sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

January 17, 2012

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: The Book Least Likely to Change Anyone’s Mind

Filed under: parenting, politics, society — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 5:23 pm

Bryan Caplan has three kids.  DH, who despite coming from a family of 8 resists the idea of having another child, thinks that a convincing advocate of natalism needs a larger family.  So I had to explain that the first two of Caplan’s sons were twins, and yet he still managed to talk his wife into another pregnancy.  Besides, as I recall Mark Steyn, who also has three kids, is on record recommending this family size as a goal.  A few decades ago that would had made him an advocate of birth control.

Although I don’t share Caplan’s unbridled enthusiasm for assisted reproductive technology, I agree with the basic premise of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.  Parenting babies and toddlers is hard work, but as children grow parents get a break — until the teenage years.  Once they flew the nest, we wish we’d had more children, particularly considering that each additional child is, as he puts it, an “insurance against grandchilrenlessness”.

Caplan points out that it’s the first child that requires the most adjustment on the part of the parents.  (Also see here.)  I am in full agreement.  Unless pregnancy takes a considerable toll on the mother’s health, planning a single child is a bit of a waste.  If a family has switched to a toddler-friendly menu, it might as well cook for two or three little ones.  And if heading to Disneyland, why not drive a full car?

Not exactly a happening book cover, is it? I'd try reverse psychology, like sad looking polar bears, toddler time outs and 2am feedings to get the attention of a prospective reader

Caplan tells us that today’s Typical Parent needs to relax a bit.  Although he concedes that upbringing has an effect on teenage behavior (a huge concern, no?) separated at birth identical tween studies suggest that genetics (and free will, he adds) trumps upbringing.  With this information in mind, a prudent thing to do is to ease up, make parenting more enjoyable and bring more human beings into this world.

If Caplan would have stopped at saying that the “Typical Parent” makes her task unnecessarily hard, I’d wholeheartedly agree.   Neither gourmet baby food from scratch, nor reusable diapers, nor 24/7 “baby wearing” or any other fads is necessary to raise decent human beings.  Like Caplan, I doubt that most people who themselves don’t read for pleasure will end up with bookworm sons and daughters just because they make that mandatory weekly trip to the library.  Instead of aspiring to be perfect parents, we need to aim to be good enough parents, and I’m not sure who I lifted this concept from.

Caplan tells us that if a family qualifies for adoption, the family will have basically good kids who will become what their genes (and free will) made them. One of his examples is dental health, much of which is genetic.  Does it mean that we fret too much about our children’s oral hygiene?  I expect families that qualify for adoption to nag their kids to brush and floss and limit sweets.  It’s a baseline of good enough parenting, and it’s stressful, and Caplan didn’t convince me to stop sweating it.  But that’s a detail.

Caplan, an economist, knows that children are necessary for a functioning society, and that fertility in the United States is barely at the replacement level.  I suspect his readers already know it, because no environmentalist will pick up a book with the title Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.

The book is aimed at 30-something parents that could have another child, but do not.  Some of us are just too sleep-deprived (sometimes by choice) to imagine the awards ahead.  Most simply lack imagination.  Perhaps we need to hang out more with the old folks, but we won’t.

More importantly, so many of us no longer see raising the next generation as a normal part of the human lifecycle, and even if we do we find large families freakish.  Caplan concedes that the change in attitudes is the major cause of the birth dearth.  I doubt the three children per family goal helps to advance the cause of natalism.

Three children is an attainable goal, to be sure, for an educated woman who also seeks fulfillment outside the house.  She will have to take a decade off work, and perhaps make other sacrifices in the following decade, but combining work and family is still doable.  But who should inspire this woman to have a larger family if not her neighbor who has five or six, and gives up her career entirely, despite the fact that she’s smart and cultured?  Too bad nobody wants to be her.



  1. Having kids to begin with is selfish… not sure how having more kids would be considered selfish.

    I don’t have kids.

