Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think


By Bryan Caplan

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We’ve needlessly turned parenting into an unpleasant chore. Parents invest more time and money in their kids than ever, but the shocking lesson of twin and adoption research is that upbringing is much less important than genetics in the long run. These revelations have surprising implications for how we parent and how we spend time with our kids. The big lesson: Mold your kids less and enjoy your life more. Your kids will still turn out fine.

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids is a book of practical big ideas. How can parents be happier? What can they change — and what do they need to just accept? Which of their worries can parents safely forget? Above all, what is the right number of kids for you to have? You’ll never see kids or parenthood the same way again.


To my parents, who gave me life—and my children, who give me joy

This above all: To thine own self be true.
DURING MY LIFETIME, THE AMERICAN FAMILY HAS DRASTICALLY downsized. Women in their forties are about twice as likely to have one child—or none—as they were thirty years ago. Big families have all but disappeared. In 1976, 20 percent of women in their early forties had five or more kids; by 2006, less than 4 percent did.
If you ask people to explain why we don't have as many kids as we used to, the answers are all over the place. "People can't afford big families anymore," "Women have real careers now," "We don't need kids to help out with farm work," "Women want to live like men," "Americans have lost faith in God." In Athens, the Greeks blame air pollution.
If you make the question personal, however, the answers are very much alike. When asked, "Why don't you have as many kids as we used to?" both men and women respond with groans. As best I can tell, the English translation of these groans is "Kids are a lot of work," or maybe "Imagine all the dirty diapers and sleepless nights," or perhaps "Are you trying to kill me?"
To be brutally honest, we're reluctant to have more children because we think that the pain outweighs the gain. When people compare the grief that another child would give them to the joy that the child would bring, they conclude that it's just not worth it. As Bill Cosby put it, "The reason we have five children is because we do not want six."
You could easily call this a very selfish outlook. How can you focus exclusively on whether another child would make you happier? What about the child? Unless your baby is truly unlucky, he will almost certainly be happy to be alive. Aren't you? This is your child we're talking about. If you have to make yourself a little less happy in order to give a son or daughter the gift of life, shouldn't you?
The question is serious, but I'm going to dodge it. While I accept the natalist view that more births should be encouraged because they make the world a better place, asking others to sacrifice their happiness for the good of the world seems futile. Preaching against selfishness is usually about as productive as nagging a brick wall. When people weigh the costs and benefits of having another child, I'm not going to call them sinners for using a scale.
The claim of this book, rather, is that current and prospective parents have accidentally tipped their scales against fertility. We may feel sure that the pursuit of happiness and kids (or at least more kids) are incompatible, but it is in the average person's enlightened self-interest to have more kids. That's right—people are not having enough children for their own good. Prospective parents need to take another look before they decide not to leap. Current parents need to take another look before they decide not to leap again.
My theory is not one-size-fits-all. The claim is not that everyone should have lots of kids, but that the average person should have more kids. More than what? More than they were otherwise planning to have. If you live in a tiny urban apartment and love fancy foreign vacations, this might mean one kid instead of zero. If you live in a suburban McMansion and love theme parks, this might mean five kids instead of three. I'm here to provide information, not run your life.
There are many selfish reasons to have more kids, but there are four big reasons to put on the table right away:
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.


