosing NOT to have children is a far more painstaking process. It is a decision that is counter to our biology. We have children for the same reason we eat chocolate, because we want to. It is a primordial impulse, not a decision we make based on the most recent research findings about twins or adoptees or people with three heads.
Caplan cautions us to weigh our options, to not make decisions based upon how we feel after a few days or months of sleepless nights with a new baby. Infants are the most work, he says. We should make our decision to have more children knowing that babies eventually become more independent. Babies are difficult? Caplan is the father of eight-year old twins. I hope to check in with him when his kids are teenagers, some time in the middle of a sleepless night when the kids haven’t returned home yet, to find out if he’d still like to add that extra passenger.
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