    Comment by Harrison — January 17, 2012 @ 8:26 pm

    • That’s what the people who don’t have kids say. If you ever decide to have kids you might look at it differently. We sacrifice a lot and make major changes to our lifestyles. Not to mention that you never stop worrying about them — at least the Jewish ones don’t.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — January 17, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

      • No I know about the sacrifice, etc. THAT part isn’t selfish. I guess the argument that gets made is since so many people are having kids and raising them wrongly and they will kill people or be crooks or whatever it’s important to have kids to raise them correctly to counter-balance the other kind.

        Comment by Harrison — January 19, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

        • OK, I see what you are saying. I think Caplan’s main point, and I agree with it, is that the good conscientious parents overthink and try too hard. Instead of fretting about kidnappings and monitoring every breath our children take we need to ease up and have more kids. That’s pretty good as far as counterbalances go.

          Comment by edge of the sandbox — January 19, 2012 @ 9:46 pm

          • Well in the 3rd World they know half their kids will not make it or die in farming accidents or war so they squeeze a lot of them out to balance their chances. In the 1st World a parent might have 3 kids instead of 1 in case one turns out gay or decides to join an artist colony or something they can still have a shot at grandkids.

            Yes… I know parents like that.

            Comment by Harrison — January 20, 2012 @ 11:09 am

  2. […] I belong to the noted early childhood development specialist Tim Gunn’s school of parenting; that is to say “Make it work!”  There are wrong approaches, to be sure, but there is more than a single correct way of raising kids.  All of them are different and each will defy the experts at least once.  Even then, economist Bryan Kaplan raised doubts about the extent to which parenting methods matter at all.  Separated at birth studies are pretty uncanny in proving that so much of how the children turn out depends on genetics. […]

    Pingback by Attachment Parenting Proponent Calls for a Halt in the Mommy Wars « sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue — May 14, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

  3. Going off at a tangent, as one of your passing comments triggered one of my pet peeves:

    ‘Three children is an attainable goal, to be sure, for an educated woman who also seeks fulfillment outside the house. She will have to take a decade off work…’

    Why, of course *she* will. After all, the other parent involved, what with being male and all, couldn’t possibly be expected to split the job when it comes to taking time off work for young children. Why is it universally assumed that parental leave for small children should be exclusively a woman’s job?

    Comment by Dr Sarah — June 3, 2012 @ 9:56 am

    • It doesn’t have to be a woman’s job, and often times it’s not, but it just makes more sense when it is. And in many middle class families it starts early on. In most cases breastfeeding is cheaper and easier than formula, and it is, unless you are a freakazoid, a woman’s job. Expressing milk is annoying and creates additional tasks (freezing, warming up, cleaning containers) for the whole family. Most stay at home parents are moms, so it’s not unusual for dads feel out of place when everyone sits in a circle nursing contemplating their episiotomies. And so on. Not to mention that nurturing hormones do kick in.
      Beyond that, father’s role in socializing children is different from that of mothers.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — June 3, 2012 @ 11:20 am

      • I agree that breastfeeding becomes a lot more difficult when the woman is the one who continues work, but that’s only one of the many factors to be considered. In our situation, I had a job I loved while my husband had a job he hated – and had a chance to take voluntary redundancy from. The advantages of us doing it that way round well outweighed the inconvenience of expressing milk and washing bottles.

        Alternatively, for many couples it could potentially work out well to alternate time off. So, for example, if a couple are planning to space their children three years apart, she could take the first 18 months of each stretch while he takes the next 18 months. Obviously, this would only work if they had careers from which it was easy to take multiple breaks. But, even if they don’t do it 50:50, he could still consider being the one who stays home after the youngest child hits one and the mother no longer needs to be around full-time to breastfeed.

        There are all sorts of possible permutations, none of which would be a one-size-fits-all rule for any family but any of which would work better for many families than either leaving it all up to the woman or opting for early childcare. I find it a great shame that more couples don’t consider them.

        Comment by Dr Sarah — June 3, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

  4. […] my entry on Bryan Kaplan’s book “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids” and leave a response.  Dr. Sarah objected to the idea that women and women alone should expect to take some time off […]

    Pingback by Stay at Home Moms « sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue — June 5, 2012 @ 4:19 pm

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