Bryan Caplan  

One More Reason to Thank Your Mom

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Two questions occur to me this Mother's Day:

1. How many readers are here today because your dad pressured your mom to have you? 

2. How many readers are here today because your mom pressured your dad to have you?

It's hard to verify, but I bet that the answer to question #2 is a lot bigger than the answer to question #1.  And my bet is hardly idiocyncratic.  At least in modern Western societies, "I want a baby, he doesn't" seems far more common than "I want a baby, she doesn't."  The hard truth is that a lot of us are here today because our moms lobbied on our behalf before our conceptions.

Nevertheless, one common criticism of my kids book is "Sure, that's easy for a dad to say."  The critics rarely elaborate, but their model seems to be that women want fewer kids than men because women pay the lion's share of the costs.  That's obviously true ceteris paribus.  But popular stereotypes strongly suggest that ceteris is not paribus.

At times like this, it's wise to turn to the data - and the data provide three key facts.  The first key fact suggests that both gender conflict stories are wrong:

Key Fact #1: Men's average desired family size is virtually identical to women's average desired family size.  The General Social Survey confirms this for the U.S.; the World Values Survey confirms it for virtually every nation on earth.

By itself, these stats indicate that men and women are equally likely to want more kids than their partners.  And since women do bear the lion's share of the cost, economists have to conclude that they also get more of the benefits.

However, the other two key facts suggest that the "I want a baby, he doesn't" stereotype is righter than it looks.

Key Fact #2: Women think having children is more important than men do.  The GSS contains the question IMPFAM, which reads:
On these cards are various aspects of life. We would like to know how important each of these aspects of life is for you... [T]ell me for each card its letter and the number you've decided on. a. One's own family and children.
Supermajorities of both men and women give the maximally favorable answer.  But women are even more unanimous than men.  On a 1-7 scale, men's mean answer is 6.71; women's is 6.83.

Key Fact #3: Women are much more likely than men to experience "baby fever" - a deep craving to have a baby.  Less than half of men in their twenties feel baby fever - versus more than two-thirds of women.

The upshot is that while men and women are about equally likely to want more children than their partner, women's preferences tend to be more intense.  So when I offer intellectual ammunition for bigger families, how am I neglecting women's interests?  Half the people who want more kids than their partner are women - and when women have fewer kids than they want, it's a bigger disappointment.  No wonder women lobby harder for their desired family size.

Of course, if you have an ounce of social intelligence, you won't bring this up during your Mother's Day dinner.  Still, there really is a decent chance that you wouldn't be here today if your mom wanted you a little less - another big reason to enthuse, "Thank you, Mom!" and mean it.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
AMW writes:

I don't know if my mother lobbied for me. But I know that my wife lobbied for baby #4; and she got her way.

Doug writes:

Ahh yes, but we can all agree that another child conceived at a slightly different time (even a few hours later) would have a different combination of inherited genes and be a different individual. On that count the desire to have a baby is even less important than the desire to conceive right at that very moment.

Since most times intercourse is initiated by men not women, you as the very specific individual you are, should be thanking dad more than mom. Or to put it a slightly different way, if you view the condition of your parents having another child around the same time as a an equally valid substitute to your existence then it's most likely the mother. However if you view that as not a substitute to you then it's most likely the father.

Paul Burt writes:

A good point Bryan. And I guess it beats the shake weight.

These days, those days writes:

It does seem, intuitively, that more planned conceptions happen because the mother insisted on it, than the father. On the other hand, unplanned conceptions are probably more likely to have happened "because the father pressured the mother."

But then, it is still likely that the majority of conceptions in the modern West were planned for.

Michael Bishop writes:

Check the google results: "she doesn't"

"he doesn't"

Dave Killion writes:

[As a veteran parent, I will indulge in my unearned prerogative to offer unsolicited advice to the new parents. It is this – familiarize yourselves with the work of George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan and his book “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think“. ]

English Professor writes:

I am suspicious of the answers that people give to surveys generally, and even more so on topics like these. These questions touch on a wide range of societal expectations, and I suspect that many people feel compelled to give the socially appropriate answer.

Every time I ever heard a man say that he wanted kids (or more kids), one of the following three things was in play: 1) his parents were putting strong pressure on him about grandchildren; 2) he assumed that almost all the work of child rearing would be borne by his wife; or 3) he was gay. I would really like to know how men would answer this question: would you want a child if you were going to be expected to do half of the work of raising it?

AMW writes:

Michael Bishop,

I love that this post shows up at #6 for "he doesn't."

John Fast writes:

Well, I'm dating a woman who doesn't want kids. I'm planning on buying her a copy of Bryan's book as soon as I think it won't scare her off.

@English Professor I'm not only willing to do half the work; I'm willing to be a stay-at-home dad and raise the kids myself while she works. (She's very career-oriented and with either an M.D. or a graduate degree in a hard science she will probably make more than I would.)

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