Bryan Caplan  

An Economist's Guide to Happier Parenting

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Happiness research hits a lot of nerves, but the finding that kids don't make people happier may be the unkindest cut of all. As a proponent of having more kids, I could make methodological objections, but the truth is, I do notice a lot of people who don't seem to enjoy being parents. My view, however, is that to a fair degree, these parents just aren't doing it right! Fortunately, basic economics is here to lend a helping hand.

My main observation about parental unhappiness is this: The last 10% of parenting hours causes half of all the parental unhappiness. First two hours with your kids: a joy. Second two hours: pretty good. Hours 5-8: Tolerable. Hours nine and ten: Pain. Remaining hours: Anguish. There are few better illustrations of the law of diminishing marginal utility.

Once you see this clearly, there are some obvious solutions:

1. Don't bite off more than you can chew. Don't plan three activities every Saturday, and wind up exploding at your kids' behavior in the middle of the third. It's far better for them and you to do one thing together that you can all enjoy, then let them watch t.v. Seriously.

2. If you can afford a nanny, get a nanny. If you can't afford a nanny yet, consider waiting to have kids until you can. If you're the typical person who isn't sure if he or she wants kids, you're well-educated and have good income potential. So if you can't afford a nanny yet, you'll be able to soon enough.

3. Don't let American prejudice against live-in nannies influence you: Live-in nannies mean you can sleep in, stay out, and get a break when you need one. Your best bet is to get a mature woman to bond with your kids when they're infants, and keep her happy. A little respect goes a long way.

4. Read Judith Harris' The Nurture Assumption. Don't worry about "moulding" your child for life; you couldn't do it if you tried. Realize, instead, that the purpose of discipline is:

a. To keep your kid in one piece.
b. To make your life easier - you count too!
c. To force your kid to sacrifice very short-run gains (playing ten more minutes) for short-run gains (not being cranky later today)

Thus, I am adamant about naps. Partly this is because little kids get cranky without their naps, but refuse to accept the fact. But mostly it's because I'll be cranky if I don't get a nap, and I can't nap if they don't.

If you can't mould your child, what's the point? As Harris observes, that's a lot like asking "If you can't mould your wife, what's the point?" The point is to enjoy your time together. If you spend most of your time trying to make your kid be something he's not, no wonder you're not enjoying yourself - and don't expect your kid to be grateful for your efforts.

How would you like it if someone you depended on kept trying to change you? It's even more foolish to try to change a kid, because he's likely to change in the desired direction all on his own, in time. In the end, your kid will probably be a lot like you.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Shane writes:

That's the most sensible thing I've read this year.

alcibiades writes:

Thanks for that, Bryan. On a related note, I'd also like to hear the Friedman family childbearing tradition...

Alex J. writes:

David Friedman says it's to treat children like little adults who simply don't know much yet. Also, Milton Friedman never said "because I say so." Instead, he was willing to justify all parental decisions.

spencer writes:

What share of the population can afford a nanny?

Now you are making the argument that only the upper income groups should have kids.

Maybe a valid position, but is it one you are ready to advocate.

Are it just another example that your world of theory has little or no relationship to the real world.

caveatBettor writes:

So the overwhelming preference is to have zero kids? So much for the economics of population replacement.

I agree that families need to let the kids be kids. Unstructured and spontaneous family time is undervalued.

As far as nanny's go, there is more to it than cashflow considerations. Go to Central Park in NYC, and see how the majority of nannies provide care that would be substandard to the biolgical parents' level. One common example, a toddler drops food on the ground, and many nannies would pick it up and stick it back in the screaming kid's mouth without missing a beat.

The purposes of discipline are great, but raising a child towards being a responsible adult probably requires many multiples of FORMATIVE action, relative to the measure of disciplinary action. I tell my 5 year old all the time "people are more important than things". I'm not sure how discipline is going to help her understand that. My thesis is that my instructional words, consistently reinforced up by my example of values and commensurate behaviors and "life cases" will teach it. Mold the kid; otherwise the kid will grow moldy.

dearieme writes:

"Don't plan three activities every Saturday": Good Lord, man, don't plan any. Give each child his pocket-money, remind them not to spend it all in one shop, wave them farewell, and instruct them to be back in time for tea. All you have to do, in other words, is move to 1950s rural Britain.

Matthew Cromer writes:

You have any yet, Brian?

mobile writes:

Also, make sure to frequently tell frazzled-looking parents that they aren't doing it right!. They love that.

asg writes:

Bryan's got twins!

Tom West writes:

Instead, he was willing to justify all parental decisions.

Um, from personal experience (with an Asperger's child who could be described as "pathologically logical") this isn't necessarily something you want to encourage too much.

The first time that the kindergarten teacher asked all the children to sit in a circle and my son refused until he understood why, made it clear there were some drawbacks to that philosophy. What was worse was that the teacher couldn't articulate the reason for the circle (clear sightlines and a minimization of the distance between child and teacher), so my son panicked. Kindergarten went downhill from there... (Luckily a truly exceptional Grade 1 teacher saved my son's academic career.)

More seriously, there are a number of socially required constraints that don't have strong logical reasons, or have consequences that have a horizon far longer than most children can conceive of. Unless you're willing to instruct children in human anthropology (which I did for my son), there's a lot of behaviour that is simply "because that's the way our society does it."

Matthew Cromer writes:

Bryan's got twins!

Ohhh! How cool!

James writes:

Spencer,

I've often wondered if people deliberately misconstrue things that others say in order to make their disagreement seem more reasonable. For example:

How do you get to "Now you are making the argument that only the upper income groups should have kids." from this post?

The closest I could find in what Bryan wrote is "If you can afford a nanny, get a nanny. If you can't afford a nanny yet, consider waiting to have kids until you can"

Daniel writes:

Quote James:

The closest I could find in what Bryan wrote is "If you can afford a nanny, get a nanny. If you can't afford a nanny yet, consider waiting to have kids until you can"

Which is: If you're never able to afford a nanny, don't have any kids.

Or: If you're not yet able to afford a nanny yet, get a third job. At least you're avoiding possible unhappiness, because you're not even spending 1 hour with your kids.

Or: You're not well educated and have no "income potential". Just back off from having kids, because they will probably be as inept as you are.

kyle writes:

Ahh the beauties of dropping context.

Both spencer and Daniel have done it again.
Let me quote Bryan in context, rather than out...

" If you can afford a nanny, get a nanny. If you can't afford a nanny yet, consider waiting to have kids until you can. "
sounds rather elitist, until you read the next sentence where he qualifies what he said, and makes all the above objections spurious:

"If you're the typical person who isn't sure if he or she wants kids, you're well-educated and have good income potential. So if you can't afford a nanny yet, you'll be able to soon enough."
to summarize -- if you are the kind of person who would consider waiting to have kids, then most likely (according to the statistics on who chooses to wait to have kids and who doesn't), you are likely to be upwardly mobile income-wise.


So his advice is specifically aimed at a statistically well-known section of the population. Is it unreasonable to give advice to a specific subset of the population? Is Oprah giving specific advice to young women bad? Or only if it's specifically to poor young black women. As far as I can tell, such advice is more than reasonable, and bryan has, in plain english, done nothing more than that.

James writes:

Thanks, Daniel, for providing further evidence for my hypothesis that people engage in deliberate misconstruction. (Hint: "consider waiting" is not nearly the same as "do not.")

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