A neighbor kindly introduced me to another neighbor I had not yet met. After hearing where I live, the new neighbor said to me, “Oh, you’re in the house with the gaggle of kids.” As she said this, she rolled her eyes and made a face as though she smelled something unpleasant.
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, a typical U.S. woman can expect to have 2.09 kids. In northwest DC, where I live, most families seem to be small, so it is not hard to become the “house with the gaggle of kids.”
Unlike Humanae Vitae for Catholics, evangelicals generally do not have a religious command or theology regarding the use of birth control. The Rev. Al Mohler has posited an evangelical position of “openness to children” while allowing the use of non-abortifacient birth control for family planning. Many evangelicals are reconsidering this issue. One serious evangelical I know had his vasectomy reversed after reading Theology of the Body.
Religious and non-religious people alike perceive that children are a huge sacrifice. Many years ago as an associate in a large law firm, I enjoyed a Saturday afternoon with a group of young lawyers sailing on a senior partner’s boat. When I complimented his sailboat, he wistfully lamented, no more than half joking, “Every child takes ten feet off your sailboat.”
In his WSJ article, economics Professor Bryan Caplan outlines the case for having more children, arguing that “Parents’ sacrifice is much smaller than it looks, and much larger than it has to be.”
Acknowledging the perception that children used to be an asset in agrarian societies, Caplan looks at the data to show that even in traditional societies, “kids don’t pay.” The kids eat more calories than they produce, and the grandparents produce more calories than they eat almost until their demise.
Another study he notes compares happiness levels of modern parents and childless people. The first child most affects the happiness of the person, with a 5.6% decrease in likelihood of being very happy. Additional children, though, reduce the probability of being happy by only 0.6%, offering a “free lunch” in happiness — almost pure upside.
Caplan also cites a study of parents who were asked, “If you had to do it over again, would you or would you not have children?” In this study, 91% of parents said yes, while 7% expressed what Caplan calls parental “buyer’s remorse.”
He then sets his sights on making parenting less work and more fun. As he states, “Parents may feel like their pressure, encouragement, money, and time are all that stands between their kids and failure.” Caplan turns to twin and adoption studies to debunk this hypothesis. A study by Dartmouth economist Bruce Sacerdote found that family income and neighborhood income have no effect on adoptee’s success in school and work.
One thing that does influence kids is the level of maternal education. Not surprisingly, the more education the mother has, the further in school her children will probably go.
Citing a Swedish twin study in which 1,400 participants were asked to describe their parents, twins raised together gave more similar descriptions than twins not raised together. Caplan takes this study to mean that “If you create a loving and harmonious home for your children, they’ll probably remember it for as long as they live.”
In summary, Caplan states that while parents can have a short term effect on the behavior of their children, their influence on their children’s future abates as the years go by. Comforted by this observation, Caplan urges parents to relax — after all, your “choices have little effect on your kids’ development.”
Caplan does not go so far as to suggest going the Duggars’ route of 19 children, but he does believe that the economic cost is less than we think, and thus we should “buy more” by adding another child to the family. The costs, he notes, are front-loaded, whereas the payout is back-loaded. Perhaps we should consider the number of children we would like when we are old, and also remember that more children equals more grandchildren. Here, he invokes the adage that “If I had known grandchildren were this much fun, I would have had them first.”
Some time ago, Mary Eberstadt explored the question, What are Parents For? in her review of Judith Rich Harris’s book, The Nuture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. The purpose of Harris’s book is “first, to dissuade you of the notion that a child’s personality — what used to be called ‘character’ — is shaped or modified by the child’s parents; and second, to give you an alternative view of how the child’s personality is shaped.”
Harris compares the parent-child relationship to the relationship between married couples. Wives may not feel the pressure to determine what kind of men their husbands will become, but instead, they focus on the relationship and their happiness in it.
The one thing we know we have the most control over, Eberstadt notes, is the home life we give our children. This influences parents’ motivation for choices like reading to our kids (for their enjoyment, not for their eventual admission to Harvard) and staying married (for their immediate happiness and well-being, not for the long-term effects).
Eberstadt recounts her experience avidly perusing parenting manuals until, over time, they became “profoundly irritating” because of their “peculiar combination of joylessness and self-congratulation.” The literature’s relentless result-driven approach repelled her.
Finally, Eberstadt draws the reader to focus on the parent-child bond “in all its elemental simplicity,” crediting Harris’s book for reminding us that “we are stewards of our children, and not their Svengalis.”
If we remove the financial, intellectual, and emotional pressure we impose on ourselves to mold Harvard graduates who are concert pianists, all-star athletes, and humanitarian icons, we free ourselves up to create larger families.
Despite being referred to as the lady in the house with the gaggle of kids, and not spending my weekends captaining a sixty-foot sailboat, I am happily raising six brilliant, caring, delightful children. No evangelical religious command bids me do so, other than pure love. But what religious command is greater? Jesus says none.
First published in First Things in July 2010