Bryan Caplan  

Parents and Buyer's Remorse: Lessons from the Lost Newsday Study

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In 1975, Ann Landers famously reported that 70% of parents had buyer's remorse: If they had their lives to live over against, they wouldn't have kids.  Landers' study subsequently made it into some statistics lectures as an illustration of the danger of a self-selected sample.  In 1976, Newsday re-ran Landers' survey on a random sample of Americans, and found that 91% of parents did not have buyer's remorse.

When I looked into the Newsday survey, I learned two surprising facts.  First, as far as I can tell, this question was never again put to a random American sample.  (The closest thing I could find was a 2003 Gallup poll that asked non-parents over the age of 40 about non-buyer's remorse).  Second, the Newsday survey was almost impossible to track down.  The stats profs only knew about it by word of mouth, so they didn't have a citation.  My RA couldn't find it online, and Newsday's only advice was, "Try microfiche."  Microfiche!

The upshot was that my current and past RA went on an archaeological expedition to the Library of Congress - and saw first-hand what research was like back in the bad old days.  In the end, though, they found the original article.  It's up on my personal webpage if you're curious.

What does the Newsday survey say?  First and foremost, the hearsay about the rarity of regret is accurate.  In fact, since some people didn't answer this question, fully 93% of the actual responses were positive.  Other interesting results:

  • Women had more regret than men: 9% of women had buyer's remorse, versus just 5% of men.  While many will say this result is obvious, remember that there is virtually no gender gap on "desired family size."
  • Young (under 25) and old (65+) had the most regret: 15% and 13% respectively.
  • Blacks had much more regret: 19%, versus 6% for whites.
  • Regret sharply falls as income rises.  13% with income under $5000 (in 1976 dollars) had buyer's remorse, versus only 4% with incomes of $25k+.
  • Regret sharply falls as education rises.  12% of drop-outs admitted regret, versus 3% of college grads.
Unfortunately, I still don't have the original data, so I can't use regression to sort out the effects of gender, age, race, income, and education.  Now that we have the date (6/13/76), it's conceivable that Newsday will be able to give me more info, but that seems like a long-shot.

Other interesting results: The survey also asked people how many children they would have if they had a "do-over."  If you read the table, it looks like there is a moderate tendency to want more: Respondents have 2.66 but want 2.84.  You might think that this result happens solely because the survey includes young parents who have not yet reached their target; but it also holds for respondents 45 and older.

If you read the accompanying text, however, you learn that these results are only for the sub-sample of "people who had children and also said they would like to have children again."  If you factor in zeroes for all the parents with buyer's remorse, there might even be a slight tendency for parents to want fewer kids than they've got.  Keep in mind, though, that almost all parents clearly want all the kids they've got; the results are driven by a small minority of the disappointed.

OK, so what's the take-away? 

First of all, even though child-free advocates continue to cite the famous Ann Landers survey, it was discredited over thirty years ago.  Almost no one regrets having kids. 

Second, you might dismiss the Newsday results as mere status quo bias - "Everyone thinks that whatever they did was for the best."  But you probably shouldn't.  The 2003 Gallup study finds that about two-thirds of childless people over 40 wish they had kids.  Buyer's remorse is rare; non-buyer's remorse is common.

Third, almost everyone wants as many kids as they've got.  You can object that it's partly an endowment effect, but it's still real.

Fourth, the small amount of regret that exists is heavily concentrated in the left tail of the SES distribution - once again confirming the hypothesis Scott Beaulier and I advance that "the poor deviate more" from neoclassical rationality and self-control assumptions.


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
tim writes:

Interesting, although I am not fully convinced.

A couple of points:
I think there would be a huge psychological barrier to admitting that you regret having your kids. It might be better to look at some measure of parental involvement or effort.

The respondents were asked if they had it to do over again whether they would have kids, not whether they would marry the same spouse and have the 'same' kids.

Kids (especially younger kids) are biologically programed to seek their parents approval. Children's lives depend on their parents, and pleasing their parents is about the only tool they have in a one sided power relationship.

Its also hard to believe that the numbers wouldn't be significantly higher today. The number of single, never married, parents is much higher, and difficulty of raising kids has increased dramatically (housing & health care costs, mandatory car seats, soccer mom expectations etc...)

dearieme writes:

It's only other people's children that I regret.

El Presidente writes:

Bryan,

I know it is a different concept than regret, but what about income elasticity of demand? Have you seen any reliable timeseries that show preference for children by parenting status (single/couple), individual income, and household income? I would like to know if you've seen any evidence that demand for children is typical of inferior goods, or not. I'm just curious.

