Saturday, January 28, 2012

Review: Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

I just read Bryan Caplan's book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.

His argument is that parents drive themselves crazy doing things - activities, fancy schools, safety precautions that don't actually improve kids' outcomes.  The bulk of the book comes from twin and adoption studies showing that kids are mostly preprogrammed, and nurture doesn't play much of a role in how they come out as adults.

This is counterintuitive because we see how children resemble their parents.  Even adopted kids resemble their parents and siblings in terms of behavior and opinions.  But most of that is probably temporary by adulthood, we mostly turn into the people we were always going to.  Looking at twins separated at birth, or comparing adopted children to their non-adopted siblings, it turns out that parenting has little long-term effect on educational achievement, personality, income, criminality, drug use, health, or intelligence.  Those things come mostly from genes, non-parental environment, and free will (whatever that means).

Some of our modern parenting practices do seem pretty nutty.  In 1965, a typical mother spent 10 hours a week directly caring for her children.  In 2000 (when women had fewer children and were more likely to work outside the home), the number had risen to 13 hours a week.  Dads have increased their childcare time, too.  So we could probably do as our grandparents did, and let our kids run loose more.

Kids are safer now than they've ever been.  They're more likely to get hurt driving with you in a car than they are to get kidnapped playing outside.  Our parents ran around the neighborhood, chewed on lead paint, breathed secondhand smoke, etc.  So we should expect our kids to turn out at least as well as we and our parents did - probably better.

Caplan's advice is to chill out and enjoy the ride. Instead of treating kids like a project to perfect, he advises treating them like we treat our partners: as people to try to get along with and enjoy, but not ones whose future we determine.  So spend your time and money where it will make you and your family happier.  E.g. firm discipline that discourages tantrums is worthwhile because it makes your kid bearable to be around in the present, but not because it will make her a better adult.  And if your kid doesn't want to go to violin lessons, it's probably not worth dragging him there.

All this is within a middle-class first-world environment with reasonable parents.  Obviously if a kid is malnourished, neglected, or abused, they'll have worse outcomes.  If you want to improve the life of a child, Caplan says, adopt from the third world.  That shift of environment will make a big difference in whether the child is able to live his potential.  (I'd add that adopting an older child from foster care costs much less and also greatly improves the child's prospects, though I don't know how the improvement compares to international adoption.)

Where does the "selfish" come in? Caplan says you should take a long view and count how many children you might like in each decade of your life. In your thirties you might want one or none, since little kids are a lot of work.  In your forties you might want two school-aged kids.  And by the time you're retired, you probably want several adult children to take care of you and make grandchildren.  Caplan advises averaging your ideal number of children over time, so as not to deprive your future self of family members just because the most difficult period is first.

Verdict: the book is worth reading, but there's not enough material in it to really fill out the 184 pages.  Claims are well cited, which is a plus. 

Caplan makes a strong argument that parenting doesn't have to be as hard as we're making it, but he doesn't do justice to arguments against making more people.  He says that adding to the population will probably help us, since any new child could turn out to improve the world in some grand way (and at worst, will probably just quietly enjoy themselves).  He admits that adding first-worlders worsens our environmental problems, but says it would be better to deal with this by carbon taxes or other meta methods rather than antinatalism.

I'm not sure about this.  While I think carbon taxes would be a good step, I can't personally do much to help them along.  But I can choose whether to add to the population.  I think it's possible that average first-worlder creates more harm than good, but we don't have a good way to tell.

Caplan cites studies saying parenting doesn't matter much in how many years of education a child ends up getting, but nothing in the book addresses quality of education.  Does sending your kids to private school or moving to a better school district improve their outcomes?  Or their happiness over the 13 years they spend there?  No answers from this book.

And while I agree that it's good for older people and younger people to be in each other's lives, traditional family is not the only way to do that.  I enjoyed my time in an intergenerational community, and our current household (two parents, two non-parents, one baby) has worked well this year.  When I'm old I hope to live with younger people, even if we're not family.

I go through periods of thinking "we should adopt" or "we should make our own" or "argh argh we shouldn't even have kids."  Jeff is consistently in a "we'll decide this later" period.  Right now I'm leaning towards homemade.  We'll see if I'm still in this zone in a year when I'm done with school and have a real job...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Valentine exchange

Last year's valentine exchange had lovely results, so let's do it again. Here's how it works:

  • You email me with your mailing address.
  • I'll send you the address of ~5 other participants.
  • Send a valentine (homemade or storebought) to each of the other participants by February 4.
  • We all get mail!
Want to join? Let me know: juliawise(at)

String of hearts

Monday, January 16, 2012

Stay warm!

