Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think

I feel conflicted about giving "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids" 2 stars. On one hand, it's written in an awkward, pandering tone and many of the arguments are very hand-wavy. On the other, this book may be responsible for a huge increase in my quality of life if/when I have kids (now isn't that a terrifying thought?).

The book's basic premise is that modern parents "over-parent" their children and make both themselves and their children unhappy. Caplan tries to convince the reader that the nature/nurture debate has been resolved by science - in the short term, nurture has a large impact (e.g. a "time-out in the naughty corner" will temporarily improve behavior), but in the long-term these effects are negligible and nature has an overwhelming influence on long-term behavioral/economic/health outcomes.

The upshot is that you can basically be pretty hands off with your kids and it's almost guaranteed that they'll end up just fine. So instead of being paranoid about kidnappers or being a piano lesson Nazi, chill out and your kids will grow up to be normal people without you having to do much about it.

Caplan tries to make the argument that because raising kids is a "low-cost" proposition and having kids/grandkids when you're older is awesome, you should have more kids than you think you want to have when you're in your twenties.

I'm far from convinced, but it's certainly an interesting perspective.

My highlights below:


As Bill Cosby put it, “The reason we have five children is because we do not want six.”

First, parents can sharply improve their lives without hurting their kids. Nature, not nurture, explains most family resemblance, so parents can safely cut themselves a lot of additional slack. Second, parents are much more worried than they ought to be. Despite the horror stories in the media, kids are much safer today than they were in the “Idyllic Fifties.” Third, many of the benefits of children come later in life. Kids have high start-up costs, but wise parents weigh their initial sleep deprivation against a lifetime of rewards—including future grandchildren. Last, self-interest and altruism point in the same direction. Parents who have another child make the world a better place, so you can walk the path of enlightened selfishness with a clear conscience.

In any case, the obligation to put your children’s future above your personal happiness has a lot less bite than you’d think. Adoption and twin research provides strong evidence that parents barely affect their children’s prospects. If parents gave themselves a big break—or redoubled their efforts—kids would turn out about the same.

A small army of researchers has compared adoptees to their relatives — biological and adopted. They find that when adopted children are young, they resemble both the adopted relatives they see every day and the biological relatives they’ve never met. However, as adopted children grow up, the story has a shocking twist: Resemblance to biological relatives remains, but resemblance to adopted relatives mostly fades away.

Children under five years old are almost five times as safe today as they were in the Idyllic Fifties. Children age five to fourteen are almost four times as safe.


Also striking: The main hit to parental happiness comes from child number one. Otherwise identical people who have one child instead of none are 5.6 percentage points less likely to be very happy. But once you’ve got a child, enlarging your family is practically painless.

If the Kahneman study has a big social message, it’s not that kids are a disaster for happiness. It’s that women enjoy taking care of their children more than working outside the home. The only thing women like less than being at their jobs is getting to and from their jobs. Child care isn’t a picnic, but it beats a paying job.

According to time diaries, modern parents spend an incredible amount of time taking care of their kids. As expected, dads do a lot more than they used to. Since 1965, when the average dad did only three hours of child care per week, we’ve more than doubled our efforts. Given how little dads used to do, though, doubling wasn’t hard. What’s amazing is the change in the typical mother’s workload: Today’s mom spends more time taking care of children than she did in the heyday of the stay-at-home mom. Back in 1965, when the typical mom was a housewife, she spent ten hours a week specifically focusing on her children’s needs. By 2000, this number had risen to thirteen hours a week.

Kid time has crowded out couple time: Parents in 2000 spent about 25 percent fewer hours with each other than they did in 1975.

Before you do something for your child, try asking yourself three questions. 1. Do I enjoy it? 2. Does my child enjoy it? 3. Are there any long-run benefits? I don’t pretend to have adjustments that work for everyone. But four great places to start looking are sleep, activities, discipline, and supervision.

The Ferber method — let the child cry for a few minutes, comfort him, repeat — is the most famous, and it works wonders,

Getting your kids to sleep through the night is crucial for livable parenting. If you want better than livable, you’ll mandate regular naps until your kids are old enough to quietly entertain themselves for an hour.

Family vacations are another nightmare for millions of parents. Why pay thousands of dollars for the worst week of your year? Children may appreciate their parents’ sacrifices of cash and sanity, but don’t count on it. The typical kid is not a fan of long car rides and museums. Most pathetic of all is when aggravated parents let down their masks and scream — giving their kids truly ugly “memories that last a lifetime.”

