Bryan Caplan  

Is Family Size a Gendered Issue?

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All-around nice guy Will Wilkinson takes me to task for my defense of Jamie-Lynn Spears. Will starts with a little psycho-analysis:

But I’m afraid the theory is at bottom mostly a theory of why Bryan thinks his wife should have more kids, rather than a theory of what will make people in general better off.
In all honesty, I don't mind this kind of speculation; I've wondered about it myself. But I don't see that this has much to do with whether I'm right or wrong. (Will only mentions one part of a much bigger argument).

Now we move onto Will's substantive point:

[I]t seems mighty, um, gendered to me, failing to take the opportunity costs of childbearing for women very seriously at all. A sixteen year-old girl gets pregnant, and the perspective Bryan assumes is that of a grandparent? Weird.

...But for most sixteen year-olds, the cost of having a kid is simply immense, possibly destroying any serious ambitions before they develop. So what’s the problem with a woman who decides to devote her life to meaningful life-constituting projects that do not involve stretch marks and minivans? ... Reading Bryan on kids, you sometimes gets the sense that he thinks the primary function of women is to serve as incubators of grandfatherly delight.

Actually, I'm assuming the perspective of a parent, just like virtually all the people denouncing Jamie-Lynn.

But in any case, if I'm reading Will correctly, he's saying that there is a gender conflict on the issue of family size: Men want more kids than woman because women get pregnant and do most of the child-care. The problem with this story is that, empirically, desired family size for men and women is practically identical. In the GSS, the average response to the "ideal family size" question is 2.57 kids for men versus 2.56 for women. Indeed, if there is a gender conflict on this issue that the data doesn't capture, it's between women who want kids, and men who don't. (See I Want a Baby; He Doesn't).

Now admittedly, Will could rephrase his question in a gender-neutral way: "So what’s the problem with a person who decides to devote his/her life to meaningful life-constituting projects that do not involve [insert gender-neutral unaesthetic stuff about kids here]?" If so, my short answer would be:

1. It's not hard for a person to do both, especially if he/she is reasonably affluent.

2. A person who does both will almost certainly be glad that he/she did (whereas many successful childless people (especially women!) regret their choice.

3. The person you create will almost certainly be really glad to exist.

4. If you think you own any debt of gratitude to your parents, giving them grandchildren is the best way to repay it.

P.S. What's all this stuff about grandfathers? Last time I checked, women desperate to become grandmas were a lot easier to find than men desperate to become grandpas.


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Caliban Darklock writes:

The perspective is one of a parent regardless. The question is whether you're the adult parent of a pregnant teen, or the teen parent of an unborn child.

I don't think the perspective of a teen parent is normally a sane perspective, so I don't see how taking that perspective will improve the matter. I honestly don't care whether Jamie-Lynn Spears would have had a better life without getting pregnant; she chose to engage in conduct that resulted in pregnancy, and she chose to carry that pregnancy to term, and both of those choices were hers to make.

Whether they were good choices isn't really the issue people are debating, anyway - the issue is whether they should have been her choices to make, and the argument is largely that people should be prevented from making bad choices. This is a substantively different scenario.

I interpreted your post on the matter as an illustration of WHY the question was none of our business. Will seems to have missed that, and apparently thinks you should have just come right out and said "Jamie-Lynn's pregnancy is none of our business"... which would have been an awfully boring blog post.

Dan Weber writes:

LEAVE JAMIE-LYNN ALONE!!!

Diego A. writes:

I assume you are comparing unconditional means for males and females. Here's an empirical question: What would happen if you control for marital status and/or number of children? Perhaps single women with no kids overestimate the "ideal family size" compared to single men -due to self-deceptive preferences; but married women with kids have a lower "ideal family size", since they are less prone to self-deceive and will bear a larger part of the costs of bearing them.

Diego A. writes:

I assume you are comparing unconditional means for males and females. Here's an empirical question: What would happen if you control for marital status and/or number of children? Perhaps single women with no kids overestimate the "ideal family size" compared to single men -due to self-deceptive preferences; but married women with kids have a lower "ideal family size", since they are less prone to self-deceive and will bear a larger part of the costs of bearing them.

frankcross writes:

I don't think it is so gendered, but isn't this really about age? It may well be easier to do both as an older parent, that person will be equivalently glad she did as an older parent, the child will be glad to exist, and the grandparents will be comparably happe (unless they don't survive). You can get your 2.56 even if you want til 20 to start.

Seems like a simple empirical question about whether postponing childbirth is better for children and parents (grandparents too, I guess)

ck writes:

Caplan writes:

1. It's not hard for a person to do both, especially if he/she is reasonably affluent.

2. A person who does both will almost certainly be glad that he/she did (whereas many successful childless people (especially women!) regret their choice.

3. The person you create will almost certainly be really glad to exist.

4. If you think you own any debt of gratitude to your parents, giving them grandchildren is the best way to repay it.

Point #1 depends on a host of hotly contested definitions. (e.g., "reasonably affluent.")

Point #2 is debatable and only weakly and minimally supported.

Point #4 does a lot of heavy lifting but it is completely UNsupported.

This was a very disappointing argument.

Jason Malloy writes:

A person who does both will almost certainly be glad that he/she did (whereas many successful childless people (especially women!) regret their choice.

This is false. Child-free women are happier.

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