Bryan Caplan  

The Debaters: A Childishly Long Reply to Will

PRINT
Perceived Duty to Have Childre... Please Stop...

Will Wilkinson has a lot to say about my views about kids - and as you know, I'm never one to avoid a friendly debate. So get ready for my point-by-point reply:

1. Will says I misintepreted his original point. He's not arguing that I'm taking a "man's perspective" on family size, just that I'm overlooking the high costs for girls of teenage pregnancy:

I was saying that having a child at sixteen has a VERY HIGH probability of severely limiting most girls’ prospects. It seemed to me that Bryan was overlooking this pretty obvious fact, which suggested to me a lack of sympathy for the cost of motherhood to teen girls, which further suggested a lack of sympathy for the cost of motherhood to women generally.
In my original post about Jamie-Lynn Spears, I was hardly promoting teen pregnancy. If I had a daughter, I wouldn't want her to get pregnant at 16, for the reasons Will names. My point, however, is parents who freak out about teen pregnancy lack perspective. My challenge to these parents, then and now, is: Which would you prefer - For your daughter to have a child too soon, or never? I definitely prefer too soon to never, and I think that a lot of parents would share my preference if they calmed down and weighed the alternatives.

2. Next, Will has a methodological point about surveys about "ideal family size":

I find survey evidence about desired family size or desired fertility pretty irrelevant in a way economists ought to be especially sensitive to. If you ask me how many cars, houses, or television sets I would ideally own without specifying the price I may well give you a pie-in-the-sky answer.
I agree with Will's general point that we should beware of question-wording effects. But I doubt that this is a big issue here: When people say how many kids they want, they almost certainly assume that they will have to pay the costs of raising the kids.

Think about it this way: When you ask people the question, "Do you want any more kids?" do they respond on the assumption that kids are free? In my experience, no way.

3. Will repeats the standard economic argument that shrinking family size is predictable given rising female wages:

But as women’s equality has proceeded, and continues to proceed, the opportunity cost of pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare has risen, and is rising, for many women. So it would not be surprising if a young woman were to imagine that she would like three kids, given her mom’s 1985 opportunity cost. But given 2008 opportunity costs, she really only wants one, which is what she has.
Unfortunately, the standard economic argument only tells half the story. Yes, rising female wages increase the marginal cost of children. But they also increases income, making children more affordable! This is clearly a situation where income and substitution effects are large and move in opposite directions, so there's nothing economically inevitable about what's happened to family size. (Consider: We're spending more time in foreign travel than in 1985, even though the cost of taking time off has increased).

4. Next, Will replies to each of my four points in favor of having children. My original point #1: "It’s not hard for a person to do both, especially if he/she is reasonably affluent." Will's reply:

Isn’t pregnancy hard? Childbirth? Don’t women worry a great deal about what all this does to their bodies and their sense of physical self-esteem? Doesn’t childcare have real costs in terms of competitive careers (i.e., almost all of them)?
All these effects are obviously real. The tough question is whether they show that it is "hard" to pursue both "meaningful life-constituting projects" and have kids. Most moms I know do it, and most of their lives are fine.

Now we move onto a point where I strongly agree with Will:

I’d be more comfortable with “it’s not so hard” if social norms weren’t so brutal to middle-class, middle-American women who chose to outsource almost all their childcare in the same way men continue to outsource almost all their childcare to their wives. But, as it stands, I think even the average “reasonably affluent” woman bears a pretty big disproportionate burden and this is in fact reflected in diminished labor market prospects.
I'd like to add, though, that the main problem isn't "social norms," but the standards that moms set for themselves. Most moms could double their outsourcing without raising any eyebrows, but refrain because they would feel like bad moms.

5. My next point in favor of kids: "A person who does both will almost certainly be glad that he/she did (whereas many successful childless people (especially women!) regret their choice." Will's reply:

Yes, I think it is part of our Darwinian design to mostly keep us from regretting our children, even if the choice was regrettable or in moments of reflection actual regretted. Also, it is taboo to admit regretting your children, even if in a mixed and complex way.
Actually, I'd say that people are most likely to regret their children in the heat of anger, and almost never do so in moments of reflection (when they're more likely to say stuff like "Having you is the best thing I ever did"). Will's right that the taboo against admitting regret leads us to undercount regret; but even if covert regret is five times as common as open regret, it remains very rare.