El Presidente writes:

Also of interest, have you seen any studies that use the income of the grandparents (the subjects' parents) as an independent variable and the prospective parents' (the subjects') ideal number of children as the dependent variable?

alex writes:

I wish that I started having kids earlier, and I think my wife agrees with me (we were 34 and 33 when our daughter was born, after 7 years of marriage; we consciously chose to wait, in order to build careers and have a carefree lifestyle). I wonder how common such a "regret" is?

I can articulate two reasons for this, both about equally important:

1. Looking back, we didn't really have that much "fun" that we couldn't have with a child. Or, at least, we could have time-shift it to the present (like travel). Now that we have more income, it would be more fun to have older children (again, we could travel with them). Starting earlier, we might have gotten more help from grandparents who were slightly younger and healthier back then.

2. We would like to have another child, but fast approaching the age when health issues are more likely to arise.

I think the biggest reason we didn't have children sooner was because no one in our circle did, and this probably takes some weight out of reason #1 (it wouldn't be as much fun after all, because we would very quickly lose a lot of friends).

Anyway, maybe this is completely uninteresting to anyone, but I felt like sharing :)

Zac writes:

I'm a little baffled.. if two-thirds of childless people over 40 wish they had kids, why don't they adopt?

Brandon Berg writes:

Women had more regret than men: 9% of women had buyer's remorse, versus just 5% of men. While many will say this result is obvious, remember that there is virtually no gender gap on "desired family size."

I still think it's obvious, but not for the reason you're implying. Single parents, who I suspect are more likely than married parents to regret having children, are overwhelmingly female.

Actually, single parenthood probably accounts for many of the other correlations found. Single parents are overrepresented among young parents, black parents, parents without high school diplomas, and parents with low incomes. They probably should have controlled for marital status.

George writes:

Tim wrote:

"Kids (especially younger kids) are biologically programed to seek their parents approval. Children's lives depend on their parents, and pleasing their parents is about the only tool they have in a one sided power relationship."

Hmmm. My almost-three-year old's programming is pretty buggy, then (or maybe he's running Windows and picked up some malware). He does many, many things every day that result in my disapproval (frequently right after I've told him not to do them).

And as for pleasing being the "only tool": this evening he was (intentionally or not) pleasing me by making random observations and giggling. That in no way kept me from putting him in his crib, which he did not want. Then he switched to a tool that actually worked: crying loudly enough to wake his brothers, who I'd already gotten to sleep. I pretty much had to get him out of his crib, or tomorrow morning would be very, very difficult.

Parent-child relations are very complicated, even once you get past parental selection.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

@ Zac:

"I'm a little baffled.. if two-thirds of childless people over 40 wish they had kids, why don't they adopt?"

I'll offer some possibilities.

1. If childless people over 40 are living alone, they may find it physically, emotionally or financially impossible to care for a child on their own.

2. It doesn't necessarily follow that if one spouse regrets not having had children, that the other spouse feels the same way.

3. Adoptions can be very expensive and there is a certain element of risk involved. Most people want to adopt infants. There are not enough infants in the U.S. to satisfy demand, and it's not uncommon for a single mother who planned to put her infant up for adoption to change her mind at the last minute.

Many countries have stopped foreign adoptions or do not wish to permit people over 40 to adopt. Meanwhile, there's a certain amount of risk adopting children from some of the countries that still permit foreign adoptions, because the children may have serious physical or emotional problems that may not become apparent until after their adoptive parents have brought them home.

Dan Weber writes:

I'm a little baffled.. if two-thirds of childless people over 40 wish they had kids, why don't they adopt?

In addition to The Cupboard Is Bare's points, there is:

4. They wish that they had had children, but don't want to be in their 60's at their kid's high school graduation if they start now.

David J. Balan writes:

It seems like a key distinction is whether or not they wanted the kids in the first place, which is omitted but probably correlated with other stuff like SES.

Jim writes:

Did the childless people over forty who wish they had kids not want kids before and changed their mind or did they always want kids but were unable to have them for some reason (like infertility or a lack of a spouse). This could be like saying 2/3 of homeless people over forty wish they had homes.

Jason Malloy writes:

Dr. Caplan,

I'm seeing this post several days late, but if you want published buyer's remorse data, instead of magazine polls, there is a study from Australia that found that 7% of people say they would not have children again if given the choice. HTH.

Evans, MDR, & Kelley, J (1999). Small families or large? Australia in international perspective. Australian Social Monitor, 2, 13-19.

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