Bryan Caplan  

Married with 19 Kids = Single & Childless

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Happiness researchers usually find that kids have a negative effect on happiness. By the time the result gets blogged, it's tempting to say, as Will Wilkinson does, that "children make us miserable." But how big is the estimated effect of children on happiness, anyway?

I looked at this question using the GSS, regressing happiness on marital status, job satisfaction, real income, a personality measure ("You sometimes can't help wondering whether anything is worthwhile any more."), and number of children. Children have the standard negative effect, and it's statistically significant, too. But the size is miniscule. Each child brings you down by .015 steps on a 3-point happiness scale.

In contrast, just being married gives you a boost of .286. If you take the linear model literally, that means that a married person would need 19 kids to have the expected happiness of a childless single! Of course, the linear model is pretty silly, but it does put the standard finding in perspective. The average effect of children on happiness is very tiny.

Now consider: In the real world, a very small average effect probably means that some people hate having kids, while others love the experience. So before you decide that you're too selfish to accept even a small reduction in your personal happiness, you might want to find out the best ways to beat the average. Here's my first stab at the challenge; anyone got something to add?


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Dr. T writes:

I believe that my happiness with child-rearing is greater than that of many other parents because I had experiences caring for children as a teenager and young adult. I lived in a single parent home with a mother who worked evenings, so I was in charge of my three younger siblings. At 18, I spent a summer as a live-in camp counselor and had eight 10- to 12-year-old boys in my cabin. During medical school, I spent time with the little kids on the oncology ward and with teenagers on the voluntary psychiatry ward. In each of the cases (except home), I benefited from observing experienced counselors, psychiatrists, clinicians, or parents.

The experiences showed me three things: that I liked kids, that I disliked caring for seriously ill kids, and that I had the ability to become a good parent. I believe that being a good parent is 80% of what's needed to be happy about child-rearing. It's hard to be happy when your kids are brats because you never knew how to handle them.

Matt writes:

Well, I had fun at the soccer games, the cub scouts, band, the gang that hung around, the teachers, the PTA. My boy got worn out, some of the activities kept him going 12 hours a day at times.

I think that we should research happiness in kids instead of parents.

Floccina writes:

What about the risk of having a severely disabled child? Both of my boys are healthy but it was something that I considered before my wife got pregnant.

jb writes:

I think my kids (10, 7 and 5) make me quite happy, for various reasons:

1. I don't expect them to be more than kids. When they get frustrated or confused, I don't get mad at them, I help them. I give them chores, see how they do, and help them get better at them, instead of scolding them for doing a bad job.

2. I teach them how to play games I enjoy. I'll even dumb the games down a bit to make them more accessible as necessary.

3. I toss them around a lot. Kids love motion and silly physical games, and I will get down on the floor with them and play. The glee on their faces makes up for a lot of stress at work.

4. I also subscribe to the "no more than two errands/events at a time" policy, for the same reason as Bryan.

tom writes:

Isn't the big issue what kind of kids you have?

Messrs. Caplan & Kling may be much more likely to have smart kids that will have very good opportunities in life and the ability to take advantage of them. Knowing this, probably from the beginning, may give you a sense of something (I don't know that happiness is the word; I'd say it's something deeper like "fulfilled") that makes raising your kids an entirely different experience than raising kids when you are doubtful about their opportunities or abilities.

So you should not say "people should have more kids because they will be happier." You should say: "People like Will Wilkinson and his girlfriend should have kids because they would be very likely to have the kind of kids that would make them [happier/more fulfilled] over the course of their lives than they would be without kids."

I am sure someone could justify this with a breakdown of kids-->happiness data based on IQ and success parents and their kids.... But I don't think it's that complicated.

Short Version: Knock Her Up, Mr. Wilkinson!

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