A second child always undermines parents' belief in their power to mold their children, but child-rearing books hush this up because their market is first-time parents.
—Steve Sailer, "The Nature of Nurture"
When we consider whether one more child is worth it to us, our calculations usually include a lot of needless parental unhappiness. Every generation of parents probably sees itself as exceptionally dedicated, but careful measurement confirms that parental effort is at an all-time high. Stay-at-home moms used to just tell their kids to go outside and play. Now, moms and dads tag along with their kids as supervisors, or servants. When we think about the effect of a child on our lives, then, we automatically picture the spartan schedule of Today's Typical Parents. We have to give up our hobbies and nights out, we have to make our lives revolve around our kids' activities, and we have to handle all the extra cooking, cleaning, and babysitting ourselves.
When kids justify foolish behavior with the excuse that all the other kids are doing it, parents try to show them the error of their ways. Few of us notice that by swallowing the high-effort standards of our peers, we are making the same mistake. Today's Typical Parents give up their independence and free time for the sake of their kids, but you still have a choice. If all the other parents were jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?
My alternative is not child neglect. I spend more time with my kids than most parents. When my sons were infants, I always manned the night shift. I play with my baby every day. My older boys and I share many common interests—especially games and comic books. But most parents don't share my enthusiasm for childish pursuits, and that's fine. Diverse parenting styles deserve our respect. Some parents fill their kids' days with crafts and extra homework. That may be a good approach for them, but it is not the only good approach. More relaxed parenting styles are also on the menu—like letting your kids watch The Simpsons while you steal a daily hour of "me time."
Aren't parents risking their children's future when they let Homer and Marge share the work? This self-reproach haunts many parents when they're so tired they can barely keep their eyes open, but it's overblown. Even if there were a clear trade-off between parents' present happiness and their children's future, there is no reason for parents to maximize their effort. Parents count, too, and there's nothing wrong with a happy medium.
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.
Before you dismiss this claim as crazy, imagine you adopt a baby girl and raise her to adulthood. Who do you think she will resemble more by the time she graduates from high school: Her biological parents, or you? I don't just mean physical resemblance; I'm also talking about smarts, personality, achievements, values, and so on. Can you honestly say you'd be shocked if your adopted daughter had a lot more in common with the strangers who conceived her than she did with you?
You don't have to merely imagine this scenario. It's been done—repeatedly. 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. Studies that compare identical to fraternal twins reach the same conclusion.
The lesson: It's easy to change a child but hard to keep him from changing back. Instead of thinking of children as lumps of clay for parents to mold, we should think of them as plastic that flexes in response to pressure—and pops back to its original shape once the pressure is released.
We'll explore adoption and twin research in great detail later in the book. For now, I'll just say that it actually fits my experience as a father. When I put my kids in the "naughty corner," they apologize for their offenses, and their behavior improves. But it doesn't stay better for long. A few hours, days, or weeks later, my sons are up to their old tricks—and back in the corner they go. Which makes me wonder: If I can't change what my sons are going to do next month, how can I hope to change what they're going to do when they're adults?
Whatever your experiences, suppose for the sake of argument that adoption and twin research is sound. Then in purely selfish terms, parenting is a much better deal than it looks on the surface. If massive parental investment is the only way to turn a child into a normal adult, groaning at the thought of a new addition to the family is natural. If your child is virtually destined to become a normal adult, however, you should rethink that groan—especially if you're happy with the way you and your spouse turned out. Odds are, your kids will painlessly inherit your brains, success, charm, and modesty.
The implication: Parents can give themselves a guilt-free break. Children cost far less than most parents pay, because parents overcharge themselves. You can have an independent life and still be an admirable parent. Before you decide against another child, then, you owe it to yourself to reconsider. If your sacrifice is only a fraction of what you originally thought, the kid might be a good deal after all.


You might respond that the real point of parenting isn't to change what kids do when they're adults but to ensure that they reach adulthood in one piece. One of the hardest parts of parenthood is worrying that something terrible will happen to your child. The news is full of stories about parents who failed to shield their children from the dangers of the world—enough to make anyone sick.
Fortunately, news is one thing and real life is another. On the news, the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Even (especially?) innocent children aren't safe. In real life, however, things are looking way up. 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. During the Fifties, American society was great at presenting the image of secure childhood. Modern American society actually delivers this dream. To make the appearance match the reality, most people merely have to turn off their TVs and look out their windows.
If kids were in as much danger as most parents imagine, reluctance to have another child—or any children at all—would be understandable. We'd face a choice between kids and peace of mind; every extra child would be another tragedy waiting to happen. Fortunately, we live in happier times. Our main challenge isn't keeping our kids safe, but appreciating how safe they really are. Far-fetched fears aside, today is a great time to have a child—great for the child, and great for the parents who protect him.


