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...


Jeff Kaufman said...

"non-parental environment"

What is this? Does it include things like where you live or go to school? Because parents often put a lot of work into these: a coworker just moved to Acton so their kids could have better schools (and probably they likes the friends their kids might have better) but at the expense of making their commute to Cambridge much longer.

Julia Wise said...

No, twin studies and adoption studies control for all that stuff. If parents of identical twins move to Acton, whatever variation in the twins' lives aren't due to genetics (because they have identical genes) and aren't due to parenting (because they had the same parents at the same time). So it's due to something else, like what classroom they were in or who they made friends with.

Jeff Kaufman said...

In your first paragraph you say "parents drive themselves crazy doing things ... fancy schools ... that don't actually improve kids' outcomes."

And then you say later "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."

I would expect schools to matter.

Julia Wise said...

I said that's his argument. He doesn't actually support the school claim.