Gayle spoke with Bryan Caplan, professor of Economics at George Mason University, about his new book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. Throughout the book, Caplan shows that the “price” of high-quality kids is less than parents imagine. Then he asks and answers the question, “What does enlightened self-interest tell you to do when you find out that something is cheaper than you previously believed? Buy more.”
Click here to listen to our eleven minute discussion or read the transcript below.
Gayle Trotter: This is Gayle Trotter, and today I’m speaking with Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University and author of a surprisingly titled book: Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. I wrote about his findings last summer in my post, My Virtual 60-Foot Sailboat. Thank you so much for talking with me today, Bryan.
Bryan Caplan: It’s a great pleasure.
GT: Why are you trying to convince people to have more kids than they originally planned?
BC: I just discovered some very interesting scientific research on nature/nurture and realized that it has a lot to do with how many kids it makes sense to have. There’s about 40 years worth of research on kids who are adopted and twins, and what I found is that from this research, they really find that parents have surprisingly little long-term effect on kids. Which at first thought you might say, “What does that have to do with how many kids to have?” What it means is that parents who push themselves really hard and stress out a lot about pushing their kids to be something that they’re not — trying to change them — ultimately it doesn’t have that much effect on how kids turn out so it looks like parents are enduring a lot of needless unhappiness. And if you think about the main reasons why people seem so scared to have more kids, it seems like a lot of it is that they’re already really tired, and they just feel like another kid would be too much work. So I’m saying, “Look, a lot of this work that you think that you have to do for your kids isn’t really necessary for them to have a decent future.” And, once you rethink that, then you have an opportunity to have more kids without so much suffering. Maybe even enjoy them.
GT: You say in your book that parenting is stressful but much of that stress is unnecessary. What do you mean by that?
BC: There are a lot of things that parents do that parents don’t enjoy, and their kids don’t enjoy so the only reason to do it would be if it helped the kid in the long run. And when you take a look at adoption/twin research, it turns out parents just don’t have that much effect on how their kids turn out in a lot of different ways. So, of course, if you enjoy it and your kid enjoys it, that’s great, but on the other hand if your kid enjoys it and you don’t, well, you can strike a compromise. But it really seems like there is this free lunch of just stop doing things that you and your kid don’t enjoy, and it’s not going to change the future anyway, so relax.
GT: In your book you set forth some standards that parents are all trying to achieve with their kids. What are those goals that parents have?
BC: This is the parental wish list. I wrote this down just to get an idea of what are all the things that parents are trying to do for their kids. What are all the outcomes that they’re trying to improve and then take a look at the actual science on how much difference parents really make. So on the list I start off with health, then I’ve got intelligence, happiness, success — here I’ve got educational success, occupational/financial success. I’ve got character, by which I mean things like honesty and work ethic, where almost all parents think they’re good ideas. I’ve got values, things like religion, politics, family values, where people disagree a lot about what’s good but still want their kids to be like them. And then I wrap it up with appreciation; how your kids feel about or remember you.
GT: My father said, “Do not expect appreciation from your children.” How would you disagree with him?
BC: There’s actually been a lot of work done on how people perceive their parents, and it turns out if you’re raised in the same family, you tend to perceive things in similar ways. Things like, if your parents are kind to you, you say that your parents are kind. If they spend time with you, then you say they spend time with you. If by appreciation you mean your kids following you around all day saying, “Thank you so much for putting a roof over my head,” then yeah, you’re not going to get much of that. But in terms of: Do your kids like you and feel good about you, feel good to be around you, feel comfortable talking to you — when they grow up are they going to use the Darth Vader ring tone on their cell phone for you or not? These are the kinds of things where it looks like parents really do have an effect. Again, of course, there are no guarantees in parenting. You could be perfect and your child could still for some strange reason not like you. But that’s unusual. Basically growing up in the same family turns out to be enough to make people see their parents in pretty similar ways. And that, for once, is an effect that seems to have not so much to do with genes.
GT: To contradict your studies based on our personal experience, siblings can be very, very different from each other, and it seems like a lot of your studies show that kids have the same kind of educational achievement, financial status, things, as their parents, but in families, those things can vary widely.
BC: Right. Some of those things are true. One thing to keep in mind is siblings only share half their genes, so genes can be extremely powerful and yet siblings can still be quite different. What you look at to see how to truly measure the genes is identical twins and identical twins are really similar in almost every way, of course, not exactly the same. My first two sons, by the way, are identical twins, so I actually see twin research in front of my own eyes every day.
GT: And they’re adorable. I’ve seen pictures of them.