When people weigh the pros and cons of another child, they often suffer from myopia. Literally, myopia is another word for nearsightedness; if you clearly see only what's right in front of your nose, you're myopic. When I talk about myopia, I'm not talking about bad eyesight. I'm talking about bad foresight: focusing too much on the short-run costs of kids and forgetting the big picture.
The short-run costs of kids are clear. When young, they're a lot of work. If you wait until you're thirty to start a family, biology only gives you a brief window of time to finish. So when parents weigh whether to add a child, they're already up to their ears in toil. If they base their decision purely on how tired they feel when they're still young enough to have more kids, parents of two children (or even one! ) will likely refuse.
Unfortunately, when a couple of toddlers are running around, you lose sight of the big picture. Namely: Your kids will grow up. Your workload will lighten. By the time you have teens, you'll wish your kids had more time for you. Once they move out, even three of them won't seem like enough. You'll want more phone calls and more visits—and some grandchildren while you're still young enough to enjoy them.
My point is that your "best number of children" changes over time. When you're a parent of youngsters, two feels like plenty. You may quietly declare, "I'm too selfish to have any more." But who's going to benefit down the line if you go beyond your comfort point and have another child or two? You. Four kids are a handful when you're thirty. When you're sixty, the story reverses. By that stage, each of your four children—and whatever grandchildren they give you—will probably be a joy.
If you're not just selfish, but good at being selfish, you will take these long-run benefits into account when you decide how many kids to have. This doesn't mean that you should make yourself miserable when you're young in order to have a perfect retirement. It means that you should factor a lifetime of consequences into your decisions, then strike a happy medium.
When you shop for food, you buy enough to last until your next trip to the store. You don't leave the store empty-handed because you ate a big lunch. Similarly, when you decide how many kids to have, you should have enough to last you during your forties, sixties, and eighties. You shouldn't stop having kids merely because your two-year-old won't let you sleep. Basing your long-run decisions on your short-run crankiness doesn't make sense.


Sometimes it's wrong to encourage people to pursue their self-interest. If I had ironclad evidence that crime pays, I definitely wouldn't write a book called Selfish Reasons to Steal More Money. Stealing's good for thieves, but it's bad for everyone else. Does fertility work the same way?
No. Despite popular fears about overpopulation, more people make the world a better place. Our population and our standard of living have risen side by side for centuries, and it's no coincidence. New ideas, from iPhones to genetically modified crops, are the main reason we keep getting richer. The source of new ideas, without a doubt, is people—creative talent to make discoveries, and paying customers to reward their success. More talent plus more customers equals more ideas and more progress.
Larger populations also expand choices. Almost no one wants to live in the middle of nowhere, because there's nothing to do. Instead, people prefer to live near other people. They may not like the crowds, but they choose crowds, stores, restaurants, and jobs over splendid isolation. You might think that a few hundred thousand neighbors would sustain all the choices anyone would want; but then why do millions of New Yorkers pay a premium to live next to millions of other New Yorkers?
Fertility is also vital for our retirement systems. Programs like Social Security and Medicare are pyramid schemes: As long as there are a lot of young workers for every retiree, low taxes can fund high benefits. As populations age, however, the pyramid gets top-heavy and starts to wobble. Back in 1940, America had almost ten workers per retiree; now it's about five; in fifteen years, it will fall to three. Parents who have extra kids aren't just doing future retirees a favor; they're also making the tax burden on future workers a little more bearable.
The effect of fertility on the environment is more mixed, but conditions are better than they seem. We're not running out of food, fuel, or minerals. Despite setbacks and exceptions, resources have been getting cheaper for well over a century. Air and water quality have improved in recent decades, too, despite large population increases. Admittedly, the news isn't all good. Carbon dioxide emissions, for example, are still on the rise. But given all the offsetting benefits of population, restricting our numbers is a draconian cure. Concerned citizens should prefer eco-remedies that ignore population. We're going to see that they aren't hard to find.