The smart disciplinary adjustment to make is just the wisdom of the ages: Clarity, Consistency, and Consequences. Adopt firm rules, clearly explain the penalties for breaking the rules, and impose promised penalties to the letter. If your child punches or kicks you, you’ve got to tell your child that it’s against the rules and that the punishment for transgression is, say, one day without television. Every time your child breaks the rule, harden your heart and impose the punishment. Clear, consistent punishment isn’t foolproof, and some kids are tougher to crack than others, but it beats being a punching bag.

Letting your eight-year-old out of your sight may feel dangerous, but as we’ll see later on, popular fears of abduction are almost pure fantasy. Driving your third-grader to the store is vastly more dangerous than leaving him home without a bodyguard.

If you’re looking for more creative ways to supervise less, Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids is a gold mine.

Money can buy happiness if you spend it the right way.

When I was a boy, my mom paid me a penny for every ten weeds I pulled. When I complained, she’d object, “You’re lucky to get paid at all. You live here, and you should contribute.” Just imagine how persuasive her lecture was. Under my mom’s slave-wage regime, she had to heavily nag me to lift a finger. Now that I’m a dad, my mom’s penny-wise labor policies still strike me as pound foolish. Why should parents drive themselves crazy squeezing free labor out of their kids? Your boss doesn’t have to nag you to do your job. Instead, he makes you an offer — and if you don’t like it, you can quit. This seemingly cold system is far more harmonious in practice than “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Don’t pay your children for every little thing. But when you want to give your kids a major project or a recurring chore, make it worth their while. Trading favors works well, especially for younger children. “If you eat your dinner without complaining, you get dessert,” “You can watch TV after you clean up your toys,” and “I’ll give you a ride to the mall if you put the dishes away” are all good options. At the same time, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with paying cash. You’re not trying to raise a communist.

High-income parents actually seem to “buy” themselves less regret and more happiness. In the Newsday survey, only 4 percent of the richest parents regretted having children — compared to 13 percent of the poorest. In the General Social Survey, richer parents have a much smaller happiness deficit.

Many parents worry about the dangers of secondhand smoke. But few consider the dangers of secondhand stress. If you make yourself miserable to do a special favor for your child, he might enjoy it. But if he senses your negative feelings, he might come to share them.

Secondhand stress is one of kids’ leading grievances. In the Ask the Children survey, researcher Ellen Galinsky interviewed over 1,000 kids in grades three to twelve and asked parents to guess how kids would respond. One key question: “If you were granted one wish to change the way that your mother’s/father’s work affects your life, what would that wish be?” Kids’ answers were striking. They rarely wished for extra face time with their parents. They were much more likely to wish their parents would be less tired and stressed. The parents were completely out of touch. Virtually none guessed that kids would use their one wish to give their parents a better attitude.

A dad once joked to me, “The first kid takes 99 percent of your free time; the second kid takes the remaining 1 percent.” The oneliner seems to affirm the inevitability of parental sacrifice but actually does the opposite. How can the second child be so much less work than the first? Because parents reallocate their time away from the firstborn to care for the baby. The implication: The elder child never really “required” 99 percent of their time in the first place. The parents could have given themselves a break all along, because much of their toil was superfluous.

The best available evidence shows that large differences in upbringing have little effect on how kids turn out. While healthy, smart, happy, successful, virtuous parents tend to have matching offspring, the reason is largely nature, not nurture. When I say “the best available evidence,” I’m not talking about a handful of studies that are slightly less bogus than the competition. The best available evidence on the nature-nurture question is excellent. Twin and adoption studies aren’t quite as good as controlled laboratory experiments, but many are close. Thousands of research papers have applied these methods to hundreds of controversial questions. They reach an amazing consensus about what counts for kids.


Parents don’t affect life expectancy. Major twin studies find no influence of family environment on life span.

Parents have little or no effect on overall health. There’s more to health than staying alive. Do parents make their children’s years healthier even if they don’t make them longer? Probably not.

However, a large scientific literature finds that parents have little or no long-run effect on their children’s intelligence. Separated twin studies, regular twin studies, and adoption studies all point in the same direction.

They found an even larger effect of genes on intelligence than the Minnesota study and confirmed the irrelevance of upbringing for adult intelligence: “Growing up in the same family does not contribute to similarity in cognitive abilities later in life.”

From a parent’s point of view, these are strong results. Today’s Typical Parents strive to mentally stimulate their children and struggle to protect their brains from being turned to mush by television and video games. Yet by adulthood, the fruit of parents’ labor is practically invisible. Children who grew up in enriched homes are no smarter than they would have been if they’d grown up in average homes.

