Children require a lot of time, attention, and material resources. The idea of raising a family in our society is doubtless a daunting one for many. Data, however, suggests that the benefits of having kids outweigh the “costs,” and ultimately children serve as the source of happiness and satisfaction for many parents. In the Wall Street Journal, economics professor Bryan Caplan makes a case for having kids, summarizing the argument with, “if… you’re interested in kids, but scared of the sacrifices, research has two big lessons. First, parents’ sacrifice is much smaller than it looks, and childless and single is far inferior to married with children. Second, parents’ sacrifice is much larger than it has to be.”
The Breeders’ Cup
By BRYAN CAPLAN
June 19, 2010
Amid the Father’s Day festivities, many of us are privately asking a Scroogely question: “Having kids—what’s in it for me?” An economic perspective on happiness, nature and nurture provides an answer: Parents’ sacrifice is much smaller than it looks, and much larger than it has to be.
Most of us believe that kids used to be a valuable economic asset. They worked the farm, and supported you in retirement. In the modern world, the story goes, the economic benefits of having kids seem to have faded away. While parents today make massive personal and financial sacrifices, children barely reciprocate. When they’re young, kids monopolize the remote and complain about the food, but do little to help around the house; when you’re old, kids forget to return your calls and ignore your advice, but take it for granted that you’ll continue to pay your own bills.
Many conclude that if you value your happiness and spending money, the only way to win the modern parenting game is not to play. Low fertility looks like a sign that we’ve finally grasped the winning strategy. In almost all developed nations, the total fertility rate—the number of children the average woman can expect to have in her lifetime—is well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children. (The U.S. is a bit of an outlier, with a rate just around replacement.) Empirical happiness research seems to validate this pessimism about parenting: All else equal, people with kids are indeed less happy than people without.
While the popular and the academic cases against kids have a kernel of truth, both lack perspective. By historical standards, modern parents get a remarkably good deal. When economist Ted Bergstrom of the University of California, Santa Barbara reviewed the anthropological evidence, he found that in traditional societies, kids don’t pay. Among hunter-gatherers, children consume more calories than they produce, and grandparents produce more calories than they consume virtually until the day they die. Agricultural societies are much the same. Only in recent decades did people start living long enough to collect much of a “pension” from their kids. While big financial transfers from children to their parents remain rare, only in the modern world can retirees expect to enjoy two decades of their descendents’ company and in-kind assistance.
It’s also true that modern parents are less happy than their childless counterparts. But happiness researchers rarely emphasize how small the happiness gap is. Suppose you take the National Opinion Research Center’s canonical General Social Survey, and compare Americans with the same age, marital status and church attendance. (These controls are vital, because older, married and church-going people have more happiness and more kids). Then every additional child makes parents just 1.3 percentage points less likely to be “very happy.” In contrast, the estimated happiness boost of marriage is about 18 percentage points; couples probably have fewer highs after they wed, but the security and companionship more than compensate. In the data, the people to pity are singles, not parents.
A closer look at the General Social Survey also reveals that child No. 1 does almost all the damage. Otherwise identical people with one child instead of none are 5.6 percentage points less likely to be very happy. Beyond that, additional children are almost a happiness free lunch. Each child after the first reduces your probability of being very happy by a mere .6 percentage points.
Happiness researchers also neglect a plausible competing measure of kids’ impact on parents’ lives: customer satisfaction. If you want to know whether consumers are getting a good deal, it’s worth asking, “If you had to do it over again, would you make the same decision?” The only high-quality study of parents’ satisfaction dates back to a nation-wide survey of about 1,400 parents by the Research Analysis Corp. in 1976, but its results were stark: When asked, “If you had it to do over again, would you or would you not have children?” 91% of parents said yes, and only 7% expressed buyer’s remorse.
You might think that everyone rationalizes whatever decision they happened to make, but a 2003 Gallup poll found that wasn’t true. When asked, “If you had to do it over again, how many children would you have, or would you not have any at all?” 24% of childless adults over the age of 40 wanted to be child-free the second time around, and only 5% more were undecided. While you could protest that childlessness isn’t always a choice, it’s also true that many pregnancies are unplanned. Bad luck should depress the customer satisfaction of both groups, but parenthood wins hands down.
The main problem with parenting pessimists, though, is that they assume there’s no acceptable way to make parenting less work and more fun. Parents may feel like their pressure, encouragement, money and time are all that stands between their kids and failure. But decades’ worth of twin and adoption research says the opposite: Parents have a lot more room to safely maneuver than they realize, because the long-run effects of parenting on children’s outcomes are much smaller than they look.
Think about everything parents want for their children. The traits most parents hope for show family resemblance: If you’re healthy, smart, happy, educated, rich, righteous or appreciative, the same tends to be true for your parents, siblings and children. Of course, it’s difficult to tell nature from nurture. To disentangle the two, researchers known as behavioral geneticists have focused on two kinds of families: those with twins, and those that adopt. If identical twins show a stronger resemblance than fraternal twins, the reason is probably nature. If adoptees show any resemblance to the families that raised them, the reason is probably nurture.