When I tell people that I'm writing a book called Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, the most common response is, "Because they'll take care of you in your old age?" Now is a good time for a disclaimer: That is not what I'm saying. Indeed, I doubt that "they'll provide for me when I'm old" has ever been a good reason to have kids. Love tends to run downhill; as an old saying ruefully observes, "One parent can care for five children, but five children cannot care for one parent." In any case, there are more cost-effective ways to provide for your old age than starting a family. In a backward farming community, you can use the money you would have spent on your children to buy land, then sell or rent your holdings when you're ready to retire. In the modern world, self-help is simpler yet. Invest in a retirement fund or buy an annuity. No muss, no fuss.
An especially devoted or successful child might become a highyield investment, but that's a long shot. The only promising way to meet the "What's in it for me?" challenge is to appeal to the intrinsic or "consumption" benefits of children. If someone asks, "Why should I buy a high-definition TV?" you don't assure them that their HDTV will provide for them in their old age. You tell them that their HDTV will be fun, neat, or awesome. In the same way, if someone asks "What's in parenthood for me?" you have to highlight kids' cool features: They're ridiculously cute; they're playful; they look like you; they share half your genes; it's all part of the circle of life.
If kids' cool features have absolutely no appeal to you, then you probably don't have any selfish reasons to have more kids—or any kids at all. If you don't like what's on TV, a sales pitch about HDTV's great picture and sound quality is a waste of your time. Similarly, if the phrases "my son" and "my daughter" leave you unmoved, none of my arguments will sway you. A customer won't buy a product if he rejects its basic premise.
That's OK. I'm not trying to convince everyone to have kids. I'm trying to convince people who are at least mildly interested in being a parent that they should have more kids than they originally planned. That's a big audience. About 80 percent of Americans twenty-five and older have kids. Even among the childless by choice, many decide against kids because the sacrifice appears too great, not because the thought of kids leaves them cold. As long as you are among the vast majority with a seed of desire to be a parent, we have much to discuss.


Whether to have a child is plainly one of life's most personal decisions. Just because a decision is personal, however, does not mean that whatever decision you make is the right one for you. The decision to have a child is complex. The consequences are easy to misjudge. If you make your ruling with undue haste, you're only cheating yourself.
Selfishly speaking, children have pros and cons. But these days we're good at counting the cons. A book called Do I Want to Be a Mom? has a chapter for every reason you've heard not to have a child—from "Will I Get Enough Sleep?" to "Will I Like My Child? Will My Child Like Me?" Even strangers eagerly highlight the drawbacks, whether they're chuckling that your life will change or looking at you with pity and asking if you're getting any sleep.
We've got the cons covered. When it comes to the pros, though, we've got a lot to learn. Parenting is stressful, but much of the stress is unnecessary. Parents can have a much better life without disadvantaging or endangering their kids. In any case, you should not let the short-run stress of an extra child dominate your decision. Many of the benefits of children come later in life. If you are wisely selfish, you will not allow a few months of sleepwalking to stand between you and your future as a parent and grandparent.
When I argue in favor of fertility, people occasionally ask, "Do you even have kids?" The notion of selfish reasons to have more kids sounds so crazy to them that they wonder if I'm cooking up my ideas in solitary confinement. The truth is that I have three sons: a pair of seven-year-old identical twins, and a new baby. Before I became a father, I was already familiar with the research upon which this book rests. Only after my wife and I had twins, however, did I appreciate its practical significance.
If the research is right, many prospective parents are making a big mistake. They are missing the chance to have another child who, if born, would enrich their lives. That's sad. It's one thing to refrain from having a child who would make your life worse. You can always insist that it's the people who really exist who count, not people who could have existed but don't. But to deny the gift of life to a child who would have made your life better is a tragic missed opportunity.