BC: Oh, thank you so much. I agree, they are adorable. Wonderful kids. So, of course, when you’re a parent you tend to dwell on the small differences between them but anytime a third kid shows up I say, wow, my twins are really similar to each other and really quite different from almost any other kid that they know, except maybe their baby brother who does remind me a lot of them at the same age, although right now that’s based a lot on appearance. He just happens by coincidence to be almost like a triplet separated in time when you hold up his picture to baby pictures of his brothers. It’s really striking.
GT: Right. When I told a friend that I was pregnant with baby number six, she responded that she would slit her wrists if she had another. Another friend reacted to my news by saying she would shoot herself in the head. Why this vivid and negative reaction from people?
BC: You might see in my book that I had actually almost the same thing happen when we were just strolling our twin babies. There was a couple of joggers who went by and one turned to the other and said, “Now, there’s a reason to shoot yourself.” They just didn’t hold their volume down low enough for us not to hear. The thing is, I think the way a lot of people raise their kids, I can kind of understand what people are saying because parents put in an enormous amount of effort. They actually put in a lot more time raising their kids than in the sixties, back when family size was a lot bigger. And what’s especially striking is that it’s not so surprising that dads put in a lot more time into raising their kids today because we used to do almost nothing, but what’s striking is moms actually put in more hours today than they did during the baby boom. Moms spend more time raising their kids than they did during the baby boom even though they have fewer kids, they’ve got jobs outside the home and dads are helping more, and they’re still killing themselves. And I think a lot of it is based on this theory — which is not a fact but just a theory — that if you put all this effort into your kids you will give them a brighter future and the evidence is that’s mostly not so. There’s a wide range of parenting styles that are all about equally good in terms of how kids turn out, so stop beating yourself up so much, and certainly don’t shoot yourself in the head.
GT: I was surprised to read in your book that you think parenting is so wonderful that it’s worth pursuing controversial means to achieve it, including the creation of many embryos who will be discarded through IVF or possibly using genetic manipulation like cloning to obtain the child a parent desires. Why do you think this?
BC: Here’s my thinking. These technologies, they usually horrify people until they happen and then you start noticing there’s a bunch of people who exist who wouldn’t have existed if not for this technology. So it’s something that sounds weird, it sounds creepy to people at first, but now there are millions of people alive because of in vitro fertilization. Do we really want to say that their existence is a mistake? I mean, they’re happy to be alive; their parents are happy to have them; I think the world is a better place because of them. So I say the simplest way to make the techniques no longer controversial is just to do them for awhile, have a few people show up, and I really do think that if we actually got a few clone babies in our society, it would start to be as gauche to go and say that cloning is evil as it is now to go and say that kids born from in vitro fertilization, there’s something wrong with them.
GT: I agree with you that being alive is good for children, but I think the key question I’m asking is: What about the life that’s created and then purposely destroyed?
BC: Right. So you’re thinking about the way that you wind up creating embryos for in vitro fertilization. First, a lot of times you just go and freeze them and wait around to see what happens; sometimes those kids actually do get to exist. If you really do consider basically a few cells to be a human being, then it’s a tougher dilemma. Though even there I would say that there’s a chance that a kid will get to exist. Even if you don’t implant them, there actually are people who implant other people’s embryos; they call them snowflake babies. There are some people who feel like they basically want to rescue these kids from being frozen. So I’d say if I had a choice: Either I could be created as an embryo and frozen and just take my chances and hope that someone goes and implants me or I could just never exist at all, I’d rather just be that embryo with a lottery ticket.
GT: If you had five minutes alone with the famous Tiger Mom, what would you say to her?
BC: Let’s see; that’s a really good question. It’s a very different thing to say something in person rather than what you would say about them.
BC: Hmm. Let’s see; that is a good question. I think my first place to start is this: So in her book she says that on the one hand, as a dutiful Chinese daughter-in-law she could never actually argue with her mother-in-law, but nevertheless she said she had to ignore all her mother-in-law’s parenting advice because she knew that it was doomed to fail and I would have to say, “Why would you say that her advice is doomed to fail when your husband, her son, is a Yale law professor and a best-selling author?” Seems like that is a very strong piece of evidence against you that someone can raise a child in a way that you think is totally unacceptable and not only does he become a huge success, but you married him.
GT: Absolutely. Do you come to your conclusions in this book from a faith perspective?
BC: No. I would not say so. Most of this is coming from the science of nature and nurture. I would say that it comes from a philosophical view that it’s very good to be alive and life is a gift and more people enjoying it is a good thing. I’m more of a philosophy person than a religion person. But I will say that one of the best things about religion is that it does seem to persuade people to have more kids and more people exist because of it so I think that’s not to be ignored.
GT: So you’d say it’s a good thing, ultimately.
BC: I mean, I’d say that it’s good that they’re having more kids and I’m glad to have them.
GT: Bryan, you’ve written a provocative and engaging book. I recommend to all our listeners that they read it. Thank you so much for speaking with me.
BC: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
First published in First Things in May 2011