One of the main problems with happiness tests is that the subject might be having a bad day or a bad year. To deal with this concern, the Minnesota Twin Study waited about a decade, then retested. As expected, the research team found that happiness is fairly stable over time; humans have a “happiness set point” to which they gravitate. The researchers were amazed, however, to discover that people are as similar to their identical twin a decade ago as they are to themselves a decade ago. The implication: “Nearly 100 percent of the variation in the happiness set point seems to be due to individual differences in genetic makeup.”

Twin and adoption studies say almost the opposite. Successful parents may give their kids a small edge, but heredity is much more important. Kids literally inherit educational and financial success from their parents. The most influential gift that parents give their children is not money, connections, or help with their homework, but the right stuff.

In Sacerdote’s Korean adoption study, biological children from richer families grew up to have much higher incomes, but adoptees raised in the same families did not. The results are strong to the point of shocking. The income of the family you grew up with has literally no effect on your financial success. Korean adoptees raised by the poorest families have the same average income as adoptees raised by the richest families.

Parents have little or no effect on conscientiousness or agreeableness.

For outright criminality, however, heredity was the sole cause of family resemblance. The lesson: Even if your standards are low, instilling character is hard. Genes are the main reason criminal behavior runs in families. Contrary to popular opinion, good upbringing is not enough to steer a child away from a life of crime. If that depresses you, there are two sources of comfort. First, as long as you and your spouse are law abiding, it’s good news, because noncriminality is hereditary, too. Second, most children of criminals don’t become criminals; in the Danish adoption study, over three-fourths of the boys born of and raised by people with criminal convictions weren’t convicted themselves.

Upbringing might make a difference, too. In surveys, adopted brothers of gay men and adopted sisters of gay women are about six times as likely to be gay as the general population.

When they ignore their children’s wishes, parents often protest, “You’ll thank me later,” suggesting a disconnect between how we perceive our childhood and how we remember it. But researchers find that upbringing matters for long-term memories as well as immediate perceptions. An early Swedish study of 1,400 middle-aged and elderly twins asked them how their parents raised and treated them. Most respondents hadn’t been children for fifty years — but nurture mattered.


The best explanation is that parents suffer from what psychologists call the illusion of control. Flying is about 100 times safer than driving, but many of us feel safer behind the wheel.

When parents reflect on the science of nature and nurture, they need to keep this moral in mind. Do not be alarmed when twin and adoption studies conclude that your children’s future is outside your control. They’re not saying that your children will do poorly. They’re saying that your children will probably turn out fine, whether or not you’re a great parent. If anything, the truth should come as a great relief. If I thought that my sons’ future depended primarily on my actions, I’d fret, “We should be reading another book,” every time we sat down to watch The Simpsons.

The most effective way to get the kind of kids you want is to pick a spouse who has the traits you want your kids to have.

The main lesson of behavior genetics is that parenting is about the journey, not the destination. Instead of trying to mold your children into the people you think they ought to be, focus on enjoying your time together. Suppose, however, that you yearn to transform a child’s life. Is there any effective way to do it? Yes: Adopt from the Third World — from lands where poverty, disease, illiteracy, and oppression stifle human flourishing. Twin and adoption research only show that families have little long-run effect inside the First World. Bringing kids to the First World often saves their lives.

I first started thinking seriously about parenting after reading The Nurture Assumption by Judith Harris. Like me, she said twin and adoption studies show that parenting is overrated. Yet in my favorite passage, she thoughtfully defended the power of parenting: People sometimes ask me, “So you mean it doesn’t matter how I treat my child?” They never ask, “So you mean it doesn’t matter how I treat my husband or wife?” and yet the situation is similar. I don’t expect that the way I act toward my husband is going to determine what kind of person he will be ten or twenty years from now. I do expect, however, that it will affect how happy he is to live with me and whether we will still be good friends in ten or twenty years.

When my sons and I read A Series of Unfortunate Events, I don’t imagine that I’m boosting their adult IQ or reading ability. The point is to enjoy the stories and take away fond memories of our time together.


One careful study of elder care found that each additional child substantially cut the chance of ending up in a nursing home.

If you look at the General Social Survey, the decline of marriage and religion explains much of the last four decades’ fall in family size. The simplest interpretation is that values changed: Marriage, religion, and “bringing souls into the world” are intertwined, and average Americans take none as seriously as they used to.


In the words of economist Julian Simon, “the human imagination” is “the ultimate resource.”

Yet adjusting for inflation, average commodity prices have fallen about 1 percent per year since the time of the Civil War.


CHRISTINE: [wincing] So you’re not worried that . . . not-so-smart people . . . are . . . outbreeding . . . smart people? BRYAN: Nope. I freely admit that some people are smarter and contribute more to human progress than others. But you don’t need to be smart to be a valuable human being. If a person is glad to be alive and self-supporting, we should be happy for him.