Bryan Caplan  

The Case for Kids: What I'm Up Against

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"Why are People Having Fewer Kids? Perhaps it's because they don't like them very much." That's the title of Ron Bailey's latest piece which very bluntly says what I suspect a lot of people are thinking:

[M]odernity essentially transforms children from capital goods that produce family income into consumption items to be enjoyed for their own sakes, more akin to sculptures, paintings, or theatre. But that's just the problem—according to happiness researchers, people don't really enjoy rearing children.
Despite my natalist stance, I think this is true as far as it goes. My big objection is that the data only show that people don't really enjoy rearing children given contemporary high-stress parental practices. Fortunately, there are many feasible ways for parents to improve their lives - with little or no cost to the well-being of children. The best cure for the "birth dearth" is not doom-saying, but encouraging parents and potential parents to lighten up.


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Unit writes:

Ah! But in today's mobile and fractured society the only way to make friends is to...well...hm...make them! (from scratch)

I'd have to agree with you there. My mother even told me as much.

BGC writes:

I think it is an error to regard children as having been in the past "capital goods that produce family income".

The primary good of children is biological - genetic - not economic.

Indeed, the evidence is that human children (like all biological offspring) on average consume (much) more resources than they generate - as must be the case, biologically.

Resources flow *down* the generations.

FC writes:

How does an academic afford a live-in nanny worth her salt?

razib writes:

if personality traits are heritable the traits which correlate for greater fertility will spread and this problem will disappear. right now it seems being closer to the retarded than gifted end of the IQ spectrum helps.

BGC writes:

Indeed, Razib - yesterday's UK newspapers covered the horrific case of a long-term serial rapist, violent bully and multiple murderer who had eleven children by five women. So he transmitted plenty of his genetic traits to the next generation...

Waldo writes:

Children arent raised by parents, theyre raised by television, peers, and video games, with occasional perental intervention, via cell phone. Given the external support systems, wouldnt we expect to see more children instead of less?

Buzzcut writes:

Bravo, Brian. Bravo.

I'm going to have my fourth very soon.

My most recent attempt at lightening up is letting my 6 year old sit in the front passenger seat. It's a new car with the automatic air bag diabling system, and it has a very nice seatbelt height adjustment, along with a power seat that has height adjustment.

This way, we get to talk more easily, and he can't annoy me by kicking the seat as all 6 year olds do.

Of course, this is totally illegal. I'm going to do an Arnold Kling/ Rage Against the Machine/ Libertarian Civil Disobediance if I ever get a ticket for this. Cops can be real Nazis when it comes to children in cars not being in booster seats.

Independent George writes:

Gilbert observes that the more people pay for an item, the more highly they tend to value it and children are expensive, even if you don't throw in piano lessons, soccer camps, orthodonture, and college tuitions.

I suspect that's the crux of it. I can't recall the source, but I remember reading somewhere that fertility rates are U-shaped with respect to income - it's highest at low incomes, drops as you enter middle-class, then increases again at the upper-middle to upper classes.

I that it's precisely those piano lessons, soccer camps, orthodonture, and tuition which is driving fertility down in the developed world. Low-income families don't expact any of those things (while getting larger relative subsidies towards the costs they do pay), while high-income families devote a smaller share of their wealth towards them. Middle-income families expect to have those things, but have fewer resources to devote to them.

It's very possible for children to be a direct producer of happiness, but an indirect consumer due to opportunity costs. In other words, my kid causes me great happiness, but I'd have really rather spent the weekend in Vegas with my bride. The problem is that fertility peaks at the exact same time as opportunity costs.

I think the right way to test this is to do an income-adjusted study of parents across different age groups (or, an age-adjusted study of parents across different income levels...). If I'm correct, the net happiness 'loss' should vary inversely with the age of parents at the same income level at the birth of their first child (of course, this assumes that there's a quantiable measure of happiness, which I'm still not convinced of).

Father writes:

So Brian, why only two, and twins at that?

liberty writes:

The age point is definitely valid. For two reasons women (and perhaps men too though it matters less) are tending toward wanting to have children later - and both of these trends are seen in the poor less, as it turns out.

(1) We are more selfish and career / goal oriented and care less about family, more about ourselves. We want to leave our legacy through our academic work, careers, ideas, friendships, creativity, not through old fashioned genetics.

(2) We are eternally babies. We act like children into our twenties, rebel like teens into our thirties, and never ever ever want to grow up. Even when we finally decide that we do want to have kids - hence we prefer to get someone else to do the hard stuff.