We've tried nothing and we're all out of ideas!
—Ned Flanders's beatnik mother on The Simpsons
SOON AFTER YOU ANNOUNCE THAT YOU'RE GOING TO BE A PARENT, the hazing begins. The nice people say, "Your lives are going to change," with a knowing grin. The not-so-nice chuckle about dirty diapers and sleepless nights. Once, when my wife and I were strolling our twin infants, we overheard a passing jogger tell her friend, "Now there's a reason to shoot yourself."
Babies are very cute, and people are pretty superficial. Yet many of us hear "baby" and think "misery." It's not just that we believe that kids happen to make their parents miserable. We perceive parental misery as inevitable: If you become a parent, you have to kiss your independence and free time good-bye, and resign yourself to eighteen years of hard labor.
Popular perceptions are mostly wrong. Today's Typical Parents push themselves so hard that you'd expect them to be miserable, but they aren't. Some evidence suggests that kids make people slightly less satisfied with their lives, but even that depends on how you ask. By and large, parents feel fine. In any case, once you know how laborious modern parenting has become, making parents happier is like finding hay in a haystack.


Count Olaf rubbed his hands together as if he had been holding something revolting instead of an infant.
—Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning
Is parenthood good for you? The simple stubborn answer is, "It must be; otherwise people wouldn't do it." When you're deciding how many kids to have, however, this answer is unhelpful. People make mistakes. Some of their choices bring them unhappiness and regret. If you want to measure how parents are doing, you need to take human error seriously. Three main approaches fit the bill: studies of customer satisfaction, studies of overall happiness, and studies of momentary happiness.


To learn whether a consumer expects to like a purchase, you only need to find out whether he bought it. To learn whether a consumer really likes a purchase, however, you need to find out whether he'd make the same decision over again. If so, he's a satisfied customer. If not, he's got buyer's remorse. After you try a restaurant, hire a mechanic, or upgrade your computer, it's hard not to weigh your experience on the scale of customer satisfaction. Before you try a restaurant, hire a mechanic, or upgrade your computer, it's wise to check the customer satisfaction of people like you.
In practice, do parents feel like their kids were a good deal—or end up with buyer's remorse? The book Do I Want to Be a Mom? ominously warns that having a child for "unhealthy reasons" "could cause a lifetime of disappointment in yourself and with your child." But in 1976, Newsday commissioned the highest-quality survey ever conducted on the subject—and found buyer's remorse was awfully rare. When asked, "If you had it to do over again, would you or would you not have children?" 91 percent of parents said they would have children all over again. Only 7 percent said they wouldn't.
You might object that people merely rationalize whatever decision they made, but the best available survey finds that nonbuyer's remorse is common. In 2003, Gallup asked childless adults over the age of forty, "If you had to do it over again, how many children would you have, or would you not have any at all?" Over two-thirds of the people without kids confessed regret.
Bottom line: A supermajority of parents want every kid they've got. That's part of the magic of having kids. Even parents of unplanned children often confess, "I can't imagine my life without them." The magic of not having kids, in contrast, is elusive. The childless can readily imagine being parents, and by the time they're in their forties, most prefer this fantasy to their reality.


In terms of customer satisfaction, parenthood does well. Few parents want their money back, and most of the childless wish they bought back when they had their chance. But customer satisfaction isn't everything. There's also happiness


On Sale
Apr 12, 2011
Page Count
240 pages
Basic Books

Bryan Caplan

About the Author

Bryan Caplan is an Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University and an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. Caplan is also blogger and editor for EconLog, one of the Wall Street Journal‘s Top 25 Economics Blogs. His first book, The Myth of the Rational Voter was named “the best political book of the year” by the New York Times, and made the Financial Times list of the Best Books of 2007. In addition, he has written articles for a variety of publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Oakton, Virginia, with his wife and their three children.

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