I try to heat the person, not the house. A big aid in this effort is the humble rice pack: a cloth bag filled with rice, which you microwave for about three minutes. Then it's ready to warm your feet, sheets, or whatever.

I've been wanting a wearable version of this: a rice scarf. Today I made one.

To make one, cut out two horseshoe or doughnut shapes from fabric. You don't want the rice to fall out, so pick fabric that isn't likely to spring holes. I used part of an old sheet. Sew around the outer edge and the two short edges but not the inner circle.

Turn your doughnut inside out so the rough edges are inside. To keep the rice from all falling to one end, sew a few seams going from the inside to the outside radially. Pour about a cup of dry rice into each pouch, then sew the inside seam shut. (You probably want to do one or two pouches at a time, so your rice doesn't fall out when you go to sew all the pouches shut.)

You can leave it like that, or you can add a cover. I made a cover out of a red scarf. And now my neck is warm.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Just folks

We get a lot of interesting people at the psych hospital. One woman came in two months ago after wandering out of her house and being picked up by the police. She has a variety of delusions.   She curses people, she blesses people, she lies on the floor and refuses to get up. In other words, she does not appear very normal.

This week I was sitting with her on a day when she was pretty coherent. We were talking about a nun she saw on a TV program, and she said, "I love nuns. They rewarded me because I was a good girl." And suddenly I could imagine her in 1968, before her psychotic break, in a Catholic school.

She's completely batty, and she's also a regular person. She loves cheeseburgers and hates tuna.  She misses cigarettes and visits from her daughter. She had a childhood, and she loves nuns.

Another man came in and gave us a long lament about his anxiety and depression and how hard his life was. At one point he put his head in his hands and said, "I'm 49 years old. I live with my parents. I just want a girlfriend or a wife."

Of course he does. People with mental illness want the same things other people want - a cheeseburger, a girlfriend, a job, to go home, to leave home. Except in addition to the regular problems everyone has, they have extra problems getting in the way - the sadness, the paranoia, the voices, the desperate struggling to feel better, the despair that they will ever feel better.

But sometimes, social workers get to help people reach those things they want. That's why I love this work.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Shine like the moon

Over Christmas I read Dreams of Trespass, a memoir by Islamic feminist Fatima Mernissi. It's about her childhood in a harem in 1940s Morocco. This was a family harem, as opposed to the imperial harems that caught the Western imagination. Mernissi grew up in a big family compound full of cousins and aunts, which the women were rarely allowed to leave.

One scene that especially interested me was the women's elaborate preparations for the weekly trip to the bathhouse. Mernissi describes the drying of herbs and clay, the steeping of leaves in oil, the application of face masks and henna paste, and then soaking it all off in the baths and emerging clean and new.

Mernissi's father dislikes the smell of henna and pleads with his wife not to participate:

“I love you as natural as God made you,” he would say. “You needn't go through all this trouble to please me. I am happy with you as you are, in spite of your quick temper. I swear, with God as my witness, that I am a happy man. So, please, why don't you forget about the henna tomorrow.” But Mother's answer was always the same. “Sidi (my lord), the woman you love is not natural at all! I have been using henna since I was three. And I need to go through this process for psychological reasons too – it makes me feel reborn.”

Mernissi's beloved cousin and playmate Samir also tires of her participation in these female rituals:

He explained to me that if I kept dropping out for two days in a row to take part in the grownups' beauty treatments, and attended our terrace sessions with smelly, oily masks all over my face and hair, he was going to look for another games partner. Things could not go on as they were, he said; I had to choose between play and beauty, because I surely could not do both.

Her response surprised me:

“Skin first! Samir,” I said, “a woman's fate is to be beautiful, and I am going to shine like the moon.”

This strikes me as braver than anything I said on the topic in adolescence. I understood that while being pretty would attract boys, appearing to care about beauty would not. I was looking for a geeky boy, and such boys did not like fussy girls, hobbled in high heels and always disappearing to the bathroom to fix their makeup. The praise I most remember from my first boyfriend was when we went sledding, clad in long underwear and old clothes. He said he liked when I looked “simple.”

Meanwhile, most girls love to preen. At twelve, my sister used so many fruity bath gels and sprays that she attracted wasps when she went outside. I grew my hair long and braided it in elaborate Princess Leia updos, though I never wore them outside the house. In college, one of the pleasures of a women's dorm was helping each other pick out clothes for dances or shabbats. There were no men to know we cared about clothes or complain that we took too long to get ready. Preparation was a pleasure in itself, sometimes more fun than the actual event.

I'm sad Mernissi couldn't keep her friend and her henna, and that women's beauty was used as an excuse to lock them up. But I admire her bravery in siding with her mother and aunts instead of capitulating to Samir's demand.