But if Bryan thinks many, many, many mothers have not and do not in fact regret foregone experience, challenge, success, and status then I fear he’s not paying attention. Motherhood for many women just is a bittersweet experience of frustrated ambition and readjustment to downgraded expectations. Several times my own mother, who I’m sure loved me and my sisters without reserve, expressed to me deep regret for not having gone on to become a doctor...
I'm going to be an economist about this. There are two kinds of regret: Regret where you wished you made a different choice given your constraints, and regret that you had constraints. I'm talking about the first kind of regret, and regard it as much more serious.
Anyway, if a career woman past reproductive age finds herself regretting not having children, she can always adopt. But try getting rid of your four year-old, and see what people think of you.
Since almost everyone who wants kids tries to have their own before they consider adoption, despite all the costs that Will highlights, it's obvious that the two are not close substitutes for most people. "You waited too long to have kids, and now you want one? Just adopt!" is facile at best.

6. My third point in favor of kids: "The person you create will almost certainly be really glad to exist." Will's reply:

If I gave somebody a million dollars, they would almost be certainly glad to get it. That’s some reason for me to give someone a million dollars, I suppose, but not really much of one.
If the someone were a complete stranger, then Will's plainly right. If the someone would be your son or daughter, matters are very different... at least for most people.

7. My last point in favor of kids:

If you think you own any debt of gratitude to your parents, giving them grandchildren is the best way to repay it.
Will's reply:
Just being there, loving them, and loving your own life is the best way to repay, I figure.
As a parent, I agree that Will's repayment is not bad. But it's still kind of a let-down.


Now just to avoid misunderstanding, I don't see any of my arguments as "proofs" that any particular person should have kids. When someone goes to the lengths that Will does to argue against having kids, I tend to think: "If you feel that strongly about it, you're probably right. For you." I do however think that there are important arguments in favor of having more kids that most people haven't thought about very much. (And in contrast, most people are hyper-aware of the important arguments against).


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (17 to date)
Mr. Skulduggery writes:
Motherhood for many women just is a bittersweet experience of frustrated ambition and readjustment to downgraded expectations.

Replace "Motherhood" with just about any career you like, and the same is likely true. You cannot just use something like that as a justification for not having children without showing that alternative uses of time would not engender similar regrets. Who doesn't have regrets and disappointments in their career?

Kermit Adams writes:

To be clear: I love my 13-month old son. However, I basically regret becoming a parent, for any meaningful definition of "regret." I know I've only seen a tiny fraction of what's to come, etc., but if I'd had any kind of clear idea of how much peace and freedom I'd be sacrificing to have a child, that I'd never be able to travel, to see friends after work, to wake up in the morning when my body decides to wake up, to have an adult conversation with my wife at a time and on a topic of our choosing, etc. etc. etc., frankly I would have left it to others more suited to the demands of parenting.

In retrospect, I wish I'd listened more closely to folks like Will, and a lot less closely to folks like Bryan. It's been an ocean of sh*t to swim through, and the biggest mistake of my life. This is not my son's fault, and I will continue to be a good father to him as best I can, but I can't honestly say I am happy to be in the position I'm in. Am I really so rare? Really?

nicole writes:

Skulduggery: Replace "Motherhood" with just about any career you like, and the same is likely true.

Except other careers don't necessarily last a lifetime. If you have a kid, you have a kid forever. You can change careers--it may not be ideal, but it can be done. But you can't just return a kid if you turn out not to like it.

Curt writes:

I think Bryan's point #1 is a false choice: "Which would you prefer - For your daughter to have a child too soon, or never?" If a girl doesn't have a child as a teen, it certainly doesn't mean she can't/won't ever have a child. Posing the question as he does, of course it forces an answer of "have child too soon" for most people, but I don't think that's too meaningful, since the whole point is that we'd like our kids to have children when they're ready to.

Dan Weber writes:

I'd like to add, though, that the main problem isn't "social norms," but the standards that moms set for themselves. Most moms could double their outsourcing without raising any eyebrows, but refrain because they would feel like bad moms.

