Bryan Caplan  

Kids and Happiness: The Sweet and Sour Spot

Undercover Boss: Government vs... James Heckman on the Great Sta...
I've heard a wide variety of objections to my forthcoming book on kids.  But the thinkers I most respect usually argue that the empirical happiness research is my Achilles heel.  After all, they point out, the negative effect of kids on their parents' subjective well-being is extremely robust.  Doesn't this show that there aren't any "selfish reasons to have more kids"?

To answer this question, it's necessary to back up a bit.  Suppose, just suppose, that the empirical happiness literature found that parents were vastly happier than non-parents.  You might think this would be great news for my thesis.  But on reflection, it would ruin my whole story!

Here's why.  My main message is that parents work too hard and sacrifice too much because they overestimate the power of nurture.  But if parents were already much happier than non-parents, the natural inference to draw would be that parents enjoy their lifestyle just the way it is.  If they're already tickled pink, they don't need me to show them an "easier" way to get the kids they want.

It would be equally bad news for me, though, if parents were much unhappier than non-parents.  After all, I'm just offering a bunch of marginal adjustments for parents to use to improve their lives.  If parents were miserable, people who already have kids could still use my advice to make their lives less awful.  But selfishly speaking, the only way to win the parenting game would be not to play.

If "parents are much happier than non-parents" and "parents are much unhappier than non-parents" both undermine my argument, when does it become most relevant?  Simple: My argument is most relevant if parents are slightly less happy than comparable non-parents.  Parents need to be within striking distance of happiness - unhappy enough to need help, but not so unhappy that they're beyond help.

Empirically, this is precisely what we find in the data.  See for yourself in the GSS; each kid makes you roughly one percentage-point less likely to say you're "very happy."  My critics are absolutely right to insist that parents have a robust happiness deficit.  But despite its robustness, this happiness deficit is small.  That's the kind of deficit people can plausibly reverse by modestly revising their parenting style.

Strange as it seems, then, the empirical evidence on kids and happiness doesn't undermine my whole project.  Indeed, from the standpoint of my intellectual relevance, we're in the sweet spot.  Parents do need some help - and their problems are mild enough to solve with a little economics and a little common sense.

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Doug writes:

Bryan (or anyone else),

Do you have data on the effect of grandchildren on happiness, my guess is from pretty much any grandparents I've ever seen that the effect would be strongly positive. Or even adult children. Kids are brats, but the primary draw seems to be that they're investable brats (and of course if you can get the same result with less work then they're investments with potentially even higher rates of return).

pandaemoni writes:

Surely there are parents who put in more effort and less effort than others. Is there any reason to believe that the ones who put in less effort already are more happy than those who overinvest? Put flippantly, are the irresponsible parents happier than the Tiger Moms? (If this is dealt with in the book, let me know and I will read the answer there.)

Marcel writes:

Bryan, maybe you already have discussed this somewhere, but what is your view on the early childhood development literature by Heckman and others? For example, here's is a passage from one of his most recent papers:

An overwhelming body of evidence suggests that parenting plays a crucial role—what parents do and do not do; how they interact with and supplement the lives of their children, especially their early lives. The true measure of child affluence and poverty is the quality of parenting.

This seems to go directly against your thesis. Do you simply disagree with Heckman or am I missing something in your argument?

Richard writes:

Where do you get the idea that most parents are trying too hard? It may come from living in an upper class bubble. I grew up among the lower classes and they were happy to let nature take its course.

Tracy W writes:

Marcel - Heckman doesn't reference "this overwhelming body of evidence". The one reference after the statement you quoted is to a paper looking at a fall in psychopathology after an Indian tribe increased its income by starting a casino, the study found that "most of the improvement arose in children whose parents improved their
parenting." But if your parents are more capable of taking advantage of new opportunities, it's quite possible that you inherited the genes that makes you more capable of taking advantage of new opportunities, eg more funding at school, or expecting more opportunities later on in life.

Heckman does discuss genetic and environment effects, to dismiss the idea that everything is down to genes, but he doesn't distinguish between family environment effects and peer group environment effects. If the genetically-similar Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews differ, is that because of what their respective parents do, or because of what their respective peer groups do? The Perry school project he describes, amongst other things, fosters social skills amongst the children, was that the key action, rather than the home visits?

Heckman seems to be a great example of The Nurture Assumption, judging by this paper he does tend to assume that either it's genes or it's parents, not that it might be peers.