And, if you try to have children too late of course, you end up with fewer or none. Which, in the extreme, is what we wanted anyway.

Troy Camplin writes:

People might want to investigate this ancient thing called discipline, which results in having children one can actually stand to be around day-in, day-out. People don't enjoy their children because they have created little jerks no decent person could stand to be around. Then they drug them up to avoid having to deal with the little monsters they created.

Buzzcut writes:

Troy, discipline is hard. People are lazy.

My guilty pleasure is "Supernanny". Last week, she had a family with 6 kids to deal with (Supernanny said less than 2% of families have 6 or more kids).

The root cause of the "naughtyness" was that Mom was too lazy to discipline the kids, and dad was always at work. Supernanny got mom off her keister and dad to be home, and the kids improved greatly.

Bryan Caplan writes:
Troy Camplin writes:

People might want to investigate this ancient thing called discipline, which results in having children one can actually stand to be around day-in, day-out. People don't enjoy their children because they have created little jerks no decent person could stand to be around. Then they drug them up to avoid having to deal with the little monsters they created.

I basically agree, though it's important to distinguish between useful discipline for parental peace of mind (I'm all for it) and gratuitous discipline to "build character" (usually just a source of needless cruelty).
Father writes:

So Brian, why only two, and twins at that?

My daydream is that one day Oprah will ask me the same question. My imagined response: "A prophet hath no honor in his home country." If I can write a book good enough to persuade my wife, I'll know I've got a best-seller on my hands. :-)
Troy Camplin writes:

I agree on your distinction. What is important is to recognize that "discipline" and "disciple" are etymologically related, and that this helps us to recognize that without discipline, there can be no education.

Troy Camplin writes:

Also, too many people identify discipline with abuse. In fact, lack of discipline is also a kind of abuse. To be a bit Aristotlean, discipline is the virtuous golden mean between abuse (physical and emotional) and permissiveness. The latter two are unvirtuous extremes and both result in children who misbehave. If it makes people more comfortable, we can use the terms from psychology: authoritative parenting is the golden mean between authoritarian parenting and permissive parenting -- but the argument is still the same.

Buzzcut writes:

Story for Brian:

As soon as I knew our third was a girl (older 2 are boys), I knew that there was going to be a 4th.

My wife was totally against having the 4th. I wanted our girl to have a sister. Reasoning was that the boys had a brother and a sister, the girl only had brothers. Why shouldn't she have the experience of having a sister?

Funny thing is, I only have one brother, and my wife only has one brother. What the hell do I know, right?

Anyway, here's the kicker: we were using these for birth control. We'd been using them for many, many years. They worked great.

Until they didn't work. Now we have #4 on the way!

So... if you're going to convince your wife of anything, convince her to go on "The Beads"!

If it were only up to me, I'd probably keep having kids after #4. My wife is TOTALLY against that, and is going to utilize a form of birth control a lot more... permanent and certain... than the beads!

Buzzcut writes:

Everything I know about parenting I learned from

You really need to keep on top of the discipline. "Broken Windows" applies to your kids, too.

Buzzcut writes:

Sorry, I guess I screwed up the tag.

The Tipping Point

3399 writes:

I believe that there are many reasons as to why people are not having as many children as our ancestors did. It made since to me that people years ago had several children because most people owned farms – the more children they had, the more farm hands they had. Also, I really don’t think that discipline has much to do with the fact that people are choosing to conceive less; however, when I see children who are not disciplined as needed, it makes me want children less.

Besides discipline and the changes in how many families farm, I believe that the two big factors in why people conceive less are how expensive raising a child is and the change in women’s career goals. Lately, there have been many studies putting a price on kids. An article on MSN states that the cost for a child from birth to 17 is $250,000. Keep in mind that that doesn’t include college – some parents will tack on another $40,000 to $80,000 to their tab. Having one is expensive, but having two or three or even four is hard for me to fathom. Some people can only afford but so many. Also, in the last 50 years most women have started having careers. Most women who want a career go to school until, at the minimum of 2 years, and then head straight out into the work force. It’s very hard to juggle both (although I know some do). Then, if she is married it is likely that both of them work – it wouldn’t be fair to the child not having their parents at home.

I myself want a career and then I would like to get married, however, I don’t want to jump straight into parenthood – I want to live spontaneously and spend the money I make on things that I want. I then need to save money for a few years just so I can afford them. By then I will probably be in my thirties, I won’t want many children because I may be too old to raise them.

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