Even in your own post that you linked to, you admitted that there is an American prejudice against live-in nannies. And there is.

Helder writes:

"Am I really so rare? "

Not really. Blind maybe, but not rare. Anyway, if you still think like that in two or three years, yes. That would be rare.


"Actually, I'd say that people are most likely to regret their children in the heat of anger"

Patrick writes:

I'm with Curt. Bryan presented us with a silly, false choice: "Which would you prefer - For your daughter to have a child too soon, or never?"

But as Will was correctly pointing out, Bryan's response to this point is "all about Bryan".

Hey Bryan - try thinking about this answer from the standpoint of the 16 year-old daughter, rather than from the selfish viewpoint of a parent who only wishes to be a grandparent.

Kermit Adams writes:
Not really. Blind maybe, but not rare. Anyway, if you still think like that in two or three years, yes. That would be rare.

Yes, yes. I'm a foolish, egocentric monster. Got it. But the question is, am I in the top 0.1% of foolish, egocentric monsters? 1%? 10%? I think it matters. I was, by most standards, pretty well prepared for parenthood: happily married, in my late twenties, owning a home, established in a good career, etc. If any of those had not been true, I think I'd have been exponentially more likely to "regret"* becoming a parent.

If it's relatively common to feel the way I do after one year, and relatively rare to feel that way after three or four, is this just a future discounting question? Kids make you miserable for a presidency or so, then they start making you happier?

* Admittedly: "regret" is kind of the wrong word, here. I'm massively more unhappy than I was before our child was born, and in fact more unhappy than any other time in my life, which has not been entirely without unhappy periods. But, I also agree with Bryan's formulation that having my son is "the best thing I've ever done." Apologies for the ridiculously melodramatic analogy, but I imagine it's a little bit like asking, e.g., a veteran of Normandy if he's "happy" he joined the army. The answer is certainly "no," but he still might agree that it was a worthwhile and tragically inevitable call that he answered.

rob writes:
I think Bryan's point #1 is a false choice: "Which would you prefer - For your daughter to have a child too soon, or never?"
You need to view this point in context of Bryan's earlier post, where he essentially asked: who is a better role model, a pregnant teen OR a childless, career-minded woman?

Bryan is pointing out that while everyone thinks Spears is a bad role model, nobody complains that those celebrities who put career ahead of having children are bad role models. If a parent had to choose from one of those two role models, Bryan suggests that Spears is the better role model to choose because parents would prefer to become grandparents than not to become grandparents.

Helder writes:

Yes, yes. I'm a foolish, egocentric monster.

Where did you get that idea?

is this just a future discounting question?
The first couple of years there's not much a kid can give back. Everything you do is investing.

P.S. They never make you miserable, you do it to yourself. After all they are not responsible for having us as parents

Kermit Adams writes:

P.S. They never make you miserable, you do it to yourself. After all they are not responsible for having us as parents

That might be true at a Zen level of abstraction, in which nothing "makes" us miserable, but that doesn't seem to be the level at which Will and Bryan (and I) are debating. Bryan assigns pretty high probability to the idea that kids will make you "happy", for whatever we mean by "happy." Paying attention to people like Bryan has made me very, very "unhappy," assuming for the sake of argument I'm allowed to judge my own mental state.

Barry Cotter writes:
If the someone were a complete stranger, then Will's plainly right. If the someone would be your son or daughter, matters are very different... at least for most people.

I agree completely with your excellent posts on family, but I'm replying because I think the above quote leads into something I find odd in your worldview.

"lose the we"

How is it that you can't understand, or don't seem to want to, the fact that most people see their nation (and the state as an expression of same) as an extension of the family? (Insert your prefered imagined community as you wish) The social atomisation that capitalism engenders is real, even if the benefits outweigh the costs by orders of magnitude. I suppose this doesn't cause you any cognitive dissonance since you don't identify more with fellow citizens than any other category of random stranger.

Dan Weber writes:

Bryan is pointing out that while everyone thinks Spears is a bad role model, nobody complains that those celebrities who put career ahead of having children are bad role models.

Which celebrities are those, who put career ahead of having children?

