Bryan Caplan

FEE/GMU Economics Society

April, 2008


Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

I.                     Economics as a Tool for Living

A.                 Economists usually focus on economics as a guide for policy, but economics also helps us to improve our own lives.

1.                  Mundane example: Walking out of the movies.

B.                 I am going to argue that economics offers vital insights on a far more important question: How many children should you have?  Furthermore, these insights basically go in one direction: You should have more kids than you were planning to have.

C.                Complication: You have to have kids in round numbers.  So even if you completely buy my arguments, I might fail to push you to the next round number.

D.                However, my admitted goal during this talk is to convince someone to have one more kid.  After all, how many economists can say “My words create life!”?  (To the best of my knowledge, I’ve already succeeded twice).

E.                 Before I get started, here’s a question to ask yourself: Given what you know now, how many kids do you want to have?

F.                 Many natalists emphasize the social benefits of population growth.  They’re largely right, but it’s easy to object: What has society ever done for me?

G.                My arguments have a totally different focus: I’m going to argue that it is in your enlightened self-interest to have a larger family than you’re currently planning upon.

II.                   Kids and Happiness

A.                 One standard result coming out of empirical happiness research: Kids make people less happy.

B.                 The size of the effect is tiny.  One simple estimate is that it takes 19 kids to wipe out the happiness benefits of being married.

C.                As a parent, this doesn’t surprise me at all.  I see a lot of stressed-out parents, who burn up every minute of their free time serving their children.

D.                This brings me to my first key argument: Most parental unhappiness is unnecessary. 

E.                 You all know the principle of diminishing marginal utility, right?  The first 4 hours with your kids may be great, and the next 4 tolerable.  But when you do more, you should expect to be awfully cranky. 

F.                 It’s hardly surprising that parents who spend 12 or 16 hours doing stuff with and for their kids aren’t having a good time.  And the casual observation that modern parents are pushing themselves is borne out my the data: Kids spend more time with their parents today than they did decades ago, back when very few mothers had jobs!

G.                Simple solutions:

1.                  Do less.  Fewer activities, more t.v.

2.                  Hire some help.  Almost all American parents can afford some, and many can afford a lot.

III.                  What About the Children?

A.                 Immediate objection to my glib suggestion: What about the children?  Won’t it destroy their futures if parents cut back on “investments” in their children?

B.                 No.  It turns out that there is basically no trade-off between parents’ effort and their children’s success in life.

C.                How do I know?  I rely on the vast literature on adoption and twin studies.  (See Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Harris’ The Nurture Assumption).

D.                Adoption methods: Examine the similarity between biological and adopted siblings, and the similarity between adoptees and the people who adopted them.

E.                 Twin methods: Compare identical twins to fraternal twins (extra quality control: separation at birth).

F.                 Big punch line: Parents do have moderate influence over their kids when they’re kids.  But they have little or no influence over their kids when they’re adults.  Classic example: The IQ correlation between adoptees and their adopting parents is 0.

G.                Metaphor: Kids aren’t like clay that parents mold for life.  They are more like pieces of plastic that flex in response to pressure, but pop back into shape once the pressure is released. 

H.                 Saying these things makes many people very angry.  “If parents believe this, they’ll stop trying so hard!”  But if behavioral geneticists are right, parents should stop trying so hard.  It’s common sense.

I.                     The glass is half full.  As long as you and your mate are self-satisfied, these results imply that you can have a high-quality child with a lot less effort than you’ve been led to believe.

J.                  In other words, the price of high-quality kids is substantially less than you thought.  And what does economics tell people to do when the price of something drops?

IV.               How Many Kids Will You Want When You’re 60?

A.                 Due to basic biology, human beings usually have all the kids they will ever have during a span of a few years.  Also due to basic biology, those are also the years when kids are the most work.

B.                 My casual observation: People usually stop having children when they feel exhausted.  Smart, right?

C.                Not really.  Your workload will fall as your kids grow up.  Eventually, you’ll be bugging them to spend time with you. 

D.                If you look far enough into the future, every child you have is a chance to have some grandchildren.  And people really love grandchildren – after all, as soon as they cease to be fun, you send them home. 

E.                 None of these means that we should ignore the exhaustion we feel as young parents.  But basic economics does tell us that when we make a decision that lasts a lifetime, we should balance our interests over the course of our lives – not do whatever feels best at the time.

F.                 In short, I’m not asking anyone to stop being selfish.  I’m asking people to get better at being selfish.  How many kids will you want when you’re 60?  It’s a serious question – and if you ignore it, you’ll pay the price.

V.                 Conclusion

A.                 I have many additional arguments to offer.  We can talk about those in the Q&A.

B.                 But to recap, family size is an issue where economics has important practical advice.

C.                Many parents do make themselves unhappy through overwork, but you don’t have to be like them.  Let your kids play Xbox.  Hire a nanny.  Your kids will be fine.  And once you realize how much of the downside of parenting is pure waste, kids look like a much better deal.

D.                Similarly, many parents stop having kids because parenting is starting to hurt.  But this is extremely short-sighted.  The hurt won’t last.  Your kids will.  Keep both the short-run and the long-run in mind when you decide if and when enough is enough.

E.                 My last question to you: Remember the number of kids you wanted when this talk began?  How about now?