Brian Clendinen writes:

Happiness is an irrelevant metric for important things in life. I can be happy but dissatisfied, on the other hand I can be sad but extremely satisfied. So it should be contentment and satisfaction are the proper indicators for parents, not happiness. Or as Bob Dylan was quoted by Rolling Stones in 1991.

"You know,these are yuppie words, happiness and unhappiness. It's not happiness or unhappiness, it's either blessed or unblessed."

I can think of no better quote on how to analyze having kids.

Finch writes:

> Surely there are parents who put in more effort
> and less effort than others. Is there any
> reason to believe that the ones who put in less
> effort already are more happy than those who
> overinvest?

I would also like to hear something on this.

The persistence of the unhappiness effect after children leave the home is suggestive of something other than the pain of intensive child-rearing being the cause. As is the fact that the median parent isn't trying very hard, and that the people who are trying very hard don't seem that unhappy. Maybe it's just me, but it seems a little implausible. Trying hard doesn't seem to make me that unhappy.

Just to qualify this, I believe that the pain of being a serious over-investor in your children is real, I just question how big a factor it is. Has this, or any of the alternative hypotheses, been looked at quantitatively?

Finally, and this is a nit, if your explanation, "trying too hard makes you less happy," was correct, and therefore fixable, it would still prompt people to want to have more kids in a world where kids made you happier. You could be made even more happy by trying less.

Steve Sailer writes:

I'd agree on Doug's grandparenting point. Plus, I'd take it a step further and say that it may well be that people have an impact on the quality of grandchildren they get. If you sacrifice to get your kids into a better peer group, you may get a better son or daughter in law and better grandchildren.

Steve Sailer writes:

I'm fascinated by a wealthy, rapidly growing ethnic group that succeeds (on their own terms) by violating all the rules of upper middle class American parenting that Bryan challenges: the Syrian Jews of Brooklyn.

Instead of investing heavily in the higher education of one or two children, they have lots of children but educate few past high school. Instead, families invest in simple but highly profitable Crazy Eddie-style businesses that their sons can go to work in at age 18. Their key to business success is to inculcate certain highly profitable cultural attitudes (e.g., Never give a sucker an even break.)

Here's Zev Chafets' article "The Sy Empire" from the New York Times Magazine in 2007:

I'd like to see Bryan's assessment of the Syrian Jews' parenting practices.

Jack writes:

As Doug and Steve Sailer argue, I also think the relevant calculation is to compare the cost of having kids with the benefits of having kids, grandkids and maybe even great-grandkids. This is particularly true now that people can live to 80 or 90.

Then, it should not be surprising that the cost of having kids is greater than the benefit. You gamble because there's a good chance you'll enjoy further generations.

Sister Y writes:

The research on happiness and children classically finds parents get a decrease in hedonic wellbeing, but an increase in the subjective experience of "meaning." Recent research suggests that this "meaningfulness" of parenting is, in fact, a quantifiable reaction to awareness of the objective badness of parenting. (Eibach & Mock, "Idealizing Parenthood to Rationalize Parental Investments" Psychological Science February 2011 vol. 22 no. 2 203-208.)

This interpretation would predict that the more (necessarily unpleasant) parental effort parents put into childrearing, the more they will experience "meaning." Also, the less good parents see their children as doing for them, the more "meaning" they will attribute to the parental relationship. A parent who expected to personally benefit from children (as is the case with "Tiger mom" parenting, I think) would experience less "meaning" than one who parented for genuinely altruistic reasons.

The really sad thing is that nobody's talking about the welfare of children here. It's all about the parents.

Steve Sailer writes:

"Where do you get the idea that most parents are trying too hard? It may come from living in an upper class bubble. I grew up among the lower classes and they were happy to let nature take its course."

In Bryan's defense, nobody outside the bubble is going to read or even hear about his book, so its impact within the bubble is what counts.

For example, we've had three Presidents who were Baby Boomers. They've had (as far as we know) an average of 1.67 children each. So, the Ultimate Winner class of guys who make it to the White House has had below replacement fertility.

lemmy caution writes:

"Where do you get the idea that most parents are trying too hard? It may come from living in an upper class bubble. I grew up among the lower classes and they were happy to let nature take its course."

This book is good on the differing parenting styles of the upper class and the poor:

A lot of parents do the concerted cultivation parenting as a "keeping up with the jones" thing. As far as I can tell, it is just a fad.

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