It's very hard to teach delayed gratification. And while someone might take it too far -- delaying children until they cannot be had -- it's easy to correct. Just explain that it's time for gratification now.

That's certainly easier than trying to get someone used to instant gratification to delay it.

The first couple of years there's not much a kid can give back. Everything you do is investing.

Eh, my 0-year-old is crawling around next to me right now. I'm getting plenty of joy from that.

Rich writes:

Thank you, Kermit, for being honest enough to raise the question.

In response to Arnold Kling's indictment of happiness research, it's worth noting that this is exactly the kind of question that happiness research seeks to answer. My guess is that at least *some* parents feel the way that Kermit does. But how many? 0.1 percent? 1 percent? 10 percent? All we know from the comments so far is that it isn't 100%.

Mason writes:

This is a long one, but it’s got something for everyone;

Bryan says, "The person you create will almost certainly be really glad to exist."

Will replies, "If I gave somebody a million dollars"

I'd like to point out the difference between give and create. A million dollar gift is a million dollar loss, having a child, while very costly, almost always creates values.

I agree with Rob, Bryan's kid/no kid choice needs to be viewed in context.

Hey Patrick - Bryan is thinking about this from the standpoint of the people who are complaining; he is arguing that Jamie is a better role model than other celebrities who draw less criticism.

I also agree with Skulduggery; everything has an opportunity cost not just parenting, this goes back to Bryans point about the two different regrets.

Dan - Bryan said most moms could double their outsourcing without raising an eyebrow. A live in nanny is a very high level of outsourcing, I think Bryan was suggesting that moms could send cloths to the dry cleaners, get takeout dinner twice a week, and have a maid service come by once a month, without raising an eyebrow. This is a far cry from a live in nanny.

Bryan - if you're actually confused about why Jamie draws more criticism than childless celebrities with regards to reproductive activities, it’s a combination of two things. One, the young girls these parents are concerned about are much more likely to take behavioral tips from famous young girls than famous old ladies, and the parents know it. Second, When celebrities chose not to have kids at 16 and instead wait and see how their life unfolds and then implicitly chose not to have kids they are no longer role models for 16 year olds, and no specific event happened to be upset about.

Additionally I think it would be helpful in understanding the situation to view all of the girls three reproductive options; one have a kid (not ideal), two wait and see (much preferred), three have her tubes tied. So far I haven’t seen any discussion of this third option, but I think it would draw more criticism than getting pregnant.

Dan Weber writes:

Ah, thanks Mason. I read "double their outsourcing" as "go from 1 working parent to 2 working parents." But your interpretation fits a lot nicer than mine.

Anna writes:

My mother regretted having me. She told me this not in a moment of anger or depression, but during a calm and quiet conversation about her life choices that she waited to have with me until I was a young adult. She told me that she loved me and my two sisters very much, and that she got a great deal of joy from raising us and seeing us grow into strong young women, but that if she had it to do over again, she would not have had children. Having us prevented her from doing the things she wanted to do with her life, not because of social pressure to stay home with us or because we physically placed demands on her, although we did, but rather because the things she wanted to do were not financially or logistically possible given the costs and realities of raising and caring for us. She said, actually, that she knew several other parents who had children of varying ages who all felt this way.

Raising children seriously constricts one's choices. Beginning child-rearing at a young age restricts one's choices at exactly the time of a child's life when a parent should want the child to be exploring every option available to him or her. Can raising children, when freely chosen at the right time, be a deeply rewarding experience for the vast majority of parents? Absolutely. But so can going to any college one wants, or graduate school, or backpacking around South America for a year, or living in a share-house with a bunch of friends while trying to get a novel published, or working for sweatshop wages at an entry level non-profit job for something you really care about just for the experience, or any number of other things that you can't do if you have a baby to raise because you don't have the luxury of time or freedom or money (or the ability to live without money).

I would never want my child to give up the ability to make the infinite number of option a young adult gets in those early years of life that most of us never get back just to exercise one option that most of us will get the chance to exercise again when we are older and settled and in stable relationships. And even if it meant that my child never gave birth to her own child, I would never want to take all of those options away from her, because I would never want to see the look in any teenage girl's eyes that I saw in my mother's eyes.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top