Parents try to instill healthy habits that last a lifetime. But the two best behavioral genetic studies of life expectancy—one of 6,000 Danish twins born between 1870 and 1900, the other of 9,000 Swedish twins born between 1886 and 1925—found zero effect of upbringing. Twin studies of height, weight and even teeth reach similar conclusions. This doesn’t mean that diet, exercise and tooth-brushing don’t matter—just that parental pressure to eat right, exercise and brush your teeth after meals fails to win children’s hearts and minds.
Parents also strive to turn their children into smart and happy adults, but behavioral geneticists find little or no evidence that their effort pays off. In research including hundreds of twins who were raised apart, identical twins turn out to be much more alike in intelligence and happiness than fraternal twins, but twins raised together are barely more alike than twins raised apart. In fact, pioneering research by University of Minnesota psychologist David Lykken found that twins raised apart were more alike in happiness than twins raised together. Maybe it’s just a fluke, but it suggests that growing up together inspires people to differentiate themselves; if he’s the happy one, I’ll be the malcontent.
Parents use many tactics to influence their kids’ schooling and future income. Some we admire: reading to kids, helping them with homework, praising hard work. Others we resent: fancy tutors, legacy admissions, nepotism. According to the research, however, these tactics barely work. Dartmouth economist Bruce Sacerdote studied about 1,200 families that adopted disadvantaged Korean children. The families spanned a broad range; they only needed incomes 25% above the poverty level to be eligible to adopt. Nevertheless, family income and neighborhood income had zero effect on adoptees’ ultimate success in school and work.
Other aspects of family environment mattered in the Korean adoptee study, but not much. If a mother had one extra year of education, her adoptee typically finished five more weeks of school, and was two percentage points more likely to graduate from college—but didn’t earn more money. If an adoptee was raised with one extra sibling, he typically finished six fewer weeks of school, was three percentage points less likely to graduate from college, and earned 4% less. Studies of Swedish adoptees, and American, Australian and Swedish twins say about the same.
Behavioral geneticists also find that the effect of upbringing on morals is quite superficial. Parents have a strong effect on which religion and political party their kids identify with, but little on their adult behavior or outlook. Some, but not all, twin and adoption studies find that parents have a modest effect on tobacco, alcohol and drug use, juvenile delinquency, and when daughters (but not sons) start having sex. The most meaningful fruit of parenting, however, is simply appreciation—the way your children perceive and remember you. When 1,400 older Swedish twins were asked to describe their parents, identical twins’ answers were only slightly more similar than fraternal twins’, and twins raised together gave much more similar answers than twins raised apart. If you create a loving and harmonious home for your children, they’ll probably remember it for as long as they live.
Critics often attack behavioral genetics with a reductio ad absurdum: “If it doesn’t matter how you raise your kids, why not lock them in a closet?” The answer is that twin and adoption studies measure the effect of parenting styles that people frequently use. Locking kids in closets fortunately isn’t one of them. It’s also important to remember that most studies focus on kids’ long-run outcomes. Parents often change their kids in the short-run, but as kids grow up, their parents’ influence wears off.
Many find behavioral genetics depressing, but it’s great news for parents and potential parents. If you think that your kids’ future rests in your hands, you’ll probably make many painful “investments”—and feel guilty that you didn’t do more. Once you realize that your kids’ future largely rests in their own hands, you can give yourself a guilt-free break.
If you enjoy reading with your children, wonderful. But if you skip the nightly book, you’re not stunting their intelligence, ruining their chances for college or dooming them to a dead-end job. The same goes for the other dilemmas that weigh on parents’ consciences. Watching television, playing sports, eating vegetables, living in the right neighborhood: Your choices have little effect on your kids’ development, so it’s OK to relax. In fact, relaxing is better for the whole family. Riding your kids “for their own good” rarely pays off, and it may hurt how your children feel about you.
Once parents stop overcharging themselves for every child, the next logical step is straight out of Econ 101: Buy more. When you raise your children the easy way, another child is more likely to pass the cost-benefit test. This doesn’t mean you should copy the Duggars with their 19 children; when prices fall, Econ 101 says “Buy more,” not “Buy dozens.” But whatever your priorities, the science of nature and nurture tilts the scales in favor of fertility.
As you weigh your options, don’t forget that the costs of kids are front-loaded, and the benefits are back-loaded. Babies are a lot of work even if you’re easy on yourself. But the older kids get, the more independent they become; eventually, you’ll want them to find time for you. So when weighing whether to have another child, you shouldn’t base your decision on how you feel after a few days—or months—of sleepless nights with a new baby. Focus on the big picture, consider the ideal number of children to have when you’re 30, 40, 60 and 80, and strike a happy medium. Remember: The more kids you have, the more grandkids you can expect. As an old saying goes, “If I had known grandchildren were this much fun I would have had them first.”
Father’s Day is a time to reflect on whether you want to be a parent—or want to be a parent again. If you simply don’t like kids, research has little to say to you. If however you’re interested in kids, but scared of the sacrifices, research has two big lessons. First, parents’ sacrifice is much smaller than it looks, and childless and single is far inferior to married with children. Second, parents’ sacrifice is much larger than it has to be. Twin and adoption research shows that you don’t have to go the extra mile to prepare your kids for the future. Instead of trying to mold your children into perfect adults, you can safely kick back, relax and enjoy your journey together—and seriously consider adding another passenger.